Moving to Finland
Finding Sisu: In Search of Courage, Strength and Happiness the Finnish Way
Writers: Ella Muja, Kamil Wojcik
When international students meet at a new university or school, it always starts with stories, who we are, and where we come from. That is perhaps intensified during exchange programmes etc. While we might not hear as many long-time reflections and stories. In 2021 at Proakatemia we have now a much more international team, talent from around the world is gathering to join their forces. We would like to address this essay to Entre21 to ease their start and share our reflection 🙂
I moved to Finland permanently in 2012, to Helsinki. For the common reason, relationship. I met my wife while living in Brussels, she happened to live in the same building as my school mate and that’s how we met. From Belgium we moved to Poland and shortly lived in Katowice and after that we decided to move up north. At the time it didn’t seem like anything strange or extraordinary, but from my current perspective I think moving permanently or even temporarily to another country is a one-of-a-kind experience. Especially as we didn’t have much pre-arranged. I think that had huge impact on my personality and the way things have gone has shaped my mindset. It wasn’t always easy, that’s for sure.
I recently read a book Finding Sisu by Katja Pentzar that despite easy and pleasurable read, the book felt like a cliché at first, but then I realized that it might be from my current point of view. It certainly wasn’t 10 years ago when I moved to Finland. Therefore, I will attempt to share a bit of my own story and insights from the book. It reminded me of the things that used to amaze me when I first came here and with time, they became a norm. I visited Finland for the first time in 2011, I have spent one summer in Helsinki and Tampere. Undoubtedly it´s prime time to be here, even though the sun does set during summers in southern Finland, it is almost always bright. It also really shows in people’s behavior. The common belief is that Finnish people are quiet and socially distant. I can say that in the summer everyone is noticeably happier, more social, and outgoing. You will find parks, beaches, and terraces filled with people. Despite the stories you might have heard of Finland being a very cold country covered in snow, it has relatively short, but warm summers. Over 25 degree Celsius is considered hot and people will start to talk about helle.
Kun päivän ylin lämpötila on yli 25 celsiusastetta, voidaan Suomessa puhua helteestä.
During that time everything seems to be easier, from finding weather-appropriate clothing, through enjoying outdoors to connecting with people. Good example could be the farmers market, which gathers not only people who sell fruits and vegetables from own production, but also summer workers who come to Finland to collect berries and sell them as well as old people who are giving up their belongings and sharing stories behind them. For me, coming to Finland has been kind of coming to the entirely new place. Everything was new and different. I knew very little about the country and the Nordics’ culture before coming here. Things that I was really impressed at first was that things just work and with the right attitude you really could get things done in Finnish institutions. While coming from Poland it wasn’t always the case, it was more like a battle. At this point I’m able to see the flaws of the system here too, but it is still the best I’ve seen so far. Another aspect is that cities in Finland are clean, and I don’t mean trash laying around – that happens anywhere, but buildings are rather clean, metro, busses etc. It does partly come down to the care and cleaning services, but as well as the air quality. It can be underrated at first, while in the long run living in the place with high pollution might have bad consequences. Tampere ranks second city with the cleanest air in Europe. Go out and enjoy it! In fact, nature is a sacred for most Finnish people. It is not reserved for hardcore outdoor enthusiasts, 96% of Finns engage in outdoor activities at least once a year and on average, Finns do outdoor activities 170 times per year. Three out of four times it’s about visiting the forest. That is partly thanks to everyman’s right. The right is granted to every citizen regardless their nationality and it simply enables access to nature. That lets people freely go walking in the forests, ride bikes or go ice fishing in the winters. It’s popular to go climb on cliffs and boulders which can be find across Finland. In fact, Nalle Hukkataival is one of the best climbers in the world, specializing in bouldering and comes from Finland, as well as the hardest boulder problem in the world is in Finland as well. Anyway, thanks to the everyman’s right anyone can take advantage of the land and collect berries or mushrooms. It’s also popular to collect wildflowers, leaf, and other things for decoration purposes. It’s allowed if plants are not under protection.
That brings us to drinking water. Here we drink tap water, at home, at school at the restaurant and it’s perfectly fine. Not only because of the economic reasons, but also because it tastes good and it’s better for you than soda. I cannot anymore imagine that I would not be able to drink water from the tap.
