The Culture of Cold and Contentment

Few descriptions of Finland ignore the impression of the environment on Finnish culture (image from Oulanka National Park courtesy purplespace).

In the wake of World War II Julian Steward led a wave of anthropologists focused on culture as an adaptation to physical and social environments, a body of theory referred to as “cultural ecology.”  Dissatisfied with prevalent explanations of cultural change, Steward coined the term cultural ecology in his 1955 study Theory of Culture Change, arguing that culture and cultural transformation were direct reflections of environmental adaptation.   In 1962 Charles Frake borrowed from biological systems metaphors when he defined cultural ecology as the study of “the role of culture as a dynamic component of any ecosystem.”  Steward and a host of scholars examining the relationship between culture and the environment have emphasized that cultures change in direct response to the possibilities provided by a concrete environmental context, so classic studies have been conducted in arctic and equatorial settings where some cultures have crafted clever responses to challenging environments.

Snow covers much of the landscape for six months in northernmost Finland (image courtesy Markus YK).

Most definitions of Finnish life place the environment in general and cold in particular at the heart of Finnish culture, heritage, and psychology.  Since the ice sheets receded from Finland, the environmental landscape has had a profound impact on cultural adaptations.  For instance, Samuel Vaneeckhout, Jari Okkonen and Andre Costopoulos argue that between 6500 and 4000 years ago postglacial land uplift in northwest coastal Finland reduced the distance between the rivers flowing into the Bothnian Bay, which triggered increased population densities and sedentism among hunter-gatherers living on the coast.  It would be very difficult to examine Finnish heritage and culture and not acknowledge the profound power of nature on Finnish life.  The 1888 John Martin Crawford preface to The Kalevela poetically described the Finns as “a people who live pre-eminently close to nature, and are at home amongst the animals of the wilderness, beasts and birds, winds, and woods, and waters, falling snows, and flying sands, and rolling rocks.”

While a good scholar would consider the full breadth of Finnish environmental conditions—the extended grey rainy Fall, the legion of little lakes and river basins dotting the country, the unyielding summer sunlight, the monochromatic and seemingly infinite flat forest—most of the contemplation of the Finnish environment revolves around cold and snow.  At a latitude of 65 degrees north (Indianapolis is 39.7, Quebec City is 46.8, Rovaniemi is 66.5), Oulu has long winters with a mean temperature in the coldest months of no more than -3C (26.6F), and Atlantic Ocean currents make the far northern climate about 10 degrees C higher than in comparable latitudes in Siberia.  The winter malaise induced by the cold can be compounded by extended darkness in northernmost Finland, where the sun does not rise for 51 days.  In the midst of long nights and cities blanketed in snow, all of the senses are challenged: sounds are distinctively muffled into the snow blanket, colors wash out in the dim reflection of snow, and smells do not seem to drift far from their origins.  All of these factors together can shock even Finns: for instance, a Finn returning to the country after a long-term assignment in Australia admitted that “I felt like an alien in my own country. Surprisingly, I was totally unprepared for the long, harsh, cold, dark Arctic winter.”

Of course there are seasons besides winter in Finland (image from East Uusimaa courtesy Visit Finland).

We might circumspectly ask why people choose to live in such conditions, how it shapes Finnish culture and life, and, in the words of the BBC Travel page, “The obvious question in all this is: what makes Finland – with its near constant cold and long stretches of darkness – such a happy place to live?”  This raises the thorny ontological issue of what constitutes happiness, but by many relatively concrete measures Finland has virtues.  The Nordic countries are routinely placed at the top of lists of “happiest” or even “best” countries in the world, with a 2010 list placing Finland first overall (first in education, fourth in quality of life, fifth in political environment, eighth in economic dynamism, and 17th in health; the US was 11th overall, compare Stephen Colbert’s coverage, which sarcastically but presciently may capture Americans’ amazement).  The environmental realities are pretty objective, yet arrayed against them is the seemingly contradictory mountain of evidence underscoring that Finland is a well-managed state peopled by relatively happy citizens.  In a flood of optimistic data on Finland, the Finns in 2012 have the world’s most press freedom; the world’s best science scores in 2006 (second in reading and second in math); the seventh highest prosperity in 2011 (down from first in 2009); the world’s strongest property rights in 2008;  government funding of higher education as a percentage of GDP is higher in Finland than any other country in the world, and Finland has the world’s second highest participation in higher education;  and the school system is routinely lauded as one of the world’s finest.  All this made Finland the world’s second happiest country in 2010 (only Denmark was considered happier).

Finnish winter is a complicated interplay of light, snow, and cold (image courtesy speedwaystar).

