Why embracing the great outdoors makes Norwegians happier and less stressed: and how it can work for you, too

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The Stylist web team
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We’ve long been told that the Scandinavian way of life is the key to a happy and fulfilled existence. But, while the trend for Danish ‘hygge’ is omnipresent, it’s heading into the great outdoors that is more likely to benefit us. Stylist contributor, Emma Lavelle, makes her case for the Norwegian concept of friluftsliv.

Unless you’ve been hibernating this past year, you’ll have noticed that the Danish concept of hygge has dominated the popular consciousness. Although, if you have been hibernating, there’s a chance you’ve already been dedicated to the practice of hygge.  

The untranslatable hygge (pron. ‘hoo-gah’), can be described loosely as a ‘feeling of togetherness,’ the type of moment encapsulated when you’re sitting around with friends drinking warm cups of tea – and has been interpreted by many as a ‘sense of cosiness’. We’ve been told that hunkering down for the winter and creating sanctuaries inside our homes is the best way to live this value and survive the chilly season.

It’s certainly appealing when temperatures dip below double figures. But the idea that we should take cover indoors just because it’s cold outside is not entirely in line with Scandinavian values. In fact, the Norwegians have long celebrated being outdoors, regardless of the weather.

Spending weekends admiring the views from mountain peaks, cross-country skiing through frosted forests or huddling around an outdoor fire with a group of friends is the norm in Norway, where people live by the concept of friluftsliv (pron. ‘fri-loofts-live’).

Another one of those words that it is impossible to directly translate the meaning of, friluftsliv literally means ‘free air life’.

It captures a deep understanding and closeness with nature that is inherent to most Norwegians, describing a way of life that is predominantly spent outdoors appreciating the great wilderness that surrounds them.

First seen in print in 1859 in a poem entitled On the Heights by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, the word has crept into the zeitgeist to become part of everyday vocabulary.

Friluftsliv is based on our basic survival needs to interconnect with nature,” says Hansi Gelter, a Nature & Friluftsliv Guide and Professor at Luleå University of Technology in Sweden. “In Scandinavia, where people still live close to nature, and we have free public access to nature, friluftsliv is a natural part of our lifestyle.”

Despite long, dark and cold winters, Norwegians typically don’t shy away from spending time outdoors.

Gelter explains how living in such close proximity to nature helps to encourage people to head outside regardless of the weather. Although only 20% of Norwegians live in rural areas, even those who reside in large cities such as Oslo are surrounded by parks, woodland and fjords. It’s said that you only have to walk for an hour out of a city centre to be surrounded by wilderness.

It’s important, however, to experience nature as the early Norwegian explorers such as Fridtjof Nansen would have done. Zipping around the countryside on snowmobiles followed by soaking in an outdoor Jacuzzi doesn’t really count. It’s more about getting back to nature and interacting with your surroundings than simply being outside.

Ona Flindall is a 32-year-old architect living in Oslo who thrives when spending time outdoors. She spends her weekends catching the tram out to the forest where she and her friends enjoy a morning of skiing before building a fire upon which they grill sausages and warm cocoa. After enjoying a kvikk lunsj (a sort-of Norwegian Kit-Kat; there’s even snacks that are intrinsic to friluftsliv), they put their skies back on and head home.

That’s just a typical Sunday for Flindall. Longer adventures have includes hiking through mountains, cross-country skiing in the middle of winter, mountain biking expeditions and spending a night in a snow cave.

Why is spending time in the wilderness so much more common in Norway than it is here?

Part of the reason could be that Norwegians simply have more free time. “We have a working culture that supports flexible hours and where overtime is not encouraged. We work to live, we do not live to work,” Flindall says.

There’s also a general ethos of wellbeing that is ingrained in Norwegian society. It’s understood how being among nature can reduce stress, boost creativity and increase happiness; exercising outdoors is actively encouraged. Flindall talks about how family activities and socialising within work are centred on friluftsliv.

Her workplace even has access to cabins in the mountains that can be rented at affordable rates.

