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Yoga with a view
Yoga with a view.
Photo: lenanarvik/Foap/

Norway jumped from fourth to first place as the world’s happiest country. But why, and has it always been like that?

Historian Finn Erhard Johannessen at the University of Oslo believes Norwegians are the happiest because the standard of living has been raised to a level where we can allow ourselves to relax.

“We have a welfare system that takes care of us, a safety net. When it comes to income and standard of living the inequality is low, and our society is rather safe and harmonious, without internal conflicts. We don’t have to worry, as it cannot go too wrong in Norway. This gives us a fundamental feeling of safety and freedom, both socially, financially and security-wise.” says Johannessen.

Social researcher Ottar Hellevik, the author of the book «The pursuit of Norwegian happiness» (Jakten på den norske lykken), said in an interview with the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet that something has changed in Norwegians’ value orientation since the beginning of the millennium. For instance, he says, more have replaced a materialistic way of life with an idealistic one.

"There is a clear tendency for a more content population. More Norwegians than before believe they could get by on less, and more say they are happier,” said Hellevik to Dagbladet.

World Happiness Report

Published by the United Nations

The 2017 report is the 5th since 2012

3000 respondents in each of more than 150 countries have been asked to evaluate their current lives, using a ladder from zero to ten, from “worst possible life” to “best possible”

Norway was named the world’s happiest country, climbing from last year’s fourth place, surpassing Switzerland, Iceland and Denmark

Six main factors, representing different aspects of life, are being used to measure countries’ degree of happiness: GDP per capita, healthy years of life expectancy, social support (having someone to count on in times of trouble), trust (perceived absence of corruption in government and business), perceived freedom to make life decisions and generosity (recent donations)

Norwegian highlights

In the aftermath of the 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway comedian Are Kalvø made a list of things he appreciates about the Norwegian society. The daily paper Aftenposten then invited its readers to do the same thing, and these were among the most popular contributions:

“That people hang forgotten hats and mittens on trees and fences, in the hope that the owners might recover them.”

“That I once overheard the country’s prime minister introduce himself like this at a party: ‘Hi, my name is Jens, I’m Camilla’s brother.’”

“Immigrants with (Norwegian) dialects”

“That a terrorist attack lead to record-high sales of flowers – not weapons.”

“That everyone has the same opportunity to succeed, get an education and become what they want, without regard to gender, economy and background.”

“Good water”

“That we can say, write, think and mean whatever we want. Loudly.”

“That we can hike wherever we want in forests and mountains, and that we greet whoever we meet on our way.”

“That our king in times of sorrow is seen more as a consoling grandfather than an authoritarian king.”

“That people can be at each-other’s throats in a TV debate, before sharing a taxi home.”

“That when you forget your wallet at the store, you can retrieve it the next day with everything still inside.”

“That the healthcare system doesn’t care about your income, but about how sick you are.”

Before the welfare

A good economy and proper health care have both had an effect on the degree of happiness.

Though not many decades ago the Norwegian health care was miles from today’s welfare system, in some areas based on volunteer work, like housewives' groups doing checkups on newborn infants. Electricity didn’t reach the rural parts until the mid-60s. At about the same time the Norwegian car fleet started growing.

"In addition, the import of commodities increased after years of war. I remember how happy we were when we got oranges for the Christmas party," says historian Johannessen.

In the 1950s Oslo’s population counts revealed how a sizable family could share the same one bedroom apartment which today houses only one person. The toilet was out in the backyard or in the stairway, while several neighbouring families shared a kitchen.

"Yes, it was crowded," says Johannessen, before adding:

"They didn’t even use the space they had. The nice living room was only for when they had guests over. It was important for their self-respect, they wanted to demonstrate that they were doing well."

Terrifying teachers

Another stop on Norway’s road to happiness, Johannessen believes, is the shift away from an authoritarian society.

"When I went to school in the 60s, I was always terrified that the strict headmaster would punish me. And the hospitals back then were almost like military barracks, where patients had to get up at 6 am for a temperature check. Now they rest, perhaps they sleep till 9 and get some breakfast whenever they feel like it," says Johannessen.

He believes the so-called 68s, the generation of radical students in 1968 and the following years, should take some credit for this development.

"Our bosses and teachers don’t frighten us as much anymore. And children can argue against their parents, although this sometimes gets out of hand."

Johannessen chuckles.

Future optimism

"What about Norway makes you happy?"

"Well, right now I'm spending Easter in the mountains near Valdres, so I would say beautiful and untouched nature. That’s probably high on many lists. I’m actually on my way up on the mountain plateau to ski."

"So, what is it about the Norwegian nature?"

"Maybe it’s how it gives you a sense of freedom, while using your physical strengths? You get in touch with this ancient instinct, something inside us that gets lost in the city life," says Johannessen.

"And in the years to come, how do you think life will change in Norway?"

"Most people don’t think there’s a chance for an even better life 50 years from now, but I do. Many historians are optimists because the society has always improved. I think we'll solve the problems we worry about today. And we’ll have even more time on our hands to enjoy other sides of life, like cultural and social aspects."

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