We covet their TV shows, design, work/life balance and social structures. So how can we inject a bit of Nordic magic into our terribly British lives?
Words: Caroline Corcoran
Imagine that it’s Friday afternoon and you’re leaving work at 2pm. Your friends have all logged off too, and a group of you are heading to a log cabin for a cosy weekend where you’ll forage for mushrooms, sweat it out in a sauna and wander in a forest. And rather than it being a one-off, this is how your week regularly ends.
When you paint this kind of picture of the Nordic lifestyle, it’s no surprise that in the 2016 World Happiness Report, four out of the top-five countries to live in are from this region, with Denmark at number one, Iceland at three, Norway at four and Finland at five (Sweden sits at number 10). It’s little wonder then, that the rest of the world is obsessed with emulating the lives of our Nordic compatriots, with US president Barack Obama last month calling the Nordic nations “extraordinary countries”, and recently suggesting we put them “in charge for a while and they could clean things up”.
So is it possible to bring the best bits of the Nordic lifestyle into our everyday lives without upping sticks? Louisa Thomsen Brits, author of The Book Of Hygge: The Danish Art Of Living Well, believes it is – we just have to get back to basics. “We Nords pare things down to the essentials, like the people we love and the quality of our daily lives,” she says. “Then we find what our natural rhythm is and ahere to that with absolute integrity.”
Thomsen Brits isn’t surprised that post-financial crisis, we are looking to mirror a society that is less preoccupied with wealth and more focused on things like contentment, individual freedom, natural food and fresh air. “A key part of emulating Nordic health, happiness and wellbeing is realising that, on the whole, we are not materialistic,” she says. “That’s to do with being engaged with the natural world and incorporating it into your day-to-day.”
Anu Partanen, author of The Nordic Theory Of Everything: In Search Of A Better Life, says that this originated in the Seventies as Nordic societies tried to become more egalitarian. “It started with equality in education, health care, parental leave, gender equality and creating a society that everyone is proud to be part of – and now the results are starting to show,” she says, citing the pan-Scandinavian policy of paying higher taxes for better public services. “Everyone has access to the same facilities – your future is not determined by where you live, connections or if your parents are rich.”
Granted, we don’t live in a country where happiness is legislated, but there are things you can do, eat, drink and think about which can bring a bit of simplicity and contentment into your every day. Here are six ways to Nordify your life…
Get Viking fit
Nordic-inspired exercise routines are having a moment in the UK, from Swedish Fit classes based on the method of exercising in a circle around the instructors to The Viking Method, an intense training programme based on achieving the toughness of the Icelandics. Despite being a country of just over 330,000 people, Iceland has won the World’s Strongest Man competitions more times than any other nation and holds the 2015 Fittest Woman On Earth title.
Emulating that level of mental and physical toughness is at the core of The Viking Method, which uses techniques like crawling, kickboxing, leap-frogs and switching between aerobic and anaerobic resistance training to work your body to its maximum. Expect to sweat and grunt your way through the programme, with founder Svava Sigbertsdottir pushing anyone who holds back. If that sounds too hardcore, the female personal training team Scandinavian Fitness, led by Swedish former Olympic rower Linda Hedenstrom, focuses on crawling, weight training and the twisting movements used in skiing, all performed in the great outdoors. “We train outdoors, do consultations outdoors, that’s the Nordic way,” says Hedenstrom. “It’s great for cardio health and lung capacity – you have to work harder to keep warm, which makes you more efficient.”
Sigbertsdottir agrees. “When you train outside in a place like Iceland, you get internal satisfaction because you set difficult goals and then you smash them. With The Viking Method, you learn to be confident in your abilities and trust yourself in all areas of your life.”
Be more Nordic:
Eat local and seasonal fare
When Rene Redzepi’s Noma was named the world’s best restaurant in 2010 (and in 2011, 2012 and 2014), the world twigged that Nordic cuisine was leading the way. “Noma made people think about Nordic cooking in a new way, about getting back to the ingredients we have available and about looking to the seasons more,” says Simon Bajada, chef and author of new cookbook Nordic Light: Lighter, Everyday Eating From A Scandinavian Kitchen (out 1 July, Hardie Grant Books).
