Why are these Vikings so HAPPY?

Well, if you haven’t been buried under a stone this week, you’ll know that the Norwegians are officially very happy people, validated by the United Nations in their World Happiness Report 2017.

Yeah yeah, there have been a plethora of videos released making it look like most Norwegians live in a nice coloured house on a fjord, walk with polar bears and reindeer daily, and as for those nightly Northern Lights, it’s just normal standard really. You just get used to The Lights after a while, I suppose you might even get tired of that wondrous sight when you see it sooo often.

Well, surprise surprise, not everyone in Norway lives like this. Many people live in densely populated blocks of apartments, particularly in cities. A picture-perfect house by the water is way beyond reach for most. Winters are long and cold here with short days and often little daylight.  You can’t drink your way through it as frankly, booze is much too expensive. It’s a big country and the Northern Lights are way up north somewhere. Taxes are high and it’s a rough place to be a wolf as there is always someone trying to cull you.

I always thought the word happy described something momentary, like, you know, the feeling you have when you try on new jeans and the shop mirror lies and tells you that you have lost 7 kilos in an instant and look weirdly like Kate Moss.  It’s momentary, miraculous even, you’re in for a major shock when you look in the mirror at home later but that’s OK, right now, it’s just happiness, