Imagine a world where our bosses urged us to get out of the office early on a Friday and gave us an extra two days off, just so we can take a skiing trip down to his cabin. This idyllic scenario is a reality in Norway, one of the happiest countries in the world.
Norway was ranked third in the world happiness index in 2019 and is currently fifth as Finland shot to the top. It’s no coincidence that 4/5 of the world's happiest countries are Scandinavian. Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland are all in the top five. This is partly due to the large emphasis placed on living life outdoors, in nature.
The Norwegian philosophy on experiencing the outdoor world is called “Friluftsliv” (pronounced FREE’-loofts-liv). This translates to:
‘A life in the fresh air’.
The word isn't as complicated as it sounds or that hard to pronounce either. Breaking it down, it actually has three key components.
- ‘Fri’ means ‘free’.
- ‘Luft’ means ‘air’
- ‘Liv’ means ‘live’.
Living in the fresh air (or ‘Friluftsliv’ as we will refer to it) is a philosophy engraved into every single aspect of Norweigan society. Henrik Ibsen, a Norweigan playwright from the 1800s was the first person to mention Friuftsliv, but the idea has had an integral role in Norweigan society for 5,000 years.
Despite the worldwide modernization, the Norwegians have managed to keep the simple life in nature, without damaging or harming it, embedded in their souls.
Placing importance on nature has been so essential for the Scandinavian countries that I’m surprised we keep on losing touch with nature elsewhere in the world. Perhaps this Nordic philosophy will change how you approach your mental, spiritual, and physical wellbeing, through living a simple life.
Friluftsliv is everywhere in Norweigan society
We have all heard, throughout our lives, that we have to go outside because it's ‘good for us’, but this is also followed by a lack of emphasis in general society and culture. Immersing yourself in nature seriously aids physical health, cognitive function, and mental wellbeing. The fact that Norway is one of the happiest countries on earth should come as no surprise to us.
However, it does come as a surprise to us. Our cultures are radically different from the Scandinavian ones. Norway has even passed an act to promote Friluftsliv and make it an integral part of everyone's lives. The 1957 ‘Right to Roam’ act was passed along with the Outdoor Recreation Act.
This grants citizens and tourists access to all nature in Norway, on private or public land. There are no restrictions on where you can camp. Everyone is free to camp or forage for wild mushrooms wherever they please.
This is starting to sound like a fairytale land at this point.
‘Why can't my government care about my time in nature so much?’ I thought to myself when I discovered this.
The harsh reality of other countries:
I remember just last summer, I tried to go camping with my friends by just picking up a backpack and not booking anything. We simply got onto a random train that we knew would take us deep into the British countryside.
As you can guess, this was a terrible idea. We were instantly met with the wonderful sight of angry British farmers screaming at us whenever we tried to ‘free camp’ in a nice area.
Needless to say, it failed. We resorted to getting a 2-hour uber ride to Brighton (a major seaside town in England) and rented an air b&b. A shameful failure of a camping trip.
Perhaps in an ideal Nordic world, my experience would have been radically different. I find it quite sad that there seems to be a lost connection with nature in most countries.
Create Friluftsliv on your own terms:
However, it isn't all doom and gloom. You can create your own experience of Friluftsliv by simply venturing out your front door. As long as you make being outdoors a primary focus in your life, you are following the Friluftsliv philosophy.
‘I live in a major city! This is impossible for me’, you may be thinking. Well, I live in the megacity of London. Sure, it's not as easy for me as it is for the Norwegians to venture out into pristine untouched nature, but even cities have large green spaces. The only thing is that it may be harder for us city rats to get to the heavenly, obscure, raw nature — but it isn't impossible!
Norway has something called ‘frilufts barnehage’ or ‘forest kindergarten’. Most parents send their kids here, where the children are fully immersed in nature for over 80% of the time. Societal attitudes in Norway are far more laid back, relaxed and liberal due to this.
Friluftsliv contributes to this mindset because it slows down the busy dog-eat-dog world that we live in. From a young age, the Norwegians are taught to appreciate the abundance of pristine nature around them.
This plays into their development, perhaps showing us how progressive we would be if we spent more time in the beautiful outdoors. Just some food for thought.
How I rediscovered Friluftsliv:
Ever since this global pandemic has shut the world down, I’ve started to explore my own area more. This is the reason why I’m sharing this article with you — because a curious fire was lit in my soul as I began to focus on exploring the outdoors.
I was absolutely mesmerized by the natural beauty I was so oblivious to see during the normal, pre-covid, busy life. The repeated lockdowns really allowed me to just find pleasure in being outdoors (going for walks in your area is permitted) and I am ever so grateful for this.
