What Norway Taught Me About Happiness

Lately Norway was announced the world’s happiest country, according to the report made by UNO. Wow, how did it happen? I wouldn’t call the local population the happiest of all I have seen – but these are the results of the study. I wonder, what brought Norway to the 1st place. And I also wonder why the top 5 of the happiest countries is occupied by Nordic countries: Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Finland. What is their secret? It got me thinking, and thinking hard. I am not a social scientist (though I am a proud holder of the half-done master in sociology :)), so I don’t want to start a discussion here that lacks the scientific basis – instead, I want to share my understanding based on my personal experience. Experience of happiness in Norway.

The easiest way to explain that result is by the Norwegian oil money and high income, but that would simplify the whole thing way too much. The money can explain a lot – but not everything. And while BNP per capita and levels of education and medicine service are important for the studies that proclaim Norway the best country for living, they are not enough to justify the subjective feeling of happiness. Money cannot buy happiness, but the certain amount of money is necessary like a good fundament on which a person can build a happy life. But when I think of the results of the study, I don’t compare Norway to the African countries or even my own Ukraine. I compare it to the UK, Germany or Spain (which is on 34th place). If it was oil money in a country enjoying the Mediterranean climate, the rich cultural life and the vibrant social environment – then we would not have this discussion at all. But the North is the place of harsh climate, long dark winters, short rainy summers, highly introverted culture – and these things are important for feeling happiness. So how do the Nordic people do it?

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Karl Johan, the main street of Oslo

People complain everywhere. And people also live everywhere and survive there where they complain (for me complaining is the sign of the situation that is bearable. If it were unbearable, you would do something to change it). But the strategies for survival are different. My own theory is that there must some kind of balance that makes your life bearable.

For example, if you live in Spain you can complain about lack of employment and unstable economical situation – but then you can go out on the sunny terrace of the local bar, buy a cheap coffee and have a chat with the neighbors there. So yes, the life is hard, but it balanced you out so that you will not go home and shoot yourself. If you live in Norway, you can come back home from work (that pays well) and complain about snow in March and that you lack vitamin D – but there is no sunny terrace, no local bar, and no neighbors to start a random chat with. So what do you do? There are two options: you either go down with the ship, sink in depression and alcoholism (by the way, Denmark and Iceland are topping the lists of countries using antidepressants), or even consider a suicide – or you take the life in your hands and you DO something. You balance yourself out. You go to the gym to get some endorphins, you call a friend to organize a meeting (the friends are often booked weeks in advance, because they also have to organize their lives, so you schedule a catch up in a week or two), you check the events invitations on Facebook. Since it is not easy to make friends in random situations, you join a club or a salsa course. They say that it is not possible to organize a dance festival in December because everyone is booked four weeks in advance. Of course, they are booked! It is the darkest month of the year, with the light day from 9 am until 5.30 pm, and there is no guarantee you will see the light during those days. It can be very depressive, so you keep yourself busy with Christmas workshops and markets, concerts and whatever you can schedule. In summer if it rains a lot you go to the sun studio to get some light for your brain, and you make sure you travel to some sunny place.

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spending Sunday on the lake Sognsvann, Oslo

Here also enters the famous Scandinavian hygge. The joy of the small things. The coziness and the small things  – what else? When there are no carnivals in February with music and lively squares in each neighborhood (like in Barcelona), no ferias when the whole city is dancing and celebrating (like in Seville, Malaga and more), and there is cold wind in the streets instead of the chatty crowds. You learn to appreciate the cozy rug and the aromatic cup of tea, a good book by the fire, burning candles and pretty cushions. You set out daffodils on your balcony in March, when the weather is still cold and not really spring-ly. And on every sunny day in summer you drop everything and hurry to the nearest park – to sit on the grass, enjoy an ice-cream and, maybe, a picnic with your friends.  In short, you create your own strategies to make the life pleasurable. Like I learnt in my early years here to write a list “Winter Survival Strategies”, with things like candles, scarfs, teas, good movies and books on it – long before the hygge got famous as a concept.

Why do people complain? Maybe, they believe that if they complain the things will start changing. If you complain about the weather, the sun will hurry up, feeling sorry that it made you wait. Like a baby believing that if it cries hard enough, mom will come and pick it up in her warm soothing arms. I don’t mean to say that the Norwegians don’t complain. They are humans after all 😉 But what I learnt from all these years here – complaining doesn’t help. I come from a very complaining culture, and I am too used to complain a great deal. But you know what? it doesn’t help. Or put it this way: you can complain about the rain if you know it will soon be over, and then there will be many sunny days. But if the rain is the only option you got – you don’t complain. You construct your life around it. I spent my first year in Norway in the coastal town of Haugesund, where the rain is almost your only option. In summer, in winter, and in all other seasons too. So I tried to wait it over – didn’t help. I complained about it – didn’t help. In the end, if the thing doesn’t help in the long run, you have to find a new way: your survival strategy. Then I moved to Oslo, not as rainy. I had difficulties finding friends in the first months, I had a problem talking to someone when my guest family was away on vacation, I had long periods of melancholy and loneliness – and I would be very pissed at that time to know that I live in the happiest country in the world. I came all that way – and I felt long away from happiness. And then again, on this new circle, I learnt – complaining doesn’t help.