“There are such distinct seasonal changes here that it’s really exciting to go, ‘What’s happening this week?’ And see what you can do with that cabbage or elderflower or lilac,” he says. “I think Nordic eating is popular in 2016 because the techniques and ingredients used give you a much healthier, cleaner way of eating.”
And with New York’s two-Michelin-starred Nordic restaurant Aquavit soon to open in London alongside other food spots like The Harcourt and Scandinavian Kitchen, plus a shelf-full of Nordic cookbooks released this summer, eating the Nordic way has never been simpler. With a focus on locally sourced, in-season and foraged wild foods like berries and mushrooms, Nordic clean eating is all about simple food, cooked from scratch – concepts anyone can emulate at home.
And like all things Nordic, there is an egalitarian ethos at the core, with foods like fish and seafood, grains and fresh fruit and vegetables widely available and reasonably priced. Eating more grains is an easy way to add a Nordic twist to mealtimes, with the added health benefits of lowering cholesterol and blood pressure and aiding digestion. The Deliciously Ella-advocated cookbook author Alex Hely-Hutchinson, whose book 26 Grains (out 8 September) focuses on cooking with grains like rye and oats, was inspired after living in Denmark, where these foods thrive.
“There is no elitism in this style of cooking,” she says, “and that reflects how things are in these countries generally. When I lived in Copenhagen, I was blown away by the lack of class structure and how everyone was working towards a common good. It’s no surprise that this kind of food is big in these countries because it’s about using what is affordable, available, local and in-season. It’s also something that is easy to cook for yourself or for a table full of family or friends.”
Be more Nordic:
Cook up an Icelandic feast using recipes from Reykjavik chef Gunnar Karl Gislason’s cookbook North: The New Nordic Cuisine Of Iceland (£30, Ten Speed Press); be inspired by the gorgeous photography of Darra Goldstein’s Fire + Ice: Classic Nordic Cooking (£27.50, Ten Speed Press); or pick up The Nordic Cookbook (£29.95, Phaidon) by Magnus Nilsson, head chef at Swedish restaurant Fäviken. Simply being more seasonal in your food choices is a start: mint and blackcurrants are in season right now.
Be at one with nature
A huge part of Nordic lifestyle is about being in the great outdoors. In Iceland, most towns have an outdoor swimming pool; in Copenhagen, 50% of residents commute to work by bike; in most schools in the Nordic countries, learning to ski is mandatory; and in Finland, weekend forages are the norm, despite the kind of weather that for many of us in the UK signals pyjamas and Netflix binges. “In Helsinki at the weekend, everyone goes foraging,” says Partanen. “While in London your social media might be full of friends at the latest pop-up, mine is people competing over how many mushrooms they’ve found.”
Unwelcoming weather doesn’t hold locals back from getting into nature – it simply makes them work harder. “In the UK, we tend to see bad weather as an obstacle but in the Nordic countries, it’s just an excuse to do some cross-country skiing,” says Leanna Barrett, who after reading about the Nordic ‘forest school’ model, where children make fires and hunt for bugs as part of the philosophy of ‘friluftsliv’ or open-air living, founded London’s first outdoor nursery, Little Forest Folk. “The outdoors makes you healthy, coordinated, gives good stamina and a focus on what’s important in life. The Nordics know the benefits of that. Get the right gear and you realise that actually you can do anything outdoors, all year round.”
“Nordic people are very connected with nature,” agrees Gill Stewart, Director of Nordic Walking UK. “It’s simply part of life but there’s a mindfulness in being outdoors, too – you focus on where you are and forget that you just happen to be exercising.”
Be more Nordic:
Sign up to one of the forest school courses for adults around the UK at bridgwater.ac.uk/forestschool, where you’ll commune with nature and learn essential outdoor skills.
