In the lonely mountain farm, My abundant catch I take. There is a hearth, and table, And friluftsliv for my thoughts.
– Henrik Ibsen
According to The World Happiness Report, Norway is the happiest country in the world. There’s a huge number of reasons for this, from their supportive welfare system to their high average income, but when you ask Norwegians why their country appears to be so content, there’s a very consistent answer: friluftsliv.
Friluftsliv (literally, “free air life” or “open air living”, and pronounced free-loofts-liv) is one of those scandinavian words which which is so unique to a language and culture that it becomes hard to describe in English. Like its Swedish predecessor Hygge (pronounced hoo-ga), friluftsliv encompasses an idea which is both familiar yet near-impossible to put into words.
In short, friluftsliv describes a connection to nature, a strong desire to spend time outside and connect with the world around you. To describe Norway’s infatuation with the outdoors as a “way of life” is, really, disingenuous to the real meaning of Friluftsliv. Friluftsliv is a feeling, a sense of self. It goes far beyond a mere life choice and becomes more like a cultural identity.
In 1957, Norway officially introduced Allemannsretten (the ‘all man’s right’) with the passing of the Outdoor Recreation Act. This right to roam means that in Norway you can go on skis or foot wherever you want provided you are within unfenced land – this means all land that isn’t privately owned (like a garden) or cultivated land being used to grow crops or rear animals. In the winter months, when Norway is transformed into a white blanket of snow, Allemannsretten is extended to fields and meadows. Not only can you go wherever you please, you can also set up camp and sleep everywhere except in lay-bys or cultivated fields so long as you remain over 150 meters from the nearest house. If you want to stay another night, you need to ask permission from the owner of the land (unless you’re in a remote area).
It’s well researched that spending more time outside is better for your overall mental and physical health, yet in the UK, lots of people avoid going outside unless they have to. Going outside is part of a chore, of a larger pattern. You need to walk to work, you need to take the dog out, you need to bike to the train station to visit your family. This isn’t friluftsliv – friluftsliv means going outside because you want to, because nature calls to you, not because you need to.
In the UK there are fewer wild spaces than ever, and it can often be difficult to “get lost” in nature in quite the same way as our Scandinavian neighbours. In the UK, where our population is fifteen times that of the Norway’s and our land mass smaller, there simply isn’t the space for rolling wilderness. If you’re very lucky, you might live near a patch of National Trust land which (save for the odd sheep) will be left as nature intended. So, if you don’t feel like emigrating to Norway, you’ll have to start looking for nature a little closer to home.
There’s a surprising number of wild spaces in the UK if you just know where to look – the lofty peak district, the rambling chilterns or the Cornish Heritage Coastline. There’s something very atmospheric about finding yourself alone in nature – be it the middle of a deep wood, atop a mountain doused in clouds or perched on a cliff watching the sea beat at the rock. Finding land which is completely untouched by humans can be difficult in the UK: you can see the annals of human history spelled out before you in the land itself in ancient stone circles or crumbling tin mines. Sometimes, despite our best intentions to run away from the effect of people on the world around us, it has an unerring way of following us. It shows us that humans have, for thousands of years, been wanderers. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.
On my way to work I used to travel through a strange patch of wilderness on the outskirts of Wokingham; partly a dirt track through fields and partly through an actual wood. When you grow up in a busy town with only man-made outdoor spaces (which tend to be flat, grassy affairs), finding a wood feels almost like a miracle. On the way home after one particularly stressful day, I thought to myself there’ll always be another bus, and let myself get lost. At first I followed the little dirt paths and then I decided to forego the paths entirely and just wander whichever direction I felt like.
Wandering through the woods was freeing. I was there for no reason other than that I wanted to be there, crunching through the leaves and running my hands along trees older than my great-grandparents. I followed a robin hopping from branch to branch and spent a good ten minutes chasing down a strange noise which turned out to be an angry squirrel – something I’d never heard before. I walked past the same group of ramblers three or four times, who’d at first looked at me (dressed in my work clothes and unsensible shoes) like I’d gone mad, and then started to greet me with the rambler’s head nod. This is what friluftsliv feels like.
There’s a sense of freedom synonymous with Friluftsliv which is what makes it so appealing. A sense of disconnection from the rest of the world and contentment with being at one with nature. Our lives are driven by purpose – we have to do this, we must do that – and so when that falls away and the only purpose is to simply exist, it’s a lot easier to feel content.
No one’s asking that we all suddenly rise from our desks, leave our jobs and run away to live in the woods. Sure, it sounds like a great idea now, but soon enough the last phone will run out of battery and then we’ll all be stuck with nowhere to watch Game of Thrones. Whether you live in the middle of London or in the concrete jungle of Milton Keynes, there’s always a place to find a bit of nature. Every town or city will have a park somewhere, even if it’s just a small patch of land in between office blocks and rows of terraced houses. The thought of going outside and standing in the garden in the middle of winter doesn’t necessarily fill people with inspiration, but finding and supporting local wild spaces is easier than it seems.
In the harsh winter months it can be tempting to stay indoors and avoid the chilly bite of the cold air. But in Norway, where the temperature regular dips into the minus digits (currently standing at a brisk -7°C), spending time outside is simply the done thing. As the Norwegians say – there’s no bad weather, just bad clothing. So it’s time to swap those jeans for a pair of practical waterproof hiking trousers, the slippers for a sturdy pair of boots and get outside to get back in touch with nature.
Lotti works with the Primrose Product Loading team, creating product descriptions and newsletter headers.
When not writing, Lotti enjoys watching (and over-analyzing) indie movies with a pint from the local craft brewery or cosplaying at London Comic Con.
Lotti is learning to roller skate, with limited success.