Something I was told when I came to Finland was that poor cannot afford cheap – Köyhällä ei ole varaa ostaa halpaa – and I didn’t understand it at first and it seems that many in Finland sometimes forget about it in the era of consumerism. Although, that rule does lay at the core of Finnish mentality, much more than I have seen anywhere else. It could be related to the harsh climate and difficult realities of living in Finland in the past. Salaries in Finland might seem high, but so is living cost, as we pay for the services and support local products we pay for these high salaries and welfare system. Therefore, in many cases buying once good quality and keeping it is much cheaper than choosing cheap product and coming back again. That is cheaper in the long run and helps to create the wealth in the Nordics.
The most common Finnish word in the world is Sauna. It doesn’t come by surprise. There are approximately 2 million saunas in Finland. That’s a lot, considering population slightly over 5 million people. It’s normal to a have sauna in the city apartment or at least in the building. Also, it’s a place where people can get together, relax, and often engage in a meaningful conversation. There is something very special about it when everyone needs to get naked and leave their status outside. Place to visit at least once is Rajaportin sauna, which is the oldest working public sauna in Finland, found in 1906 in Pispala, Tampere. It has truly massive stones that take hours to heat up and provides one of a kind löyly – Finnish word for the steam created by throwing a water at the hot stove inside sauna.
Luxury of sauna is something that personally I like to enjoy especially in the winter months, it’s common to see people in the streets standing outside in their towels, chatting, and drinking beer while it’s -15C degrees. They are most likely taking a break from hot and steamy sauna. For me it’s also something to helps me to recharge the energy much needed to survive the dark months. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy winter very much, but the moment when you don’t need a jacket anymore to go outside every year’s summer feels special, it feels like it’s been too long since last time I was able to wear only short and t-shirt. It’s because the cold time in Finland can really feel long, it can be daunting and depressing. I’m sure there’s many advice out there, but I found simply staying active and connecting with people in social rituals like sauna help keep the mind and body healthy. Author of Finding Sisu rewrites the Finnish saying “happiness is not found by searching but by living” (Onni ei tule etsien, vaan eläen) by adding “and by reading and cycling”. I could not agree on this more. The point is that cities in Finland are small and it’s much easier to navigate with public transportation or by bicycle. Cycling infrastructure is decent and allows people to get places faster and easier by bicycle. I would like to follow that with liike on lääke, which means movement is medicine. This isn’t about workout regimes or diets, it’s more about just staying active. Incidental exercise saves money and time as you are able to get daily recommendation or more of movement while running your errands and doing everyday life. Cars have their place but are usually unnecessary in day-to-day life. Gyms and other hobbies are good, but often our new resolutions and plans might become a burden. While even a little movement, but consistent is easier and better option.
Something that might seem to be changing, but it’s still very strong in Finland and Nordics is minimalism. Minimalism is a trendy word lately. Nevertheless, here it’s about creating a simpler and more sustainable lifestyle and not obsessing about having a certain number of possessions. As well as anything that we own is not a means to brag and show off. Owning things is alright, but it’s not a goal like in the very capitalist countries. I could bring many examples here from my home country, but I want to focus more on how things work here. In general, we live in Finland in smaller houses, therefore, having less stuff is a must. Focus is more on the need and that should be the trigger for purchase. Classic Finnish designers cherished simplicity, functionality, and timelessness. One example I would like to highlight – Katja Pantzar also highlights it in her book – is the dish drying cupboard developed in the 1940s. Rack is installed into the cupboard and eliminates hand drying dishes, also works well for storing them. That is still very handy when it comes to old dishes that often have to be washed by hand or for people who simply don’t own a dishwasher.
Less is more can take also a different form – money. By using second hand we do not only care for the environment but also save money. That way it’s possible to work less or have longer holidays because we choose to live with less. A tradition for quality and very popular flea markets, it’s not difficult to find quality items second-hand and purchase goods for years for the friction of the original price. That also helps to pass forward unwanted items and keep homes clutter-free. I like to ask myself – do I really need this?
I was born in Finland, and just last summer moved to Tampere from the United States to study and start a new chapter of my life. My entire life I have had dual citizenship with Finland and the United States, giving me the possibility to study in either place, which has had a huge impact on my decisions. Having a multicultural impact from both Finland and the United states, I gained broader perspective for simplicity, practicality, and quality in life. Growing up partially Finnish made it much easier for me to adapt to living in Tampere, however, I still miss parts of American culture like foods or landscapes not seen here. Part of my choice to move here alone was to be closer to my family on my mother’s side, and part of my choice was to focus on studying and discovering a future path for myself.
