– The only gift I want from Santa is happiness.
The 2018 World Happiness Report, published by the UN indicates Finland as the world’s happiest country, both for natives of Finland and for those who relocated there from abroad. Among the many reasons that motivated the researchers’ pick, thankfully, there is no mention of the Finnish region of Lapland being the official place of residence for Santa Claus, symbol of capitalism. Rather, facts of much greater human interest are featured: clean waters, the low number of cars, high number of bicycles, the country’s advanced social status in terms of rights and gender equality, as well as the vast and unspoiled woodlands, making sure oxygen is available to those who breathe. But another aspect of this country may be useful in explaining the happiness felt by its inhabitants: cold.
– «But what makes you happy?»
«Simple things: reading, walking in the woods, and swimming outdoors in winter»
These words, spoken by Anne, Finnish lady of about 50 years old, in response to a journalist’s question, hide the key to understanding how happiness woks.
Firstly, her answer is made up essentially of verbs: “reading”, “walking”, “swimming”. Happiness, it follows, doesn’t fall from above, but can only be attained, cultivated, pursued through action. It’s as if there were a way, a practice: happiness. Specifically, a practice of very simple everyday activities. Thus, on a par with a good read or a quiet walk in the woods, the simplicity of “swimming outdoors, in winter”, seems to be ingrained in the culture of this people, so used to icy waters. It seems only logical, then to take a dive in. Especially since Finland is home to more than 200,000 lakes, scattered all across its pristine territory.
– For the immune system, happiness is a hole in the ice.
Avantouinti, in Finnish, literally means “swimming through a hole in the ice”, and it is one of the more commonly practiced sports in Finland. As early as the Middle Ages, ancient documents, compiled by travelers in those Arctic regions, mention the practice as a kind of eccentric tradition, a proof of how primitive and savage those careless, strangely happy folks had to be. It is however doubtless how Avantouinti is a distinctive trait of ancient and modern Finland alike. Particularly among present-day athletes: worth mentioning is the case of Johanna Nordblad, native of Pori. She approached this activity looking to cure certain rheumatic pains, and now boasts that the best thing about swimming in ice is the very feeling of euphoria that stays in your body after re-emerging.
“The first feeling, once you dive in, can seem terrible, but you quickly get used to it: the cold turns into something that, quite simply, makes you feel good. Once you’re back out, the body is infused with a wonderful heat, and you feel more alive than ever.”
When speaking of Avantouinti, it is impossible to disregard the crucial research work done by biochemist Pirkko Huttunen in 2000. Hyinen Hurmio (Icy Ecstasy) is the name of this work, highliting once more the beneficial power of cold for the human organism. Besides anthropological data that serve to confirm the tight cultural relationship between ice and Finnish people, the text also demonstrates how winter swimming, practiced with frequency, can strengthen resistance to outside stress, better blood circulation and reinforce the immune system. And it doesn’t end there. Low temperatures allow the body to produce higher levels of hormones such as endorphins and serotonin. That’s right, those two: the hormones of happiness.