Why Are Norwegians So Happy?

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Stop what you are doing. Close your eyes and take a minute to think about how you are feeling at this exact moment. What was the first thing that came to your mind? Stressed? Sleepy? Joyful? How about happy? And if happy did not come to mind, now think about something that makes you happy. Maybe it’s coffee, puppies, or taking a vacation? On our recent vacation to Norway, it was clear how happy their citizens were. But I was curious to know why. Why are Norwegians so happy? This week’s post is going to explore this idea of being happy in more detail.

A few weeks ago, my mom told me that she hoped I would find a job that will keep me busy and help my mind stay in a “work mode.” It has been seven weeks, and I am not even close to getting a job offer. In the meantime, I am having fun throwing myself into writing. Today’s post will combine three of my favorite “work mode” things: creating visualizations, using information and data, and telling a story.

norwegians are happy

Before our vacation, we read that Norway is considered the happiest place in the world. Move aside, Disney. There are facts to back this up. According to the UN’s World Happiness Report, Norway consistently ranks in the top five happiest countries each year. This annual survey asks citizens of 156 countries different questions and uses the answers to determine how happy each country’s citizens are. As a data nerd, this is some pretty exciting stuff! At number 23, France. And America? The answer may surprise you. It is number 18. In the last place is Afghanistan, but that is probably not a surprise to anyone.

When looking at data, the most important thing you can do is understand the “why.” Without understanding this, data is just a number on a screen. We need to ask ourselves, “Why are Norwegians so happy?”

The World Happiness report is over 200 pages long. In short: it found that the top-performing countries rank high in the following categories: income, life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust, generosity, and well-being. Sounds simple enough, right? These are all quantitative things that were measured. But let’s talk about some things that aren’t as easily measured in the survey.

achieving work-life balance

Let’s take a look at the obvious first: work-life balance. I am the type of person that likes working. I’ve worked since I was fifteen, and outside a couple of years in college, this was the first time in seventeen years that I have not had a job. I consistently pushed myself to the brink of burnout, but I did it to get ahead. I had the mentality that I should work hard while I am young. The reality is this: I was always exhausted, constantly sick, and very stressed. The companies I have worked for were still good to me, but maybe I was not being fair to myself. This is why I am interested in understanding the key to happiness.

We have established that I have not been successful at work-life balance. But let’s see how Norway compares. I chose four different areas to research: annual working hours, average commute time, the quantity of mandatory time off per year, and how much paid maternity leave the country provides. Just for kicks, let’s compare Norway to America.

Across all four categories, Norway comes out on top. Norwegians work less, commute less, get more time off, and receive an actual paid maternity leave. Instead of a work-life balance, it is more like a life-work balance. I think these essential pieces can definitely contribute to why Norwegians are so happy, don’t you?

why is norway so happy. norway vs america

Obviously, comparing Norway to America is not a one-to-one comparison. Norway is a more socialist country, whereas America is capitalist. This means Norway has many of their basic needs already met. However, what works for one small country might not work for a large country.

These are also not things that we can directly control. My annual working hours are currently zero, my average commute is also zero, and so I would argue that less also does not equal happiness. So, let’s continue.

A modest country

Another reason that Norwegians may be happy is that they tend to act modestly.

Storytime! While on our trip, we drove through the world’s longest tunnel. The Lærdal Tunnel is 24.5 kilometers long (15 miles). The tunnel has different sections lit up in blue to help break up the long drive. We knew ahead of time that we would be driving through the tunnel. However, there was nothing special to indicate that we were about to navigate through the world’s longest tunnel. In America, there would be a large sign before the entrance of the tunnel commemorating this accomplishment. I am confident there would even be a pull-off area where tourists could take a photo with the sign. In Norway, there was only the standard tunnel sign with the name and distance of the tunnel. Boring. 

This is not the only scenario where the Norwegians are showing their modesty. The town of Å is the southernmost island that you can drive to in the Lofoten Islands. Pretty cool, right? No sign. The world’s northernmost settlement Ny-Ålesund? How amazing! Not even a plaqueAlthough I did buy a hat to commemorate the experience. 

Norwegians are modest about most of their accomplishments. Norway even had roundabouts in their tunnels, which is absolutely something to write home about (they didn’t). The only overt bragging we saw on our trip was about burgers. Every restaurant claimed to have the “best” burger in Norway.

This modesty has a name, and we will explore this next.

the law of jante

Not only is Norwegian culture filled with folklore, but also with an idea called Janteloven. This concept, also known as the Law of Jante, is ingrained in many Norwegians from a young age. At a basic level, it’s a set of rules created in the 1930s for how Norwegians should act. However, the rules were circulated throughout Norwegian culture long before they were officially written down. These are not official laws but are still widely known and accepted in Norwegian society today.

jante law norway happy

Whoa. That’s a lot to take in, right?

As an American millennial, I was taught the exact opposite of all of these growing up, save number eight. It’s never cool to laugh at others. In essence, Norwegians have been taught to be modest and not show off. Whereas in America, millennials learned, “anything you can do, I can do better” from Nike.

But how does the Law of Jante influence Norwegian’s happiness

put society first

It seems that by following these guidelines, they ultimately are putting society before themselves. This social code also explains some other road signs that we saw while in Norway. There may be electronic signs on highways in America that simply say, “don’t drink and drive.” In Norway, the signs have more human emotion tied to it.

