In Norway, however, both health and happiness are found in rich measure. For Norway is one of the happiest nations on Earth, and this statement is neither exaggeration nor rhetoric, but based solely on research and statistics. Ever since the World Happiness Report – a landmark survey of the state of global happiness that ranks 156 countries by how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be – was conceived by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and its first ever edition released in 2012, Norway has consistently ranked among the top five happiest countries in the world. It took the third, second, fourth, fourth, first, second, third, and fifth place in the 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and the 2020 World Happiness Reports, respectively.
Not only that, Norway is also among the healthiest countries anywhere on the planet. According to the 2019 edition (the latest edition) of the Bloomberg Global Health Index – a study that ranks 163 countries according to variables that contribute to overall health, such as life expectancy, health risks, and environmental factors – Norway is the ninth (9th) healthiest country on Earth; in the 2017 edition, it was eleventh (11th).
So with regard to the age-old human quest for health and happiness, it seems that Norway has found the answer. What then is the Norwegians’ formula to a healthy and happy life?
Of course, it could be down to a range of factors. Wealth certainly has a hand in it, for Norway is one of the wealthiest nations in the globe. Though its economy – with an estimated nominal Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $417 billion as of 2019 as per the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – is not quite a powerhouse, it still ranks among the top 30 largest economies in the world (it is placed 29th overall). But because of its small population of only around five million people, Norway has the third highest nominal GDP per capita, an estimated $77,795 per person as of 2019 as per the IMF, thus making it the world’s third most prosperous nation in that specific measure.
But wealth alone cannot account for the Norwegians’ health and happiness. Indeed, there are far richer countries than Norway that are neither as healthy nor as happy as that Scandinavian nation. The USA, for instance, currently boasts the world’s largest economy by nominal GDP, more than fifty times larger than that of Norway, and yet it was ranked eighteenth (18th) in the 2020 World Happiness Report, and 35th in the 2019 Bloomberg Global Health Index.
So if wealth could not entirely explain Norway’s enviable levels of health and happiness, what other factors play a part? Could a certain philosophical lifestyle unique solely to the Norwegians be partly credited for their wellbeing? Could their secret be friluftsliv?
Friluftsliv (pronounced free-loofts-liv) is a Norwegian word, or rather, an amalgamation of three separate Norwegian words, which in English literally translates to ‘free air living’. Friluftsliv originally referred to a Norwegian philosophical lifestyle built around a deep and profound – spiritual – connection with nature. More recently, however, friluftsliv has come to broadly refer to the Norwegians’ lifestyle characterized by being outdoors and connecting with nature through any form of outdoor activity.
The word friluftsliv came into being in 1859, when Henrik Ibsen, a renowned Norwegian playwright and poet, first used the term in his poem On The Heights to underscore the virtue of spending time in the wilderness, in nature, for spiritual and physical wellbeing.
But though the word frilufstliv is a relatively new invention, the philosophy it embodies is exceedingly old, harking back even to the very beginning of history in Norway, and likely older than that. For the Norwegians have always had deep, rich ties with the land, with nature, and these ties have been evident in their culture and heritage for millennia.
The Norwegians’ great love for nature and the outdoors has been shaped largely by the country they live in. Norway, after all, is a naturally beautiful country, to say the least. Though it is far and remote, located on the northernmost reaches of the world, still Mother Nature did not forsake it, but there in the deeps of time wrought long and lovingly, and filled that distant country with captivating wonders and marvelous sceneries.
As a rule, Norway’s natural landscape is beautiful, but in a cold and stern fashion. Lofty mountains like mighty kings and heroes of ancient legends, robed and mailed with forests of spruce and pine, and crowned and helmeted with everlasting snow, march in imposing ranges all along the length of the country. At their feet lie sprawled broad, deep valleys, green and fertile, shaped and sculpted by the primeval movements of ice. Frosty blue rivers and streams wend their way through the frigid landscape, carrying torrents of rainwater and melted snow to fill the crystalline depths of the country’s countless lakes, or empty into the raging expanse of the encircling seas. Innumerable fjords of impressive beauty, walled with steep cliffs and sheer slopes, carve through the country’s rugged coastline, knifing deep inland. In the long, dark wintry nights, the legendary Northern Lights, the aurora borealis, illuminate the sky with spectacular resplendence.
Norway’s natural landscapes have largely retained their wild, untamed splendor that they have worn ever since their creation, for much of the country remains sparsely populated, even today, and vast tracts of land are left unmarred by urban development.