Changes in routines
As soon as I arrived in Finland, there were noticeable changes. Of course, during the Covid-19 pandemic there were extra challenges, but compared to the States it was a big change of pace. Simple differences such as the utilization of public transportation and keeping a real vacation during the summer are just a few examples. Daily routines and schedules are different compared to those in other countries. I noticed that most businesses close during the summer for a proper holiday, so taking care of things like passport photos for an identification card was a challenge because photography studios were closed! Communications manager Pauliina Alanen noted in an interview with BBC, that after working for a company in Silicon Valley, and relocating to Helsinki, the workers took weeks off in July for a proper vacation, and even spent an hour for lunch each day, compared to the American culture of eating lunch on the go and having under 10 days of vacation.
Additionally, businesses close early on Fridays and Saturdays, and are often closed on Sundays to offer a day off for their employees. In the U.S. it was common for all businesses or stores, no matter the size, to be open on weekends. Typically, in Maryland I ran most of my errands on weekends because it was the only chance for me to do so, however, as soon as I moved to Tampere, I noticed I would need to find time during the week to do so.
A common practice that I didn’t see often in the United States was the embracing of nature in one’s daily life. In the Nordic countries, nature is all around, and most people spend time in it frequently throughout the week. As mentioned in an article from This is Finland, 70% of Finland is forests, making it the most forested country in Europe. Having over two thirds of the country occupied by forests, it makes it extremely easy to access forests for hiking, skiing, or berry picking during the week. Especially in the summer months, people can be spotted eating their lunch in the parks or going for walks on their break in the forest or local park. Finns embrace nature in every way, and in all seasons, even when it is below freezing and dark outside. Most students in elementary schools are exposed to nature in various ways. For example, walking to school in the snow, picking various plants in the summer to log in a journal, orienteering, or ice skating are just a few examples of year-round exposure to nature.
A practical society
If someone had to describe Finland in one word, it would have to be practical. Basic aspects of society are thought out and planned to benefit the people and make life easier without extra complications. The most obvious example is public transportation. Larger cities have more options (bus, tram, metro, bikes, etc), but even smaller cities have a bus system. This practicality is effective because it helps everyone in one way or another. All members of society must get from point A to point B somehow, which is where offering public transportation becomes handy. Another benefit is the effect it has on the country’s carbon footprint. By cities pushing for the usage of buses or trams over cars, there is a smaller amount of air pollution created each day. During the warmer parts of the year, many people include exercise in their commute by biking or walking instead. Decreasing carbon emissions has been a big movement for cities in Finland, and funding public transportation and exercise projects has proved effective.
In the city of Tampere, the tram project is still underway. The city center part to Hervanta was completed in early August 2021 and opened for public use officially, and the section extending out past Lielahti will be finished in the autumn of 2023. This project has been a huge change for the city and its inhabitants because of construction, new traffic patterns, and updated legislation being put in place. However, the goal of the city was to push for lowering Tampere’s carbon footprint and encourage people from the Pirkanmaa area to utilize the tram to enter the city. Collaborating with the Hiedanranta project team to add new tram stops there and build new apartment complexes is another way of planning ahead. Tampere’s population is constantly growing, and apartments are running out, so, by building new apartments further away, and connecting the tram as far as 5-8 kilometers from the center, it will encourage the use of it even more.
Finland is also a strong democratic welfare state that provides for their citizens, and by law, allows all students to have access to support when needed (Sahlberg, 2012). Necessities such as school lunches or welfare services are provided to children free of charge. This promotes the idea of equality and opportunity for everyone. Finland has an equal society where basic human rights are written in the country’s law and followed through by each city. Whether it be monthly welfare or paying all employees equally and fairly, most of the Finnish society pushes for it, including its prime minister.
Another practical example in society is the Finnish education system. After children complete the 9 years of Peruskoulu, they are free to choose their path, meaning upper secondary school isn’t obligatory (Sahlberg, 2012). An equal opportunity to learn is seen by allowing students to personalize their education path and take as long as they need to finish their studies. Not all students continue through the traditional upper secondary schooling route either. The integration of ammattikoulu, or vocational schools, is also an option for more hands-on and work-oriented students. These schools focus more on training for a professional career such as mechanics, cooks, or even forest maintenance. After completing the program, they are allowed to start directly in their field of work, or they can also return to study at an applied sciences university if the path was not suitable or lacking.