The signs typically have photos of people as well as the message. An image of a child fading away with the statement, “over fartsgrensa?” that translates to “over the speed limit?”. At first thought, these road signs were creepy. We saw them everywhere. But now that I understand more about the Norwegian culture, I know why these images were used. The road signs are merely encouraging you to put other’s interests in front of your own interests. Simply, be happy by looking out for others. 

norway signs on road
Over the speed limit?
norway signs on road
Share the road
norway signs on road
Wear your seatbelt

be selfless

In America, boomers and millennials are considered the “me” generations, but in Norway, the citizens are focused more on “we.” There is a shared sense of community, and Norwegians don’t hesitate to help a neighbor out. In America, there is frequently the attitude of first asking, “what’s in it for me,” before following through.

Think about the last time you did something for someone else. It is a great feeling! Try to chase that feeling by being selfless and generous. That’s how I loosely interpret these guidelines. Continue to selflessly do things for others. Be generous with your time. These types of actions will lead to happiness.

don’t boast

I mentioned that Norwegians are modest and don’t boast about their accomplishments. This ultimately creates less hatred and jealousy between each other. In America, it is hard not to compare yourself against others. There’s absolutely the societal pressure to “keep up with the Joneses.”

For me, I drove a thirteen-year-old Subaru before moving to France. The car may have been old, but was still in excellent condition. It got me from point A to B and had everything I needed. Unfortunately, I was continually defending myself to others for driving an older car. People didn’t understand why I liked it and just saw it as ancient. It is ok to be modest. Not everything has to be shiny and new!

the dark side of the law of jante

The Law of Jante has some benefits and provides a couple of ideas on how to be happy. It is not perfect by any means. To me, it almost feels like an anti-empowerment message. I consider myself to be a strong, empowered woman that can do anything. I am not sure I would feel that way if I grew up with these societal norms in Norway. These unwritten rules discourage innovation and individuality. Are Norwegians happy because they just don’t know any better?

achieving koselig

Another reason that Norwegians may be so happy is due to a second unwritten social code, koselig. Koselig does not have a direct English translation, but it is similar to the word cozy. It’s more than a feeling; it’s like a sense of being.

norway koselig

Close your eyes again and think of a happy moment in your life. Think of how it looked and how it made you feel. For me, it is Thanksgiving with my entire family in Tennessee. The smell of my granddaddy’s homemade pecan pie fresh out of the oven and the sound of laughter that fills the room. The feeling when someone says something so funny that one of us ultimately chokes on what we are drinking at the moment. A moment where your heart is just really full. Where there is a happy fire dancing in your heart.

For Norwegians, fire is a critical element in achieving koselig. This may look like an open fire or candles lighting up a dim room. Koselig also might look like warm blankets, good food, and better company. Simple things. Norwegians don’t just practice koselig on holidays; this idea is instilled in them year-round. After learning this, it is a no-brainer why Norwegians are so happy. 

let’s wrap this up

Norway might not have it all figured out, but they have a pretty good start. America as a whole may never top the charts for having the happiest citizens. But as an individual, there are simple things that you can emulate from the Norwegian culture to be happy every day.

Focus on achieving a “life-work balance.” Shut your computer and spend time with your family. The work will always be there, but your family won’t.

Try to put other’s interests in front of your own. Our pre-marital counselor also told us that this was the key to a happy marriage.

Stop chasing the Joneses. Try to not give in to the pressure to keep up. If it is not broke, there is no need to fix it!

Chase the feeling of a fire burning in your heart. Find ways to achieve koselig every day.

This final two are the opposite of Norwegian culture. No one is perfect!

Think of what makes you happy and do more of it. It sounds simple, but it’s not. Prioritize time for yourself. 

Celebrate your successes. The Norwegians may not be good at this now, but it’s important to celebrate the little (and big) victories. If you make the world’s longest tunnel, make a sign, so everyone knows!

As we head into the weekend, I am going to try to practice these daily! After all, I already have the life-work balance piece down! Have a good weekend.

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10 thoughts on “Why Are Norwegians So Happy?

  1. I have been joyful most of my life. Most blessed. The Bible says we are to be thankful people. Thank God. Put others first. Count your blessings.
    Your Grandfather Bill used to say, “Mama could be set down in the middle of a cornfield and be content.”
    Company here today. I’m thinking and will probably have some more to say later. Keep up the good work.

    1. Reading your blog made me happy. Although I sort of feel like I’m always happy. I try to be thankful and stay positive. Feeling good and staying active helps with that. I totally agree with Nancy. Wherever I am, I think “This is my cornfield!”

    2. You are right! As I was writing this, I kept thinking back to the ten commandments. I didn’t know granddaddy would say that. Thank you so much for sharing. I always enjoy hearing stories about his life!

  2. Laura, you brought tears to my eyes today. Thank you for your wonderful writing. You are so gifted. Please keep on using this precious gift to touch people’s lives.

  3. Your blogs are always interesting, educational, and fun to read. Your are indeed a gifted writer. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  4. Thank you for your blog. I am planning a holiday to the Fjords and currently learning Norwegian as a hobby but I am also interested in the culture. Putting others first is such an important Biblical concept; it’s what Jesus did!

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