I know that if everyone in our society focused on spending time outdoors as much as they focused on hitting work deadlines, we would all be more relaxed, happy, and loving towards each other.
How you can use Friluftsliv to live the happy, simple life
The simplistic beauty of Friluftsliv is how open to interpretation and adaptable it is. It may mean something different in Norway due to how beautiful and sparsely populated their country is, but even for city rats, Friluftsliv can be a beneficial endeavor.
Living in a capital city with close to 9 million people, I have found my own Friluftsliv from long walks in parks. Friluftsliv doesn't have to be Ice fishing from a frozen lake, scaling a glacier, Hiking 6 hours to a desolate cabin, or off-grid camping. It can literally be a 30-minute stroll in your closest local green space.
Research has found that spending 20 minutes in an outdoor park, even with no physical activity, is enough to significantly improve wellbeing. Well-being scores rose during the park visit in 60% of people, with an average increase of about 1.5 points (from about 37 to 39).
Fighting the seasonal blues with Friluftsliv:
With Summer seeming like a distant memory, a lot of people can unknowingly suffer from SAD (or Seasonal Affective Disorder) without knowing it. The weather conditions that winter brings along, especially the lack of sunlight, can have massive impacts on your mood. Combining this with extended periods of national lockdowns, it’s a recipe for disaster.
Believe it or not but humans are seasonal beings. Those unexplained wintery feelings of sadness in the deepest pit of your existence can perhaps be explained by this.
This is again where the Norwegians are one step ahead of us. Part of the Friluftsluv philosophy is to combat this. They already know the power Vitamin D has on mental health. Norweigan winters are extremely dark, cold, and can seem very depressing to some.
Far up in the North, they don’t even see the sun rise in the peak winter months. That's right, months on end of a dark gloom, or as they call it “The Polar Night”. However, seasonal rates of depression are at all-time lows in that region.
This is because they find the beauty in it through Friluftsliv. They refuse to let SAD hit them whilst experiencing a potential three-month-long ‘Polar Night’. As a result, they are one of the happiest countries.
The importance of sunlight and life balance:
Getting out when it's sunny prevents the chances of letting your serotonin levels dip. A lack of vitamin D is associated with this.
Being outside for even 20 minutes a day to feel the remnants of the sun hit your face will really boost your mood. Through being in sunlight, you get an extra release of serotonin by having special areas in the retina triggered.
The Norwegians have an activity that works hand in hand with Friluftsliv. It’s called ‘Solveggen’. It directly translates to ‘Wall of the sun’. This is where they will simply turn to the sun and face it with all their glory, allowing the light to flood through them to feel all the wonderful benefits.
No matter how urbanistic or busy your life is, you need to find balance. Balance in everything is the way you should aim to live your life, and this rule especially extends to spending time outdoors.
As I said, a park is an ideal place to go if you're in a busy city. I wouldn't be writing this right now if it wasn't for my newfound obsession with being outdoors. The mental benefits I’ve experienced from my daily 1–2 hour walks are something all of us should be wanting to experience.
The mental serenity and stillness you feel will make this short period the highlight of your day. Maybe if the philosophy of Friluftsliv was written in every countries constitution (as it is in Norway), the world would be a better place. In fact, not maybe, I’m sure of it. Get outdoors at the next possible time you can! You can thank me after your walk.
Closing thoughts on Friluftsliv
Living freely and in the open air, is what life is about. We weren't created to be cradled inside a blanket in the comfort of our own homes, nailed to Netflix and eating junk food.
Our souls are connected to the natural world. We have a duty as human beings to immerse ourselves in the outdoors and connect with it. The connection that will be felt with nature is far deeper than any other.
This goes hand in hand with preserving the beauty of it all. As much as we can enjoy it, it's equally (if not more) important to preserve and respect it. Be mindful of your sacred ecosystem.
It's our home after all, why would we want to wreck it? Here's my framework for fully living out the philosophy of Friluftsliv.
- Plan the time: Scheduling even the tiniest amount of time to be outdoors makes it so much easier. As you schedule it in a diary or notebook it becomes a set in stone plan, so there are no excuses to do anything else.
- Forget the music and podcasts: To fully feel the immersion in nature, you need to be invested in the moment, not in a podcast episode. This way your thoughts can flow as free as the wind and you can finally try to grasp the beauty in front of you.
- Explore: Even if you think you know what your area has to offer, I promise you there's more you haven't come across. Be adventurous and find those special little hidden places. They’ll become your newfound sanctuaries of undisturbed peace when you do.
Leave behind all your preconceived notions of trying to make things complicated to live a fulfilling life. The Norwegians have proved that living in a simple manner with the natural world weaved into our souls will bring us to our happiest.