In this type of education system there is flexibility and a way of including all learning types. Not all humans can learn by reading and preparing for exams, which is why having multiple education paths is necessary in society. The students who do focus on a career early on can get a university degree later in life, and those who completed upper secondary school can continue without a university degree, even though a degree is highly looked upon. Societies around the world all need members of the working class who do not have a theory-based degree, and this education system allows that.
Work life balance
Back in 2019, Helsinki was named the best city for work-life balance in a study done by kisi. The study focused on three main factors: work intensity, city livability, and society/institutions. The work intensity factor looked at how many hours each employee worked, the amount of vacation days granted per year and the people who work multiple jobs. This shows how overworked employees within a company are and if looked at early enough, a company can prevent burnout in their workers. The second factor was city livability. Taking into consideration a city’s affordability, leisure accessibility, air quality, and safey provide an insight on each individual. All people who live within a city are not robots and need a balance between personal time and work time. Cities with more equality within their structure and activities provide a more comfortable and happy environment to both work and live in. The final factor was society and institutions. This section specifically looked at healthcare (both mental and physical) and a society’s inclusivity. Helsinki has an easily accessible healthcare system with multiple health centers that have both public and private options. Universities also provide access to student health services and mental health assistance if needed. The inclusivity side looks at society equality, gender, and the LGBTQ+ community. All groups and communities should feel safe and welcome within a society for it to be considered balanced and equal.
The flexible working style that Finland uses is based around the Working Hours Act passed in 1966, which gives all employees the right to adjust working hours by starting or ending up to 3 hours earlier or later. In 2020, a new Working Hours Act was passed which also offers the possibility of remote work, worker flexibility agreed with the employer, and having a maximum of 48 hours per week including overtime for a 4-month period. These new provisions enforce a working culture that allows for vacations, family time, and leisure throughout the week. Another important part of the Finnish working culture is the paid maternal, paternal, or parental leave given from workplaces. This support is offered in different allowances. Maternal leave is 105 weekdays, paternal leave is 54, and parental leave is 154 weekdays. Paid leave can be around 4-5 months, which is long compared to the United States where the average is 3 weeks. Employers offer multiple support systems and benefits that create a happier and more balanced work environment.
In a BBC article written by Maddy Savage, a professor of organization and management at Aalto University named Eero Vaara claimed that the most important way for a company to adapt to new legislation will be through communication with their employees. Constant changes and new ideas regarding the working society being brought up in parliament and unions spark conversation amongst employees. However, the traditional fear of bringing up a challenging topic to one’s employer is still a risk. Not all workers want to share their opinions or open up about feeling like they may be working too much, which creates a tense work environment. This will eventually lead to a break in trust between people, which Finland tries to avoid. The flexibility and balance within the working society has been built on high levels of trust over time and new legislation is a way of reassuring that it continues.
Applex. (2019). Finland’s Updated Working Hours Act Takes Effect 1 January 2020. Finnish Parliament. Retrieved from: https://ally-law.com/finlands-updated-working-hours-act-takes-effect-1-january-2020/
Hallanaro, E. (2011). Nature in Finland. Retrieved from: https://finland.fi/life-society/nature-in-finland/
Jalkanen, S. (2014). Family leave. Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment of Finland. Retrieved from: https://tem.fi/en/family-leave
Kisi. (2020). Cities With the Best Work-Life Balance 2020. Retrieved from: https://www.getkisi.com/work-life-balance-2020#table
Pantzar Katja, (2019) Finding Sisu: In Search of Courage, Strength and Happiness the Finnish Way Coronet books
Sahlberg, P. (2012). A Model Lesson: Finland Shows Us What Equal Opportunity Looks Like. American Educator, 36(1), 20–40.
Savage, M. (2019). Why Finland leads the world in flexible work. BBC Worklife. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20190807-why-finland-leads-the-world-in-flexible-work
University of Helsinki. (2017). Why Finland is a Great Place to Live and Work. Retrieved from: https://www.helsinki.fi/en/about-us/careers/why-finland