Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland and Finland are cold. In winter, the sun sleeps in until 9 a.m., then sets by 3 p.m., meaning most of the “day” is in darkness. To top it off, the 2016 Beer Price Index (yup, there is such a thing) named Oslo and Helsinki as two of Europe’s top 10 most expensive cities to have a beer.
Yet–go figure–the World Happiness Report 2017 has named Norway as the happiest country in the world. Last year, it was Denmark , with Sweden, Finland and Iceland firmly entrenched in the top 10 of that happy list. (The United States comes in at number 14 this year, below Israel and Costa Rica.)
The World Happiness Report, now in its sixth year, is put out by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network and uses a bunch of scientific data to measure the happiness of a population, in which those Scandinavian countries shine.
All this happiness has also led to an international lifestyle trend to be more “Scandinavian,” revolving around a few key words. Unless you’ve been in a coma the last few years, you’ve seen the Danish word hygge on everything from hair color, coffee, cafes and candles to interiors and books, and, to a lesser extent, lagom and fika from the Swedes and friluftsliv from the Norwegians.
What gives with all this Scandinavian happiness stuff and trendy buzz words? We asked around.
“The fact that Norway is ‘the happiest country in the world’” should be taken with a pinch of salt,” says Jon-Åge Øyslebø. He’s the minister counselor for communications, cultural affairs and education at the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Washington, DC. “Norwegian people are not exactly known for being joyful–sometimes they are–but the report confirms that Norwegians have a lot to be satisfied about. And it’s not just about money, but about intangible things, too.”
The money angle, though, does have a lot to do with life satisfaction for Scandinavians. Norway, like the other Scandinavian countries, has a high tax rate–roughly a third of income or more. But the populace agrees to the taxation because of the cradle-to-grave social benefits that everyone enjoys. The benefits? Free healthcare, a year of parental leave with full salary after childbirth–time that can be shared by both mother and father. Subsidized childcare. Free tuition for higher education. Unemployment benefits. Generous pensions, even if you never worked. Home assistance for the elderly. Free nursing homes.
“Scandinavians have a lot fewer things to worry about,” says Michael Nakada. He’s a University of California-Berkeley Scandinavian studies major who is teaching a class to fellow students called “A Danish Guide to Happiness” as part of his senior thesis. “The Danish people don’t have anxieties like we do about paying medical bills, paying for college or saving for retirement. Denmark is a fairly homogeneous society where everyone buys into the welfare state that gets them social services. Most people are satisfied with their lives.”
That Scandinavian satisfaction also has a lot to do with intangible values, says Øyslebø. “Things like equality cannot be measured in money,” he says. “In Norway, we believe in equality on many levels, between genders, between rich and poor. We believe in trust–we trust our government, our politicians, our neighbors and colleagues. We also have a very transparent society and place high importance on press freedom.”
Norway, continues Øyslebø, has a small population but a strong sense of national identity and history.
“Danes trust each other,” says Nakada, echoing Øyslebø’s observations about those intangible Scandinavian values. “People leave their babies outside of restaurants alone in strollers, they let young children play in parks or ride the bus alone. They have that level of security with one another.”
And what about all those trendy Scandinavian lifestyle buzzwords–hygge, friluftsliv, lagom and fika?
“The Scandinavian countries have long had strong global identities as being stylish and fashionable,” says Nakada. He’s not surprised that hygge, a Danish term, was on the shortlist for Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 Word of the Year.
“Hygge [pronounced hoo-geh] is hard to translate,” says Nakada. “It means coziness, warmth and satisfaction that’s experienced in small groups, friends or family.” The term, he says, can be applied to having a small, candlelit dinner with friends or cozying up with a cup of tea in front of a fireplace. It’s a sense of contentment and social connection.”
And, yes, hygge has been commodified of late. Meik Wiking’s The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living is selling like hotcakes (or, more appropriately, like hot Danish waffles). Skandinavisk sells hygge-scented candles and room diffusers, that blend whiffs of strawberry cake, tea and mint. Want a hygge coif? Hygge hair color is big now, too–with soft coppers, rich browns and buttery blond shades all the rage. Hygge coffee, cafes and restaurants? Check, check, check.
A few other Scandinavian terms are creeping into the international lifestyle trend lexicon. “Friluftsliv [pronounced free-loofts-liv] is a Norwegian word for being outdoorsy,” says Øyslebø. “The outdoor life and access to fresh air is a distinguished part of the Norwegian identity. We head to the mountains to ski, we hike, we sail, we go camping.” Just being outdoors, he says, is considered to be healthy and uplifting.
Want a little of that friluftsliv for home? Skandinavisk has candles in scents like Fjord, Hav (sea) and Skog (forest) in case a trek through Norway’s spectacular scenery is not on this year’s calendar. L:A Bruket offers Swedish sea salt and seaweed packets gathered from the Kattegat sea.
Lagom (pronounced lah-gohm) is a Swedish term for just enough–not too much, not too little, moderation. Vogue magazine predicts the word/trend will overtake hygge for 2017. In home decor, it means simple, striking designs, devoid of excess ornamentation. In your freezer, it means eating a small scoop of Chunky Monkey, not the whole pint. In your mailbox or inbox, Lagom, a U.K. magazine, focuses on the balance between work and play.
Fika (pronounced fee-kah) is another Swedish word that means a coffee break, traditionally accompanied by cookies or kanelbullar, a traditional cinnamon bun. Fika is more than just a coffee break–it’s a social institution, meant to be a pause in a busy morning or afternoon. It’s a chance to catch up with co-workers, friends and family. There’s a group of Fika cafes in New York that celebrates caffeine and sweets. Minnesota-based Fika proffers coffees, mugs, teeshirts and a recipe book.
Maybe we aren’t all going to pick up and move to those happy Scandinavian countries. And don’t hold your breath for the United States to adopt those Nordic social-welfare rights in the near future. But in the meantime, we can take a few lessons from our Scandinavian pals to make our own lives a tad happier. Create hygge by lighting some candles, cracking open a good bottle of wine and inviting your nearest and dearest for dinner. Take the time to fika with pals and catch up. Get out for some regular friluftsliv. Most important, make sure your life is lagom.