The World Happiness Report recently released its list of the world’s happiest countries, with Finland claiming the top spot for the sixth year in a row. As someone who is always striving to live a healthier and happier life, I was curious about what the Finnish are doing that Americans aren’t (the United States ranked 15th on the list), so I decided to do a little digging into Finland’s wellness approach and eat like the world’s happiest women for a week. Read on to learn about the Nordic diet and what happened when I tried it for a week, as well as the other rituals that are supposedly responsible for Finland’s spot as the world’s happiest country.
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The link between diet and mental health
Although diet isn’t one of the factors explored in the report, experts agree that what and how you eat dramatically impacts your mental wellbeing. “The gut contains 95% of the body’s serotonin, so nourishing ourselves with whole, natural foods that support digestion is integral to our mental health,” explained author and founder of wellness brand Bonberi, Nicole Berrie. “When the gut and digestive systems work optimally, the body can access serotonin.”
Numerous studies have also highlighted the role diet plays on mental health. In fact, an entire emerging field (called nutritional psychiatry) is dedicated to the relationship between mood and food. Research shows healthy eating patterns that focus on whole foods are associated with better mental health than the standard American diet. Furthermore, one study found that diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids have the power to improve and prevent depression because of their anti-inflammatory effects on the brain.
The Nordic diet
The Nordic diet originated from the traditional eating patterns of Nordic countries like Finland. This eating style emphasizes locally-sourced, nutrient-dense whole foods, such as fruits (mainly berries), vegetables (especially root vegetables like beets, turnips, and carrots), whole grains (particularly rye, barley and oats), legumes, nuts, and seeds. The main pillars that distinguish the Nordic diet is that it’s rich in fermented foods, like pickled vegetables, sauerkraut, and yogurt, providing your body with a healthy dose of probiotics. While similar to the Mediterranean diet, the Nordic diet includes more cold-water fish high in omega-3, like salmon and herring. I couldn’t find a study linking the Nordic diet to their place as the world’s happiest country, but it’s no surprise their diet is full of probiotics and omega-3s, knowing how much these factors have been shown to support mood.
The Nordic diet is relatively unrestrictive. You don’t have to count calories or track macros, but you probably won’t find a lot of heavily processed foods, added sugars, and high-fat red meat.
I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed eating like the Finnish for a week. Following the Nordic diet challenged me to be more inventive with my cooking and spend more time shopping at my local farmer’s market. By ditching takeout for home-cooked meals made with locally-grown ingredients, I felt more connected with what I was eating. This helped me stay present during mealtime and enjoy each bite of food.
I also love how this eating style didn’t force me to track what I ate, allowing me to take an intuitive approach to my meals. This made it easy to follow and enjoy the eating approach because I could simply eat foods I loved that were Nordic diet-approved (think: plant-foods, fermented veggies/yogurt, and omega-3 rich fish) rather than doing mental gymnastics and pulling up MyFitnessPal every time I wanted a snack. Some of my favorite meals from the week included smoked salmon toast with goat cheese, lentil vegetable soup with rice, and berries with yogurt and honey.
Other habits I incorporated throughout the week
Obviously there are a lot of other factors Finland attributes to its happiness ranking than diet. Many experts point to its low levels of crime and good public services, or social support and income equality. But as for habits I could replicate in a week, I found three key habits Finnish citizens do regularly that I tried to emulate as well.
I moved more
Because I physically felt more energized from all the nourishing veggies, protein, and carbs I was eating, I incorporated more movement, hitting the trail with my dog daily. Research shows that regular exercise has a positive impact on mental health by reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety, improving mood, and enhancing cognitive function. So it’s no surprise that the world’s happiest people are also some of the most fit. 56% of Finnish adults get at least one hour of moderately intense activity a day.
I spent more time outside
The Finns also prioritize time spent outdoors, which is one of the reasons why experts believe Finland consistently ranks high on the list of the world’s happiest countries. In fact, 87% of Finns report that nature is important to them because of its mental health benefits. Since I started walking more, I also naturally spent more time outdoors. This resulted in a huge mood boost each day that I didn’t always notice from my indoor workouts. Research shows that spending time in nature helps reduce stress and anxiety by promoting relaxation and lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
I focused on quality time with the people I love
My husband and I often get stuck in the cycle of ordering takeout and parking it on the couch for a good Netflix binge. So although we’re in the same room together, we’re not actually spending quality time together. But while I was following the Nordic diet, I took time to carefully select ingredients and cooked our meals with love. This made us more inclined to enjoy dinner at the table rather than on the couch with the TV on. By doing this, we were able to better connect at the end of the day, which also gave me a significant happiness boost.
Experts agree that feeling connected with others has the power to improve mental health. Having a strong sense of community provides people with social support, a sense of belonging, and opportunities for meaningful engagement. Finland is known for its strong sense of community, with a culture that values social support, cooperation, and equality, which contributes to the country’s high levels of mental wellbeing.
The Final Verdict
So, did eating like the world’s happiest women actually make me feel happier? Honestly, yes. Creating meals based around whole foods I enjoyed gave me more energy throughout the day, which led to a domino effect of healthy decisions that improved my mood. My digestion also felt amazing with all of the gut-friendly foods (fiber and probiotics offer the optimal combination), and my life felt so much simpler to focus on the whole, fresh ingredients I had.
While I genuinely enjoyed following the Nordic diet for a week, it’s not the magic pill for happiness. Food can have a huge impact on our mental wellbeing, but it’s only one facet of what brings us joy. Instead, take a holistic approach to happiness that emphasizes nourishing the body with wholesome foods, moving more, and fostering meaningful connections with others.