Friluftsliv in its traditional concept is difficult to demonstrate. But in its modern definition, it can take on many forms. The most common involves walking trips into nature during the weekends, either done on foot or with skis in the winter, in solitary fashion or with company, and these typically begin at one’s own home and end there also later in the day. But such trips can readily evolve into several days-long hiking, trekking, and climbing adventures. Boating and canoeing are customary, owing to Norway’s numerous lakes and rivers. Biking and dog-sledging, too, are popular. Fishing; hunting; foraging for fruits, berries, and mushrooms; bird-watching; and nature photography are also common additional activities.
Regardless of the form, however, it can be readily seen that the modern concept of friluftsliv is manifested predominantly through outdoor activities. So much so, in fact, that in recent years, the word friluftsliv has been appropriated by brands and business for financial gain, commercializing the term to sell outdoor gear and equipment and outdoor trips and travels. This commercialization has led to friluftsliv becoming misconstrued solely with outdoor activities, equipment, and destinations, overshadowing the word’s original purpose of simply being close to nature, and altogether omitting its spiritual dimension.
This new, commercialized, and superficial definition of friluftsliv stands in strong contrast to the essence of the word when Ibsen first used it. In fact, Ibsen came up with the term whilst he (or at least the protagonist in his poem) sat alone in the midst of a cottage and stared at a stove, highlighting that friluftsliv may have originally referred to a state of mind that does not necessarily require any physical activity!
Regardless, the meaning of friluftsliv has long evolved since Ibsen’s first use of it. Today, it has now come to describe the Norwegians’ way of outdoor life. But while it is true that contemporary friluftsliv largely relies on outdoor pursuits, the meaning of the word still encompasses more than just that. Friluftsliv is not an activity or activity program with a narrow goal: it is more than any manner of outdoor physical exercise or exertion, and is neither defined by nor dependent on gear, equipment, destination, or financial expense. It is a lifestyle, a way to engage in outdoor recreations, yes, but also a way to socialize, to interact, to bond with friends and family; and to spend mindful time in the wilderness and reconnect with nature without destroying or disturbing it.
And in Norway, friluftsliv comes naturally, for the country’s natural environment is readily and freely accessible to everyone. Forests and woodlands are easily reached from populated urban centers. Scenic mountain footpaths, cross-country ski trails, and reposeful coastal islands are but one bus or tram or train or ferry ride away. Indeed, most cities and towns in Norway facilitate easy access to the wilderness. And the nation’s vast network of hiking trails and remote cabins is well kept by the country’s government, by members of outdoor organizations, and by volunteers.
Moreover, access to nature and friluftsliv are fostered by Norwegian legislation. The law of allemansrätten, which in English translates to ‘all man’s right’, grants everyone equal access to, and passage through, the countryside, even in private properties. This means that Norwegians are very much free to travel wherever they like, on foot or on skis; and free to lay down their picnic blankets and pitch their tents wherever they please, so long as they are respectful of nature and considerate of landowners and other users. While this ‘right to roam’ was only enshrined in Norwegian law in 1957 through the passage of the Outdoor Recreation Act, allemansrätten was long recognized before that as an unwritten law that dates as far back as the age of the Vikings.
Because friluftsliv is a Norwegian tradition, as with every tradition in any part of the world, it is passed on from generation to generation. From a young age, Norwegians are encouraged to be curious in and caring for nature; to take pride in their country’s scenic natural beauty; and to lead an active outdoors lifestyle, which is seen as crucial in developing independence. Indeed, one popular form of childcare in Norway is the frilufts barnehage, or ‘forest kindergarten’, where learning is structured around time spent outside. Norwegian family vacations are also often based on friluftsliv, with many families opting to spend their weekends and holidays locally, in the country’s wilderness, retreating to mountain and forest trails and sojourning in family-owned cabins. Friluftsliv is even taught as part of formal education in a number of Norwegian universities!
But how exactly does friluftsliv contribute to the Norwegians’ remarkable – and enviable – levels of wellbeing?
First, friluftsliv encourages Norwegians to engage in regular exercise and other physical exertions, to pursue an active lifestyle. From strengthening bones and muscles; regulating weight and preventing obesity; improving blood circulation; reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases (such as high cholesterol, coronary artery disease, and heart attack), type 2 diabetes, and even some cancers (including colon, breast, uterine, and lung cancer); improving sleep; enhancing metabolism; boosting sex drive; heightening cognitive functions; and even helping increase life expectancy overall, the short-term and long-term health benefits of regular exercise and a physically active lifestyle are many and well-documented, and so need no further discussion here.
