I Traveled to Finland to Take Its Masterclass in Happiness — Here Are the 8 Most Important Lessons I Learned

We all deserve to be as happy as a Fin.

<p>Getty Images</p>

Getty Images

Anyone can find their inner Finn and master the secrets to happiness — at least, that's what those fortunate folks who live in Finland, the happiest country in the world, say. But how easy could it possibly be to find total happiness just by booking a flight? I set off to spend five days and four nights in Finland's Lakeland region to find out.

Before leaving, I self-assessed. Am I unhappy enough to learn how to find my inner Finn? I graduated from therapy three years ago. My friend group is full of witty women, and my family, while as imperfect as any other, is loving. In the past year, I've explored Ireland's Tidy Towns, spent Christmas in Paris, and lazed about on the beaches of Portugal. What complaints could I have?

What if I'm too happy to learn anything about mastering happiness? Could I be happier? As it turns out, the trip offered me more life lessons than I thought appropriate to keep to myself. So, here are the eight best lessons I learned that I think can help you find boundless, Finnish-style happiness, too.

Lesson 1: Arrive at the bridge before you cross it.

My suitcase was a ridiculous size. It's the largest size that airlines allow you to check without extra fees. To be fair, I arrived in Finland a day early and would stay there for three days beyond the happiness class, so I needed the extra clothing. Right?

I was the first of our group to meet our host, Sergei Shkurov, for Happiness Week. As we waited to board the bus, I apologized to him for my suitcase's existence: "It's probably the biggest one."

"We haven't seen the others' suitcases," he replied. "So we do not know."

My first Finnish secret to happiness learned: Cross bridges when you arrive at them, not before. My suitcase was the largest. Nobody cared. Thus, no bridge to cross.

Lesson 2: Find happiness in the contrasts.

<p>Courtesy of Kuru Resort</p>

Courtesy of Kuru Resort

We arrived at Kuru Resort, where I checked into my lake villa, which was similar in size and style to the summer cottages Finns are known to love. Its amenities included a personal sauna, a standalone tub, and a glass-enclosed terrace. My villa, tucked within a pine forest, overlooked pristine Lake Saimaa, Finland's largest lake. It was an easy place to be happy in.

My second Finnish secret to happiness learned: In my villa's glass-enclosed terrace, I slowed down and noticed the floor's chill on my bare feet and my coffee mug's warmth in my hands. I felt embraced by the free-floating chair I sat in. It takes just a moment to appreciate the contrast of ice cream on a sweltering day or a cozy blanket on a frigid one. Soak it in.

Lesson 3: Going out in nature doesn't have to be intimidating.

"Going out in nature doesn't have to be extravagant. Do what you love and do it in a way that you love," our nature coach, Mikaela Creutz, advised as we set off for Kaarnetsaari Island in Linnansaari National Park. "You can just go out for a cup of coffee in the woods."

Once there, we walked among birch, spruce, and pine trees to a picnic table set with stacked wooden plates, sturdy mugs, and a platter of Finnish cinnamon rolls. We sat on reindeer-pelt-covered benches as Creutz brewed up a pot of soot pan coffee over a fire she built.

My third Finnish secret to happiness learned: As I sipped the fresh coffee in my mug, I felt a lifetime away from drinking coffee at my desk. Though yes, this was an experience in a Finnish forest, I can now see that time in nature doesn't have to be all or nothing. Enjoying coffee in the yard will indeed have the same effect.

Lesson 4: Relax and remember the good times.

<p>Melissa Peterson/Travel + Leisure</p>

Melissa Peterson/Travel + Leisure

Vuoski River's smooth-as-glass water in the afternoon was a welcome sight for my lake-loving Minnesotan eyes. According to Jussi Honka, our floating sauna raft driver and owner of Saunalautta Imatra, the water here is usually like this.

