Which countries are happiest? Believe it or not, there’s actually a report for that.
The most recent World Happiness Report was released in 2023, using data collected from more than 150 countries. Researchers at the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network ranked nations based on their citizens’ self-evaluated levels of happiness over the previous three years. Scandinavian countries like Finland and Denmark ranked among the happiest. The U.S. came in at 15th.
This particular report was especially notable, coming in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. After scores of people were forced to slow down their busy lifestyles, many have reevaluated the idea of what makes them happy.
“People are rethinking their life objectives,” John Helliwell, one of the report’s authors, told CNN. “They’re saying, ‘I’m going back, but what am I going back to? What do I want to go back to? How do I want to spend the rest of my life?’”
And as people pose that question, here’s another one to consider: What is it about, say, Norway, that’s led its citizens to report such high levels of happiness? Doesn’t that country have long, dismal winters with some days getting as many as 17 hours of darkness? Why are its citizens reporting the highest levels of happiness?
It probably has a lot to do with intentionality.
The Norwegians are known for concepts like hygge, a lifestyle practice of rest and coziness. Norway’s citizens so prioritize their right to rest — cuddling under blankets or warming one’s hands around a bonfire — that they’ve coined this term to describe it.
And they have another lifestyle practice, with its own descriptive word: friluftsliv (pronounced free-loofts-liv) — which we might translate “free air life.” This Norwegian cultural behavior is about getting outside and enjoying nature. Go to #friluftsliv on Instagram, and you’ll see thousand of examples of people camping, hiking and picnicking in the great outdoors. While these blue-sky images are appealing, they don’t quite capture friluftsliv in all its glory, because part of the experience is enjoying nature whatever the weather.
Kari Leibowitz, a health psychologist who researched winter wellbeing in Norway, found that cold weather actually correlated with more happiness.
“My work found that the further north people lived, the more positive their view of winter was – and that this mindset that ‘winter is wonderful’ was associated with life satisfaction and psychological wellbeing,” she told The Guardian. “My time living in the Arctic, in Tromsø, exposed me to a culture that largely embraces and enjoys the winter season. It taught me a new way to experience the darkest months of the year.”
But it’s not necessarily the cold weather that makes Norwegians happy. The weather conditions are beside the point. Whatever nature has in store, enjoying the outdoor pursuits of friluftsliv eases the stress of everyday life and bonds people together in this common, shared cultural practice.
And majority of Norwegians do in fact take part. A recent survey found that 77% of them spend time in nature weekly, and 25% reported spending time in nature “most days,” The Guardian reported. Since spending time outdoors has been shown to boost mental health, it’s little wonder that they’d report high levels of satisfaction with their lives.
No doubt there are many factors involved in achieving happiness, but it does seem that Norwegians are on to something!
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