When the 2017 World Happiness Report proclaimed that Norway had inched out Denmark as leader of the global happiness rankings, I had to investigate. The country where I studied 13 years ago is stunningly beautiful, but it never struck me as a glowingly joyous place, with its dark winters and reserved citizens. What secrets of a happy life could I learn from this northern country of just 5 million people?
Only a return trip could answer that question. My journey included a pit stop in Stockholm, a three-day passage through the capital city of Oslo, a couple of days in the fjords and fjells (mountains) and a three-day rest in Bergen, where my great-grandfather trained as a blacksmith. As a kind of “happiness” insurance, I was in Norway during the national festival known as Syttende Mai, literally, the 17th of May, the anniversary of the signing of Norway’s constitution. The holiday brings out locals in handmade traditional clothing, marching bands, children’s parades and lots of pølser (hot dogs) and ice cream. Still, my first conversations proved disheartening.
“What does ‘happiness’ even mean?” Ewa Victoria Westman, a Stockholm tour guide, asked with perhaps a bit of envy. “I don’t see the Norwegians as much happier than us Swedes.”
In Norway, Inger Brøgger Bull, a librarian in Oslo, didn’t understand this new rating: “Happiness? We have bad weather, the highest prices of beer, things are so expensive!”
Though I lived in Norway for one year and studied the language for almost three, I realize now that I had never even learned the Norwegian word for “happy.” Was this because it’s bad form for Norwegians to brag about their good fortune? Gledelig is more “gladly” than “happy.” Too much has been made out of the Danish word hygge, which actually comes from Norwegian, and means to get cozy and snug. Trivelig, or thriving, is perhaps the best translation. Knut Bull, a curator at Norway’s National Museum, suggested “Lykkelig, which defines those precious moments when everything comes together.”
Many Norwegians consider Bergen a particularly cheery city, so I began my tour here with Syttende Mai, Constitution Day. “The people in Bergen are called ‘The Italians of Norway’ because they are direct, have great parties, and gesture with their hands,” my guide Kay said.
In a city known for rain, the sun beamed down and warmed festivalgoers dressed in traditional bunader (or at least suit and ties), who vigorously waved flags, exclaiming, “Gratulerer med dagen!” (congratulations on the day). I’d never seen such an outpouring of joy, fun and kindness. I expected garbage everywhere, but after more than 100,000 people left the streets, I saw just two littered beer cans. The only person who didn’t seem happy was Norway’s glum king, who appeared on television on his balcony in Oslo and wouldn’t even crack a smile or sing the national anthem.
Lesson 1: Let kids roam free
The 17th of May celebration began with a 2½-hour barnetoget, or children’s parade. Kari Smith, a professor of education from Bergen, said making happy citizens starts with kids becoming “complete human beings” through the Norwegian education system that integrates them into the culture. “Children are happy in school,” she stressed, and made a jab at the much-touted educational system in Finland: “Finnish children are among the lowest in terms of happiness.”
Norwegian children don’t receive any grades throughout elementary school. This is perhaps a reflection of fri oppdragelse, or free upbringing, a Norwegian-embraced theory that children shouldn’t be held back or scolded. Inger and Knut let their 13-year-old daughter travel alone around Oslo on trams, buses and even ferries to visit friends on the other side of town. “I have to be willing to let other people take part in my daughter’s upbringing,” Inger explained. “Norwegian kids have good relations with their parents. We’re not too authoritarian and don’t give orders.”
Even during the Syttende Mai festival in Bergen, young kids gathered with no apparent supervision. “Kids are free to roam,” said my friend Jarle Nesvaag. “There are no body snatchers here, ha ha!”
That said, the specter of the terrible home-grown terrorist attack in 2011 that killed 77 people, mostly kids, looms over the country. Torstein, a German bus driver who works in Norway, told me, “Nothing changed after that terrorist attack whereas in Stockholm and Frankfurt, it’s all militarized.” I did notice for the first time that a policeman in a flak jacket with a submachine gun guarded one of the entrances to Bergen’s parade route. Even so, the Bergen area, with more than 400,000 people, has only one to three homicides a year.
Lesson 2: Actually, let everyone roam free
My train ride from Bergen to Oslo brought me over the lush green hills of the Numedal Valley, cut with waterfalls rushing down to the valley. Such beauty is why so many of the Norwegians with whom I spoke listed nature as an important aspect of their happiness.
When I lived in Norway, people would greet us only out in the countryside, as though the city was stifling them. Fortunately, all cities in Norway are nestled near wilderness, which is easily accessible by public transportation.
Later, when I spoke with Jarle, I understood better why natural beauty is so important to the Norwegian national character. Jarle explained the importance of jordnær, or nearness to the Earth, which includes embracing your past. “My parents were hard workers, fishermen and farmers. Happiness is about accepting who you are: your family history and what your past is. Don’t deny where you are from and what your parents have done to get you where you are,” he said.