We were there to try dry suit floating and to sauna (of course). I put a bright red dry suit on over my jeans and long-sleeve shirt and jumped into the clear, cold Vuoski River, looking like Father Christmas. As I floated, memories of carving my slalom ski across glassy water through morning mist surfaced in my now calm mind. My last ski run was a decade ago. It'd been 20 years since I first heard my daughter holler, "Hit it," her small hands gripping the handle at the end of the taut tow rope. She was five. Now, she's an adult with a daughter of her own.

My fourth Finnish secret to happiness learned: Not all of our summer mornings were good, but I chose to let the bad memories go and found bliss. Choose what to hold onto and what to let go.

Lesson 5: Embrace challenges.

At Health Resort Krunnupuisto in Punkharju's pine forests, instructor Tanja Lajunen taught us happiness-seekers SUP Yoga. A breeze kept the morning air crisp, but the sun shone as we each paddled out to hook our boards onto a line set up a little offshore. Lajunen called it her SUP yoga studio.

As the class progressed, my confidence increased. Lajunen cued wheel pose, aka upward bow pose, aka the pose I almost always opt out of in favor of something easier. But this time, I went for it. Could my type-A personality, with its competitive ways, have been misbehaving? Maybe. Should I spend time worrying about it? No. I let my thoughts go. By the end of class, having embraced its challenges, my smile felt too big for my face.

One night, back at Kuru Resort, I had a choice to make. Sauna lakeside with my happiness-seeking companions, or relax on my own. During the SUP experience, I wore quick-drying pants. The lakeside sauna experience involved jumping into a frigid lake and then dashing into a warm sauna. It required a swimsuit (or less).

If I relaxed alone, I could keep my over-developed calves and varicose vein-laced legs covered. But if I was here to master happiness like a Finn, I knew the right choice.

On went my bikini and cover-up. I joined the others on the dock, removed my cover-up, and jumped feet first into what I'd been told was 12°C (54°F) water. A shocked curse left my lips when I surfaced. As I climbed out, my smile stretched beyond its normal limits. Again.

In the bright light of the land of the unsetting sun, I didn't cover back up until I was back in my villa. I was 12 years old the last time I'd felt so secure in my body.

My fifth Finnish secret to happiness learned: Choose the challenges over easy outs.

Lesson 6: Manage expectations.

<p>Getty Images</p>

Getty Images

From Timo Auvinen, who took us on a guided walk of the "Islands of the Fortunate," we learned Finnish perspectives on happiness. He said Finns tend to be content but not happy-go-lucky, satisfied but not joyful. "There isn't an idiom for pursuing happiness," according to Auvinen. Instead, Finns are cautioned that "Happiness ends in tears."

While touring the archipelago on a Savonlinna Cruise, Meeri LaRinen shared a typical Finnish exchange. When someone asks, "How are you?" A standard response is, "Nothing more than misery."

My sixth Finnish secret to happiness learned: It's OK to sometimes be content with just being OK.

Lesson 7: Put meaning before income.

<p>Melissa Peterson/Travel + Leisure</p>

Melissa Peterson/Travel + Leisure

"It's not first the income," Taina Snellman-Langenskiöld, a design professional and owner of Tikau, shared. "It's the meaningfulness." She told us this while leading us in a craft project and teaching us about Finnish design. Her words caught my attention as I threaded the string of a sunshiney yellow pom-pom through a needle.

Finland is full of people doing what they love for the benefit of others. SUP instructor Tanja Lajunen loves to spend time on the lake. Wakeboard pulley operator Jere Lundberg told me that for him, happiness is" water and sun." Chef Remi Trémouille of Restaurant Solitary loves working with Finland's seasons and the challenge of not having access to every imaginable ingredient.

My seventh Finnish secret to happiness learned: Do meaningful work that you love in a way that you love.

Lesson 8: Put yourself in a supportive environment.

During my time in Finland, I felt supported by the fresh air, clean water, and magnificent forests – and most importantly, by an eclectic group of remarkable people from around the world in search of happiness. We broke bread, drank wine, and had great conversations. There was an ease to it that felt like home and a feeling I'll bring with me everywhere.

My eighth Finnish secret to happiness learned: Rely on those around you. They're happy to be there. At the very least, the Finns are here to support your happiness journey too. 

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