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Why the key to happiness lies in the first 30 minutes of the day

Spending the longest time in my entire life in one place with the same man — my partner of 20 years — and dog during this pandemic has proved more challenging than climbing Kilimanjaro, surviving I’m A Celebrity in the Australian rainforest, or hiking the length of the UK in appalling weather with a film crew.

Each day, I experience what I can only describe as ‘deep irritation’ — I get cross if something doesn’t come up to scratch.

Only last night we had words because Badger the Border terrier was given a huge bit of pizza an hour after he’d scoffed his dog’s dinner. I don’t want to be publicly shamed by walking a fat dog, a clear sign of a sloppy owner. And if the dog’s fat, I’ll soon be fat, too.

I’ve tried so hard to be positive during lockdown — apart from ranting about not being allowed to go into work in the TV studio, shouting at people in supermarkets who come too close and accusing my partner of buying a duvet that’s ‘too heavy for my legs’ at night.

Janet Street-Porter (pictured) who is spending lockdown with her partner of 20 years and their dog, revealed she’s found it hard to be cheerful 

I have secretly deleted ancient episodes of Midsomer Murders and Dad’s Army off our TV planner so I can load it with my favourite shows, to watch when we are not speaking.

Yes, lockdown might be ‘wonderful’ for people with gardens, people who love their own company and are fit but, for most of us, it’s been extremely hard to be cheerful. Turn on the news and it’s misery every night. No wonder we have become a nation of depressives.

Over the past few weeks, more exercise has been permitted, as well as clothes shopping and barbecues (as long as we don’t touch the approved small group of guests or their food). But thousands of us still can’t go back to work (because we’re over 70 or have health issues), and now live in fear of catching Covid‑19 should we venture on to public transport or dare to book a holiday.

We’ve become worried about so many things (will our jobs exist for much longer, and what about paying the mortgage when Dishy Rishi stops the loans and handouts?).

Coronavirus has had an extremely detrimental impact on the nation’s mental health; more than 40 per cent of us admit we are anxious, depressed and fearful.

This won’t be solved overnight, but are there any simple techniques to learn how to spark a bit of happiness in our everyday lives? Could we learn from a place which — in spite of rain, a lack of sunlight, miles and miles of boring identical-looking forest and a pretty basic cuisine — has been voted the happiest country in the world for the third year running?

In short, can we learn how to be happy from those implacable, reserved Finns?

Janet (pictured) tried the ‘Rent a Finn’ service set by the Finnish tourist board, as the country is voted happiest country in the world for the third year running 

I associate Finland with dark winters, gloomy evergreen forests, thick ice and snow, with serial killers lurking outside every motel — maybe because so many Nordic dramas (and there are a lot of them) feature ghastly ritual murders in the midst of beautiful snowy landscapes.

What’s the secret to finding happiness in a country where ‘gourmet’ food is herrings, potatoes and cinnamon buns; where people wander around collecting moss and berries and drinking instant coffee out of Moomin mugs?

Can you be happy when most of the trees on your daily walk look exactly the same?

Finns are not known for showing their emotions, but claim to have a perfect work/life balance, and reckon they’ve got a healthy (and happy) existence because they remain close to nature and support their communities. Unlike cynical Brits, 80 per cent of Finns trust politicians and the police.

Finland has excellent state education, free universities, the world’s cleanest air and a very low population.

Significantly, it has been voted the third most innovative country in the world — so their lifestyle also breeds creativity.

Anxious to entice more visitors and promote this laidback lifestyle, the Finnish tourist board has set up a website where you can ‘Rent a Finn’. You can log on and take a virtual walk in a forest, learn how to relax, or have a cooking lesson.

Janet (pictured) was told by Virtual Happiness guide Jukka, that the key to happiness is finding something small to be grateful for every day


1 START YOUR DAY PROPERLY: Drink a glass of hot water and go for a short walk (or at the very least go outside). Minimal goals are fine because you will achieve them. There’s a Finnish saying: ‘Without the possibility of failure, there is no success.’

2 EXPERIENCE COLD WATER: OK, there are no handy ice holes in your neighbourhood and you can’t face a freezing shower, a dip in the sea or a river. But stick your face in the kitchen sink with some ice cubes for 30 seconds. Wow! You’ll look like you’ve just run four miles.

