The concept of friluftsliv – or “outdoor life” – is as Norwegian as cross-country skis and woollen sweaters. Learn how it can make you a happier person.
Get out. Get going.
Get that happy grin on your face.
Friluftsliv is not just a thing. It’s a whole philosophy. A way of life.
It’s a commitment to celebrate time outdoors, no matter your age or physical condition …
… and regardless of the season and weather forecast.
… to peaceful pursuits like berry picking, walking the dog, and spending a night – or an afternoon – in a hammock.
Connect. Calm down. Clear your head.
In Norway, friluftsliv is the most preferred leisure activity, with higher participation than every other sports activity altogether.
Relax. Refresh. Re-energize.
The expression friluftsliv was invented by the famous Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen in the 1850s, who used the term to describe the value of spending time in remote locations for spiritual and physical wellbeing.
But the concept of being in nature for purely recreational purposes has been part of Norwegian culture for centuries.
“Today, nine out of ten Norwegians state that they are interested in friluftsliv”, says Bente Lier, secretary-general of Norsk Friluftsliv, an umbrella organization for 18 Norwegian outdoor organizations.
But what exactly does the word mean?
“Friluftsliv is not connected to a specific activity. For Norwegians, the word has a deeper meaning, like ‘disconnecting from daily stress’ and being part of the cultural ‘we’, which binds us together as human beings as a part of nature”, Lier tells.
As a philosophy, friluftsliv is basically about a simple life in nature without destroying or disturbing it. The concept is also tightly connected to “kos” (cosiness) – the unique Norwegian word for having a good time.
Friluftsliv is an incorporated part of our national identity, and the love for the outdoors is reflected in all aspects of our lives.
Let’s give you a few examples:
The Norwegian right of access (“allemannsretten”) has been part of the Outdoor Recreation Act since 1957. It ensures that everybody can experience nature, even on larger privately owned areas.
The main rules are easy: Be considerate and thoughtful, pick up your rubbish, and show respect for nature and people.
Friluftsliv has its own law, Friluftsloven, which includes the right to roam.
Norway has several outdoor kindergartens (friluftsbarnehager), where the children spend 80 per cent of the time outdoors.
Many Norwegians look for an active partner, and it’s not unusual to go hiking or cycling on the first date.
In Norway, we have government-sponsored “libraries” where you can borrow outdoor gear.
The Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT) has more than 260,000 members. Each year volunteers work for more than 550,000 hours doing maintenance on DNT’s 550 cabins, marking trails, planning trips et cetera.
In Norway, you can take a bachelor’s degree in friluftsliv.
“It’s quite amazing that reconnecting with nature and having an outdoor lifestyle is still part of the Norwegian soul despite this very modern lifestyle that Norwegians have today”, says French-born author, blogger, and lawyer Lorelou Desjardins.
When Desjardins moved to Norway nine years ago, she promptly got curious about the locals’ passionate love of nature: how virtually everyone seemed to hurry off to a mountain cabin at 4 pm (no later, to avoid the traffic) each Friday.
During a TEDx talk in Trondheim in 2018, she talked about her own relationship with friluftsliv, and how she went from a workaholic city-girl who didn’t like the countryside to a friluftsliv enthusiast who loves spending her spare time in nature.
“Friluftsliv is one of the reasons I decided to settle down in Norway”, says Desjardins, who had lived in nine different countries before she entered the north.
Experts have long known that spending time in nature has a positive effect on both our physical and mental health.
“The physical benefits of friluftsliv are invaluable because it most often includes some form of physical activity. But equally important are the mental benefits”, says Lier.
She refers to a study that shows that being in nature has clear positive benefits both in reducing anxiety and improving cognition.
Several Norwegian studies show that one of the main motivations for taking part in friluftsliv is the wish to experience peace and calm. In a public survey from 2020, nine out of ten Norwegians reported that they felt feel less stressed and in a better mood when they were spending time in nature.
“What happens when we pay attention to nature, is that we shift our focus away from ourselves”, says Helga Synnevåg Løvoll.
Synnevåg Løvoll, who is an associate professor in friluftsliv at Volda University College, has done several studies on emotional, spiritual, and aesthetic experiences when practising friluftsliv. She reveals that sitting quietly in the woods can be as good for our health as running up a mountain top.
“When we manage to be present and take in the beauty of nature, we achieve a sense of satisfaction.”
Breath in, breath out.
Right here, right now.
Synnevåg Løvoll says that the five documented ways to wellbeing can all be expressed through friluftsliv:
Friluftsliv may help explain Norway’s ranking among the world’s happiest places. In UN’s 2020 World Happiness Report, Norway came in at number five, while Bergen and Oslo made the top ten of the world’s happiest cities.
“I think it is fair to say that friluftsliv is a contributor to Norwegians high level of happiness”, says Lier.
But what about cold, dark and wet days?
In Norway, we have four distinct seasons – and a whole lot of weather. Friluftsliv, however, applies to 365 days of the year.
Using lousy weather as an excuse for staying indoors, is simply not an option in most Norwegian homes. If you happen to complain, you’ll likely hear the well-known quote: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing!” (In Norwegian, it rhymes.)
In an interview with National Geographic, Stanford University health psychologist Kari Leibowitz said that Norwegians are equipped with something she calls the “positive wintertime mindset.” People with this attitude “see the opportunities of the season”, stated Leibowitz, who learned to cope with the contrasting weather of Norway when she lived a year in the Arctic city of Tromsø.
Another person who knows everything about extreme weather and temperatures is Sigmund Andersen, who has spent the last 20 years in Svalbard as an IFMGA mountain guide and associate professor at UiT The Arctic University of Norway.
“What’s unique about our cultural approach to the outdoors is that we’re trained to be dynamic. We must always make, and often change, our plans according to weather”, he says.
For Andersen, friluftsliv is a lifetime project and dedication. He has spent more time in the wilderness than most of us can imagine and says that friluftsliv is crucial to his wellbeing.
“I feel calmer when I connect with nature. I experience a sense of accomplishment when I complete challenging trips, and joy when I see beautiful views or witness how the sky, colours and weather change.”
As a tour guide, Andersen’s mission is to convey that great nature experiences don’t need to be anything extreme.
“I think – first and foremost – that we must learn to slow down. We don’t have to be so ambitious about how far or fast we are moving. That’s not what friluftsliv is about.”
Instead, take your time …
Due to the temperate waters of the Gulf Stream, Norway has a much milder climate than other parts of the world at the same latitude. The coldest areas in the winter are often inland or far to the north.
In general, the coastal areas usually have relatively mild winters while the inland parts have cold winters with plenty of snow, and hot and relatively dry summers, especially in the eastern parts of the country.
… to take in the vast views and tiny details nature has to offer.
Open the door. Step outside.
And try the noble art of friluftsliving.
Alexander Read and his young daughter Mina Floriana received the award “Årets villmarkinger” (Wilderness people of the year) in 2019, for inspiring Norwegian children and adults to explore the outdoors. Read their story and get useful friluftsliv tips!
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