Much of this involves a constant celebration of all things Norwegian, such as Syttende Mai.
Knut told me about Sakte-TV, or “Slow TV,” with cameras filming the seven-hour train ride from Bergen to Oslo and the 134-hour coastal steamer trip from Bergen to Russia. “Now they’re filming the salmon spawning, the reindeer herds moving, and someone knitting a sweater. I don’t know of anyone who watched it,” Knut admitted. As I traveled again on the train trip between Oslo and Bergen, shooting blurry photos out the window, I understood why Norwegians would want this beauty to enter their living room.
Being out in nature is considered a right in Norway, enshrined in a law called allemannsretten, or “everyone’s right” to roam free. No one absolutely owns the land since anyone can come and camp there for a night. “You just need to clean up in the end and not sleep on the farmer’s doorstep,” Jarle told me.
Lesson 3: Take vacation
Time off, presumably to spend in nature, is codified in Norway as well. “Leisure time is respected by the government,” Kari Smith said. “We use the nature and we have the money to enjoy it. We have three weeks of continuous vacation.” Employers are required to give employees at least 25 days of paid vacation annually.
Many Norwegians told me, “Det finnes ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlige klær,” or there is no bad weather, only bad clothes. In other words, you have no excuse not to go outside. The rainy day in the fjords only heightened the drama when the sun poked through. Kids in damp Bergen typically trudge around in raincoats, pants and Wellingtons. Norwegians often have their skis ready to go as soon as the snow falls and the famous “Norwegian rucksack” packed for an adventure with a sweater, swimsuit, umbrella, and perhaps a smørbrød (sandwich) and thermos of hot cocoa. Jarle said, “I pack a bottle of Champagne, too, for all sorts of surprises.”
Lesson 4: Share the wealth
Denmark has consistently been the happiest place on Earth, so why did Norway take the prize this year? Minnesotan teacher Emily Helgerson, who is teaching in Copenhagen, asked the question of her third-grade Danish students.
“They only got it because they have so much money,” little Buster complained, and his classmates Rebecca, Sophia and Parsa enthusiastically agreed. They assured their teacher that Denmark is still better.
Stine Hølmoy, a 24-year-old from Geilo, Norway, disagreed. “No! It’s that we’re equal and no one has so much more money than someone else.”
“It’s not just the money,” Kari Smith told me. “You can get sick without having to worry. We don’t have to have the daily struggle of how is it going to be tomorrow.”
Still, it doesn’t hurt to have nearly a trillion dollars saved in the government pension fund. Jarle Nesvaag pointed out that this money from the state-owned oil company “can’t be invested in tobacco, fracking, ammunition, but only ethical investments. We’ve invested heavily in hydro power, high tech, batteries, curing cancer. … Norway is the only major country with no foreign debt.”
Knut Bull pointed out that the pension fund is thanks to Farouk al-Kasim, an oil engineer from Iraq who married a Norwegian; he knew Norway needed foreign investment to establish drilling technology, but also knew not to sell it to a foreign country and to plan wise investments early on.
Sissel Robbins, a Norwegian teacher in Trondheim, said, “The government is only allowed to use 3 percent of the oil fund every year to balance the budgets. I think most people pay their taxes and fees with pleasure, knowing that they get so much back: free education through college, a generous pension, free hospital treatment, generous parental leave of one year at full pay.”
Lesson 5: Embrace a communal spirit
When I asked Norwegians why they are so darned happy, their answers began with “we” rather than “I.”
While many people base happiness on how they are doing compared with others, Norwegians seem to want everyone to do well.
“You have to know about dugnad,” Knut told me cryptically. This old Norse word essentially means volunteer work. “All neighbors chip in and help because you never know when you’ll need help. You have few resources, so you may need some in the future. This is why Norwegians seem eager to pay taxes.”
“There are always freeloaders, though,” Knut confessed. “I think that perhaps we Norwegians have become a bit smug since we consider ourselves so peaceful and helpful. It’s not so nice when Norway considers itself a bit better than other places.”
“I don’t agree with you,” wife Inger rebutted, and explained that this openness to helping others is the essence of Norway’s success. “We have a willingness to give up part of ourselves for the whole.”
When I considered if this Norwegian model would work to help make the U.S. “happier,” Jarle responded, “I don’t know if our system would work in America since Scandinavians, with Finland and Iceland, are only about 25 million people compared to 320 million in the U.S. Maybe, one state — perhaps Minnesota? — could do it!”
Eric Dregni is the author of “In Cod We Trust,” “Vikings in the Attic” and most recently “You’re Sending Me Where? Dispatches From Summer Camp.”