Friluftsliv is ingrained in Nordic culture from an early age. The Norwegian education system includes time spent outside learning to swim, ski, map read and camp. Children spend time in the woods and in the wilderness; something in Britain that you would only see in Forest or Steiner Schools.

By the time they reach adulthood, Norwegians are well-drilled in the art of embracing all things nature. Caspar Odqvist, founder and managing director of clothing store, Nordic Outdoor, and co-owner of Swedish outdoor accessories brand, Light my Fire, reiterates the old saying that “there is no bad weather, just bad clothing.”

“Scandinavian outerwear companies make sure their garments are stylish as you’re more likely to wear that functional jacket if it also looks good, meaning you’re always prepared if the weather turns,” Odqvist says. This means that you’ll spot locals clad in performance-wear even when wandering around Oslo. A far cry from the streets of London where most people wouldn’t be caught dead wearing an outdoorsy fleece.

And this clothing can be used at  all times of the year in Norway. Whereas summers may be spent hiking, jogging or foraging outdoors, the drop in temperature over the winter months helps to provide suitable conditions for embracing friluftsliv through sports such as cross-country skiing, ice-skating or snowshoeing. Long dark nights are catered for with lights illuminating popular ski trails such as in Nordmarka forest north of Oslo.

The law of allemannsrett (‘all man’s rights’) allows all Norwegians the freedom to roam throughout the country when travelling by foot or on skis. People are also able to picnic and camp wherever they please, encouraging time spent outdoors without boundaries and rules. Fishing, hunting, foraging and gathering are all just as friluftsliv experiences as hiking, skiing or kayaking.

According to the World Happiness Report, Norway is the fourth happiest nation in the world, a ranking determined by multiple factors including life expectancy, freedom and social support.

It is no coincidence, however, that a nation so consumed with spending time outdoors lists so highly.

Trailing miserably behind, the UK comes up at number 23. That can’t all be put down to hunkering up indoors, but the low priority that we give to friluftsliv means that we have less exposure to those endorphin-boosting green spaces that the Norwegians lap up.

We may find it harder to designate time to spend outdoors with our long working hours, but it’s more about attitude than anything else. We’re a nation of hermits who love nothing more than long lazy lie-ins and Netflix-and-chill on our days off. We’re over-worked and under-paid and often find that we don’t have the energy to head out to the hills in search of adventure.

The best way to embrace a little friluftsliv in your life is to make a conscious effort to spend time outdoors every day, slowly building up your exposure to nature until your feet feel itchy when you’re cooped up inside. Walk to work rather than sitting on the bus, take the dog for a walk in the evening before you get settled for the night, spend your lunch break taking a brisk walk around the nearest green space.

Even when the wind is howling and you can’t bear the thought of leaving the cosy nest that you’ve built in your living room, force yourself to head outdoors with a positive attitude. Feeling hungover? The fresh air will clear your head. Suffering a creative block? Being among nature will get your creative juices flowing. Bored? There’s nothing more stimulating than a little friluftsliv.

Five ways to embrace friluftsliv into your life

You don’t have to live in Norway to embrace the Great Outdoors

1. Walk it out: Try walking to work rather than relying on public transport every day. If your commute is too long, consider walking to the next train station or bus stop as opposed to your closest one.

2. Wrap up: Invest in a warm, water-proof yet stylish jacket by a renowned Nordic brand such as Fjällräven or Didriksons that will help to encourage you to step outside when the weather’s miserable.​​​​​​​

3. Buddy up: Find a friend who also wants to spend more time outdoors to encourage each other to embrace friluftsliv with simple activities such as taking an evening stroll in the park together.

​​​​​​​4. Find a hobby: Take up a hobby that encourages spending time outdoors, such as photography, foraging or wild swimming.

​​​​​​​5. Set a quota:  Make a New Year’s Resolution to head out into the wilderness once a month for a hike. We’re surrounded by rugged mountains and rolling hills including the Lake District and South Downs National Parks – why not make the most of the spectacular scenery that surrounds us?

Photos: iStock