But what is less well known is that consistent exercise greatly contributes to happiness, too. Exercise is credited for helping improve mood and confidence by promoting the secretion of ‘feel-good’ brain chemicals or neurotransmitters, namely endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.
Endorphins, which are released in response to pain, help relieve stress and pain and alleviate anxiety and depression. Dopamine motivates a person to strive for a goal, desire, or need; and creates rewarding feelings of pleasure and satisfaction when he or she does achieve what he or she is aiming for. Serotonin improves mood, curbs feelings of loneliness and depression, and contributes to wellbeing and happiness. Norepinephrine helps moderate mood by controlling stress and anxiety.
Second, friluftsliv promotes in-person social interactions and relationships, which have real benefits to both health and happiness. Humans, after all, are social beings; we are born into social groups and live our entire lives as a part of society. Numerous studies attest to the short-term and long-term effects of social relationships on health, and these effects emerge in childhood and cascade throughout life to foster cumulative advantage (or disadvantage) in health.
Indeed, socialization can lead to an enhanced mental health by reducing the impact of stress, uplifting mood, improving memory formation and recall, lowering risk of dementia, and fostering a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Dozens of studies point to the fact that people who have social support from family, friends, and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer.
Social isolation, on the other hand, has negative consequences to mind and body. One study in California showed that the risk of death among men and women with the fewest social ties was more than twice as high as the risk for adults with the most social ties.
Another study found that, among adults with coronary artery disease, the socially isolated had a risk of subsequent cardiac death more than twice greater than their more socially connected peers.
Yet another study, which examined data from 148 studies involving 308,849 participants, found that people with stronger social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival than those with weaker social ties. This indicates that the influence of social relationships on the risk of death are comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption and exceed the influence of other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity.
Third, friluftsliv fosters exposure to and engagement with nature, which is proven by a vast body of scientific literature to have numerous physiological and psychological benefits.
For instance, a massive global research, which analyzed data from 140 studies involving more than 290 million people from 20 countries, including the UK, the US, Spain, France, Germany, Australia, and Japan, found that exposure to greenspaces – undeveloped land with natural vegetation as well as developed land including urban parks and street greenery – is instrumental in reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress, and high blood pressure. The study also discovered that populations with higher levels of greenspace exposure are also more likely to report good overall health.
In Norway, one study revealed that people who were certified as long-term sick, and who participated in a range of health-promoting outdoor activities, such as hiking and gardening, afterwards reported improved health and quality of life.
Another study, also in Norway, discovered that Norwegian families engaging in nature trips were less frequently overweight than those who did not, suggesting that regular family excursions in nature are crucial in preventing obesity.
In England, one study indicated that exposure to natural features – such as trees, sky, and birdsong – while in urban areas had lasting benefits on mental wellbeing.
Another study also conducted in England involving 20,000 participants showed that individuals who spent at least 120 minutes a week in nature, specifically in greenspaces (local parks, etc.), reported consistently higher levels of both health and wellbeing than those who reported no exposure.
A study in Japan, where shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, is a widespread natural therapeutic practice, proved that even just 15 minutes of walking around a forest environment can already induce a state of physiological relaxation, as evidenced by decreased levels of salivary cortisol, a typical stress hormone; decreased pulse rate; and decreased systolic and diastolic blood pressures, among other indicators.
Another study in Japan found that participants who were asked to join a forest bathing trip afterwards demonstrated increased numbers of natural killer (NK) cells, which are critical to the innate immune system, and whose functions include responding to virus-infected cells, infections, and tumor formation.
In South Korea, one study found that a forest therapy program was effective in relieving pain and associated psycho-physiological symptoms among individuals with chronic widespread pain and depression.
But these studies only confirm what we already innately know – that nature is good for us. In Norway, however, they have acted upon this intuitive knowledge and put it to good use. They have incorporated the natural world into the very way they live their lives, and kept Mother Nature close to their hearts, and this has borne sweet fruit. For Norway is now one of the happiest and healthiest countries anywhere on Earth, due in no small part to their very remarkable way of outdoor living, to friluftsliv. The rest of the world, meanwhile, can all learn from the Norwegians’ lifelong love for the great outdoors.