So this is what I learnt – after so many years. You don’t wait for better weather, you don’t wait till you meet your perfect stranger, you don’t wait until your friend calls you. You take responsibility for your own life and your own happiness. And these lessons didn’t come easy, they came through long periods of melancholy and disappointment. I believe that in every situation we name as “bad” there is a chance to become bitter – or better. So I could go down with the ship – or I could pick myself up by the hair and move. This is the secret of happiness for me. Feeling your agency. Believing that you can change things. Once I heard about an existing stereotype that the Northern people are considered to have a higher IQ because they live during long cold winters on the poor soil and that made them intelligent. I would apply the same argument to explain the happiness IQ (HQ?). In the harsh surroundings you learn to take responsibility for your own well-being, your own balance. And this attitude of agency empowers. While the pessimism of my home country makes people believe that their actions don’t matter.

In his great  Ted Talk “Why are we happy? Why aren’t we happy?” Dan Gilbert talks about our ability to synthesize happiness. I think, Norwegian culture is the great example of doing it. When you don’t wait for “organic happiness”, happiness from becoming successful or meeting a love of your life – but you synthesize happiness in the most difficult circumstances of your life (he has great examples of them in that talk!). As his argument goes, the less freedom of choice you have, the better is your ability to synthesize happiness. So this explains the Nordic happiness to me very well. If we could hang around complaining about life – and still be carried by it – we would surely do it. But I don’t think we can afford hard complaining here, that would be too depressing. So you learn that you have to DO something, to CREATE something, to take life in your own hands. You learn to be pro-active, instead of reactive. So when you are asked if your life is what you would like it to be, you say yes. Because you are an active agent behind it, not a passive receiver. But again, this is my personal story, I would not generalize it over the whole population.

How does this theory resonate with you? Did I forget something? What is your perspective on the happiness of Nordic countries? Share your opinion with me!

12 thoughts on “What Norway Taught Me About Happiness

  1. My subjective appreciation of it is: oil money -> small population and land are with highly conserved nature -> relatively well distributed oil money and development of welfare state -> education -> freedom to travel -> generally a lot of “freedoms” (mainly due to relative wealth, empowerment and autonomy).
    In the end it comes down to money, but not the total sum, but re-distribution. (as you said, all other human factors of happiness are not bigger and better here, or they’re missing altogether)

    But we should do that study of “the human factors of happiness”. Anecdotal. Snow-ball sampling technique 🙂

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    • Wow, I appreciate your analytical, even scientific approach to the matter 🙂 I do agree that the democratic distribution of money and the net of welfare state provide a good basis for people’s feelings of empowerment and autonomy. You can feel like you can create your life as you wish – as long as you feel protected and supported. Which the state does here generously.
      Lol, are you real about “human factors”-study? That would be fun! (maybe, I should start my half-done master thesis about it, haha?)

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  2. I’ve been thinking about your post all day. It parallels nicely with a book I just finished reading – “Poke the Box” by Seth Godin. Over and over he illustrates how “initiative” is the key ingredient to thriving in the world. So yeah – not waiting – the Nordic people don’t just talk about it, they DO.

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    • Thank you for adding to the idea! The book sounds interesting. I believe in the initiative (as a person who used to sit around and wait ;)) – it gives a sense of agency that is so valuable. Maybe, it is not specially Nordic talent – but at least, my lesson here 🙂

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  3. Hmm you’ve got me thinking now. I like the idea of the “less freedom of choice,” and how it relates to happiness. I guess it could go both ways, but how I’m viewing it is less freedom of choice as to do with weather, outside circumstances, ect. If you learn to be happy in the face of things you can’t control, you will learn inner joy rather than having your predisposition determined by external stimuli.

    I’m reading “The Book of Joy” right now by Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama and a lot of it has to do with finding you “inner joy” in the face of great adversity. It’s a good read so far, and has given me a lot to ponder about how I generate my own joy…which is different than happiness.

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    • Great contribution to this talk about happiness! Thank you! The Ted talk I mentioned takes this point of yours: happiness n the face of adversity/unlucky circumstances. And if it is joy or happiness, these are only words pointing to some thing that we cannot see – maybe, there is really little difference between them 🙂 I like your word “generate” – this is exactly what I wanted to say with my (pretty long, hehe) text. I was used to expect joy – and now I learn more and more to generate it. It gives a great sense of agency and empowerment as a side product to joy =win-win 🙂

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      • I agree! Once you can look at adversity with a different mindset and train yourself to think differently about it…you’ve accomplished something a lot of other people have troubles with. I think it’s interesting too because in the book, the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu say that they experience sadness all of the time. However because they’ve experienced such great losses in their lifetimes, it has taught them so much more about joy in the end.

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      • So true! Our notions of what is negative should be revised:) In this life we learn everything through duality, so those who want to learn freedom can learn it by experiencing what freedom is not. Through sadness – joy, through darkness – light, etc. And when I learn to appreciate every lesson of life- well then I am almost Dalai Lama myself :)))

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