Recently, the UK has adopted the almost untranslatable Danish concept of hygge as our own, with Hygge candles on sale in John Lewis, shops like Love + Hygge popping up on Folksy and colleges teaching the concept as part of Danish language classes.
But what does hygge (pronounced ‘hue-gah’) actually mean? “It’s the main ingredient in a happy life,” says Danish wedding-dress designer Mette Baillie, and the most typical form, she says, “is lighting some candles, making a pot of tea and snuggling up on the sofa to chat”. The Little Book Of Hygge by Meik Wiking (out 1 September) defines it as “comfort, warmth or togetherness… the feeling you get when you are cuddled up on a sofa with a loved one in warm knitted socks in front of the fire when it is dark, cold and stormy outside.”
For Thomsen Brits, it’s summed up as “a quality of presence and an experience of togetherness. It is a feeling of being warm, safe, comforted and sheltered. To hygge is to invite intimacy and connection. It’s a feeling of engagement and relatedness, of belonging to the moment and to each other.” Any clearer? “Hygge is a concept universal to us all – it’s just that the Danes just happen to have a word for it,” she says.
Be more Nordic:
Make a ‘hygge-corner’ in your house with cushions, blankets and low lighting. Invite your friends over and ask them to bring their favourite dish. Serve with pots of tea and/or glasses of red wine.
Don't be hindered by indecision
If you regularly feel your stress levels rise as you debate between the 150 restaurants you’ve found on TripAdvisor or the five black tops in your Outnet basket, Partanen’s experiences on struggling with anxiety for the first time when she moved from Finland to the US will strike a chord.
“I initially thought it was just me, that I wasn’t tough enough, but when I looked around, I saw a whole nation of people struggling with their mental health,” she says.
While there were many factors at play, one key thing she thinks fed the anxiety was getting used to the huge amount of choice in the US and its resulting sense of constant indecision. In Nordic countries, schools are on a par with each other and hospitals are equal.
“If you trust the state to look after the basics, people can focus on other areas of their lives, like hobbies, good food and wellbeing,” says Partanen. “It gives you immense freedom and far less anxiety.”
Be more Nordic:
When making decisions, set a time limit on any research involved, then rate your options from one to 10, based on which would do you the most good. Partanen advises regular breaks to somewhere with plenty of space to take a break from the conversation.
Cleanse your body and mind
For Finns – a country with three million saunas and five million people – barely a day goes by without spending a good couple of hours observing the rituals of the sauna.
This involves doing four or five circuits of hot/cold with 10-20 minutes in the 80-110 °C temperature of the sauna, followed by 30 seconds in the icy plunge pool – the juxtaposition helping blood circulation and getting your heart pumping.
“If you leave enough time for the sauna experience, it is exceptional at relieving stress,” says president of the International Sauna Association Risto Elemaa. “It is also an equaliser – no matter what you’ve done with your day, everyone is the same when they are naked and sweating out the day’s stresses. Sweating is important for human beings. You wash before and afterwards and with the sweating, you get very clean. And if you let them, saunas can also cleanse you mentally.”
While it may be difficult to find an authentic sauna in the UK – in Finland the steam comes from pouring ladlefuls of water over hot stones, rather than using infrared light, which is common here – the same stress-busting feeling can be achieved through spas, yoga or a good workout.
Minna Skirgård, founder of Scandoir lifestyle retreats, believes that the Nordic way of life can teach people a few lessons about wellbeing and healthy living. “People need retreats, yoga, meditation and mindfulness right now because the sort of life they have been living is not sustainable,” she says. “They need more balance and that’s what Nordic people are great at; eating healthily but having treats, working productively but knowing how to relax and switch off.”
Be more Nordic:
Book a Scandoir retreat in Idöborg, Sweden, for 23-30 July 2016 (from £999 per person; scandoir.com), where you’ll take traditional wood-fired saunas, go kayaking in the crystal water around the island’s archipelago, do forest yoga twice a day and eat clean, Nordic vegetarian food. Scandoir also runs retreats in the UK, where you can get the Nordic experience closer to home.
Photography: Getty Images, Laura Lajh Prijatelj/HDG Photography