The hot, smoggy metropolis of Beijing (a far cry from Norway – a quiet and cold country with a very small population) was where I encountered my first Norwegians. I was teaching English in China and I was pleasantly surprised by their friendly nature and near perfect grasp of the English language. Fast forward a year and I found myself living in the city of Trondheim on the west coast of Norway. For the next three years I was immersed in the Norwegian culture, making Norwegian friends and attempting to learn their language (albeit badly!)
For the past 12 years, Norway has been voted the best country to live in and Norwegians being some of the happiest people in the world. From what I’ve learnt about my time living there and the observations I made, I want to share why I think this is and how they’ve seemingly got it so right in the happy stakes.
Many people would say that yes, it’s easy to be happy in Norway because they’re such a rich country but this hasn’t always been the case. The Norwegian culture has been carved out of a history of survival; living in difficult, isolated landscape and working hard to live in these extreme conditions with little money. All the while fostering basic principles of fairness and equality that lives on today.
Norwegians are big on their equality both with gender and society. There are almost no social classes which, in contrast to the UK where I’m from, is a breath of fresh air. There is something called the Law of Jante, a concept created by Aksel Sandemose that critises individual success, and expressions of achievement are deemed inappropriate – basically you should see your achievements as a collective not as an individual. Although not taken to an extreme in Scandinavian countries, I think this has enriched the quiet modesty that is ingrained in the Norwegian character. A rich Norwegian is seen as on the same level as someone relatively poorer. This pretty much eradicates the prejudice and social problems that occur in many other countries.
Gender equality is high. It is not unusual to see women builders, bus drivers, carpenters and engineers – roles that in many countries are seen as dominantly male. Norway was also the pioneer in paternity leave for men. Men and women have 48 weeks paid leave that both are encouraged to take.
There is a strong emphasis on teamwork. Especially in the smaller villages and towns, you regularly come across local groups coming together and volunteering for community projects just from the joy of it and sense of community it brings.
Nature plays a huge part in the lives of Norwegians. With stunning mountains, fjords and northern lights there is no end to the beautiful nature around them. Because of this, their lives are revolved around hiking, skiing and trips to their back-to-basics cabins in the mountain or the forest where a Norwegian is probably at his happiest. They don’t just make this an annual thing, they make this a way of life and regularly indulge their time doing what makes them the most happy.
The weather in Norway is not to everyone’s taste. The winters can be ferocious and even in Trondheim, it could get down to -25 degrees. As a foreigner, I can’t say I found this the most enjoyable time but it’s pretty rare to find a Norwegian that complains. Snow is what they look forward to for 6 months of the year and when it comes it’s welcomed with open arms. Kids at school happily go out to play in minus degree weather all kitted out in their snowsuits and thermals. You may have heard the Norwegian saying there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing and I think this is something I took away with me. No more will I be a complaining Brit wearing next to nothing in the middle of winter and wondering why the hell I’m so cold. And no weather will interfere with a Norwegian’s day, whether it’s sun, rain, ice or snow they will still be out walking, exercising and enjoying it.
Norwegians themselves are very friendly, humble and laid-back people. Although they can come across quiet, serious and maybe even unfriendly to our standards when they encounter people they don’t know, once you break past that, you can guarantee they will become a great loyal friend. Ask any favour and they will be happy to do it. I can honestly say, some of the nicest and most genuine people I know are Norwegian.
So what can we take away from this? A sense of community, an appreciation for nature and surroundings, family values, equality and a genuine humble character are all attributes that can make up a happy society and a happy life. The Norwegian mindset is ingrained and has been transient through a time where Norway has been relatively poor to oil-rich. Yes, they have more money and the standards of living have increased dramatically over the last few decades but their sense of hard work, appreciation of their humble beginnings and proudness of their country both as a society and a thing of beauty, has barely changed at all.
Obviously, there will always be positive and negative elements to living in a country but I think Norway has managed to outweigh the bad with the good. And culture is deep-rooted and developed over time so we can’t, as a society, change quickly and mimic that of another but we can take elements of the Norwegian mindset and apply it to our own lives. At the heart of it, they just seem to be truly grateful for the simple pleasures in life and appreciate their surroundings, friends, family and community which I believe we can all incorporate to create a more positive and happier life 🙂