3 WRITE DOWN A SHORT GRATITUDE LIST EACH DAY: Instead of focusing on what’s wrong, choose some small things that make you feel good.

4 BREATHING: Spend some time focusing on breathing slowly and emptying your mind. It’s as good as exercise if you want to achieve the Finnish notion of Rauha (serenity and peace).

5 MAKE A CONSCIOUS EFFORT NOT TO WORRY: When you feel something weighing you down, cast it aside. According to Finns, ‘we are made for more than worrying’. Only worry about the things you can actually change, the rest is just debilitating. Controlling your emotions is not suppressing them.

6 FOCUS ON SMALL THINGS THAT BRING YOU JOY: Be that a favourite meal or stroking the cat.

7 CONNECT WITH NATURE: Look closely at plants, trees and what’s living around you on your daily walk or bike ride.

8 MAKE SOMETHING SIMPLE: It might be crochet, or it could be a cake, a salad or just a drawing. Whatever small form of self-expression you choose, it should be part of your daily routine.

I set up a Zoom meeting with Virtual Happiness guide Jukka, a twentysomething life coach and entrepreneur who lives in Helsinki and holidays in Lapland with his dog Janka.

I sat in my crowded home office (which used to be a bedroom) with the sound of builders and rain outside. Behind Jukka I could see miles and miles of lovely scenery. Let’s be honest, it’s easy to be cheerful when you’re sitting by a lake, with no one in sight except your faithful dog.

So how to apply smiley Jukka’s rules to life in the UK, where the highlights involve a visit to an overcrowded city park or a crowded beach full of non-social distancing youth? Jukka says lockdown is a perfect opportunity to change our daily routine and implement small changes, which will help us be happier in the long-term when this pandemic has passed.

He says the key to happiness is finding something small to be grateful for every day. Whether it is your partner (a challenge at the moment), something in nature, food or friendship.

View your life positively, focus on what’s good (such as having a partner who can make really good bread and cook) rather than what’s negative (like the person who never picks up their clothes and wears the same smelly sweatpants day in and day out).

Janet (pictured) was challenged to start each day thinking positively, before drinking a mug of hot water and taking 30 minutes of exercise 

I must choose small things about my life that I can improve, not whinge about what I can’t. Worrying about why we are here doesn’t take us anywhere.

Finns are active, and exercise is key to happiness whatever their age. They walk or cycle every day and love collecting berries in the forest, which might be a challenge in built-up Britain, but I suppose I could pick nettles and try that soup recipe I cut out of an old magazine. Finns say looking at green (as in forest) is calming and the sound of pine needles (‘whistling’ as the wind blows through them) is wonderful music.

Jukka reckons the first 30 minutes of our day is really important. I must rearrange my misery early morning face as I creak and groan down the stairs and, instead, start thinking positively before drinking a mug of hot water and taking 30 minutes’ exercise.

Even if it’s not sunny, there are huge health benefits to be gained: valuable vitamins from the natural light and establishing a regular rhythm which will benefit my sleeping patterns. Finns also swear by swimming in freezing water. On one of my three trips to Helsinki, I tried it. It blew the cobwebs away, but was made bearable by immediately jumping into a hot tub and having a sauna.

How to replicate this back home? Jukka recommends a cold shower every morning or, at the very least, dunking your face in a bowl filled with icy water for 30 seconds.

Janey (pictured) admits she gave up, after being advised to find happiness by crocheting 

Fundamental to the Finnish way of life is the notion of sisu (persistence) — the motivation to go on. It’s how they develop mental fortitude.

Back on the Rent a Finn website I meet Mirja Priha, a special needs teacher and coffee shop owner who cycles everywhere and extols the joys of spending time on her bike.

She’s cycled from Helsinki to Belgium and on to Italy. My goodness, that’s a real devotee!

Is there another way to find happiness without cycling?

According to designer and author Molla Mills, crocheting is an answer: make something simple with a hook and yarn.

At this point, I give up. Crochet reminds me of one of my mother-in-laws, who, every Christmas, would send me really ugly tableclothes with handcrocheted edges.

I hate crochet. But I love picking berries (if the sheep haven’t snaffled them first). I’m even willing to get my rusting mountain bike out of the shed and have an off-road jaunt (only on flat territory with no wind).

But I am never, ever, going to take up crochet.

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