One explanation for Finns’ seeming “happiness” is that it is explained by the cold and not in spite of it.  For instance, Finns are astoundingly active despite the challenges of the cold, with scores of residents Nordic walking, hiking, riding bikes, jogging through the depths of winter.  That activity may actually be because of those conditions: in bracing cold, moving can be enormously better than simply standing motionless waiting for a bus.  The vaunted school system may have some link to the cold as well: sitting in a well-warmed classroom on a brutally cold albeit gorgeous snowy day does make white collar work and scholarly labor seem more appealing than physical labor.  Regardless of the often unpleasant physical sensation of being in the cold, it is aesthetically pleasing, and Finnish tourist pages devote much of their energy to illuminating the pleasing aesthetics of the Finnish snowfall, northern lights, frosty reindeer, and dew-covered berries.  Flickr is loaded with countless images of Finnish nature, and many appear to be taken by Americans captivated by this environmental aesthetics and the momentary simplicity of living within and not against nature (at least for the week an American urbanite is vacationing in Finland).

Finland actually has some seasons and color besides winter and white (image courtesy -zelig-)

Yet much of the American fascination with such world rankings of countries and our obsession on where we sit on such inventories of joy may reside with our own commitment to happiness.  The Daily Beast and Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss each hypothesize that the chill and dark may have a significant influence on Finland’s happiness, but it may also lie in how Americans define happiness, which goes well beyond the measured contentment Finns find in everyday life.  Americans arrogantly wrote the “pursuit of happiness” into our founding document despite subsequently assembling a diverse and unequal state society covering numerous environmental zones.  Weiner questions why Americans consciously commit so much energy to actually thinking about securing happiness:  “I’ve spent most of my life trying to think my way to happiness, and my failure to achieve that goal only proves, in my mind, that I am not a good enough thinker. It never occurred to me that the source of my unhappiness is not flawed thinking but thinking itself.”  This suggests that much of outsiders’ inability to understand Finnish contentment—or secure their own–may revolve around our inability to understand some people seek meaningfulness that may not necessarily be “happy” in a hackneyed American definition of the term.  What it means to be happy or content is inevitably local and highly contextual and certainly culturally specific, and there is certainly a link between the unavoidable Nordic environment and Finnish cultural definitions of contentment, but the relationship between happiness and culture in Finland and America reaches well beyond the mercury and depth of snow each winter.

Reindeer are sufficiently supportive of the Finnish economy to make regular appearances for winter tourists (image courtesy solitaryleprechaun).

Finns do in fact spend much of their time cautioning visitors that winter will be a six-month experience, but they seem to have a certain shared sobriety about the realities of the weather and simply do not commit much of their thought to it except when addressing a visitor.   Americans, in contrast, always imagine new possibilities, which can often be our greatest quality but also tends to make us unsettled with what we have in hand: for every American who celebrates the Lapland wilderness, another wonders how we might turn it into a more profitable and easily accessible space with creature comforts.  This restless imagination of Americans was recognized in 1835 by Alexis de Toqueville, who noted in the classic Democracy in America that “At first sight there is something surprising in this strange unrest of so many happy men, restless in the midst of abundance. … The recollection of the brevity of life is a constant spur to him.  Besides the good things which he possesses, he every instant fancies a thousand others which death will prevent him from trying if he does not try them soon. This thought fills him with anxiety, fear, and regret, and keeps his mind in ceaseless trepidation, which leads him perpetually to change his plans and his abode. … It may readily be conceived that if men, passionately bent upon physical gratifications, desire eagerly, they are also easily discouraged: as their ultimate object is to enjoy, the means to reach that object must be prompt and easy, or the trouble of acquiring the gratification would be greater than the gratification itself. Their prevailing frame of mind then is at once ardent and relaxed, violent and enervated.”

Charles O. Frake

1962 Cultural Ecology and EthnographyAmerican Anthropologist 64(1):53-59. (subscription access)

Hal B. Gregersen and Linda K. Stroh

1997 Coming Home to the Arctic Cold: Antecedents to Finnish Expatriate and Spouse Repatriation AdjustmentPersonnel Psychology 50: 635–654. (subscription access)

Karoliina Periäinen

2006 The summer cottage : a dream in the Finnish forest.  In Multiple dwelling and tourism: Negotiating place, home and identity, eds. McIntyre, N., Williams, D., & McHugh, K. pp.103-114.  Cambridge, MA.

Alexis de Tocqueville

1838 Democracy in America.  Translated by Henry Reeve, George Deerborn and Son, New York.

Samuel Vaneeckhout, Jari Okkonen, Andre Costopoulos

2012 Paleoshorelines and prehistory on the eastern Bothnian Bay coast (Finland): local environmental variability as a trigger for social changePolar Geography 35(1):51-63. (subscription access)

Oulanka National Park image courtesy purplespace

Winter image courtesy Markus YK

Cycling image courtesy Visit Finland

Reindeer image courtesy solitaryleprechaun

Finnish countryside image courtesy -zelig-

Street scene image courtesy speedwaystar


One thought on “The Culture of Cold and Contentment

  1. This is fascinating – I have always been interested in Finland particularly and the ‘idea of north’ in general. I shall follow your blog with interest. Love the links on your web site too, thanks!

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