What is true luxury? Just when I thought I'd settled on my answer – a flat-screen TV the size of Kansas and a leather-upholstered car that can travel at triple the speed limit – I made several visits to Finland. Shortly after my return the financial crisis hit. Finland has been on my mind ever since. In these hard times, we could learn a few things about luxury from the Finns.
Strolling the streets of Helsinki, the capital, I noticed a lack of grand architecture and opulent homes, and an abundance of modest cars. Helsinki was a nice enough city, and it had some gems of modern design, but part of me felt that Finland was a bit dull. And, strangely, some of the Finns I met seemed to take pride in this.
Finland seemed even duller on my next visit in July. The weather was glorious, but Helsinki felt like a ghost town. I learned that most Finns take a five-week summer vacation, and that many of them disappear for the entire time to tiny, bare-bones cottages in the woods. Curious, I wrangled an invitation to visit one of these secluded cabins. It was meticulously cared for, but lacked any creature comforts. I quickly realized that there was nothing to do and no one to see.
After a couple of days at the cabin I was a convert. It was marvelously relaxing, and I realized the Finns were on to something – a form of luxury that had little to do with high-end products, the quest to acquire them, or the need to show them off. While some Finns pursue the material trappings of success, most seem to feel that the pleasures of time and solitude are more precious.
During my visits, I met some North American expats, including a Canadian who'd lived in the US for years. "I talk to friends back in North America," he told me, "and they tell me about all the latest toys they've bought. Here I'm just puttering away on my little house like a Finn, and that's about it. The pace of life is slower. I like that."
Americans in Finland shared similar sentiments. But they weren't naive about the place, and there was a reason they weren't buying the latest toys. "I'll never become rich in Finland," one explained, "the taxes are just too high." But for him it was a trade-off worth making. "Great healthcare, basically free. My kids get one of the best educations in the world, free." By the way, that includes college, free. He had no plans to move back to the States.
As I spent more time in Helsinki, my own notion of the luxuries available in Finland expanded to include more than just the quiet pleasures of a cabin getaway. Finnish cities are filled with universally well-maintained and high-quality schools, hospitals, buses, trains, and parks. While most Finns might never be able to own a well-appointed SUV or a big house, they value the less-tangible assets they do have, which add up to quality of life and peace of mind.
Finland doesn't pay lip service to providing a level playing field for all its citizens. It really does give the vast majority of its citizens a fair and equal chance in life, in a way that the US just doesn't, no matter how much Americans like to think it does.
Finland has its downsides, of course. The Finns I met described high rates of depression and alcoholism among their countrymen, and admitted that many Finns seem to suffer from low self-esteem. When I returned to the dynamic bustle of New York, I was happy to be back, even with the financial crisis decimating the economy.
Compared with Finns, Americans have qualities I admire and treasure: optimism, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a willingness to be opinionated, for starters. These qualities will help us fight our way back to economic health.
But let's face it: The single-minded pursuit of outsized material consumption helped get us into this mess. As we struggle to get back on our feet, perhaps we should pause for our own "Finnish moment."
Trevor Corson is the author of "The Secret Life of Lobsters" and "The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice."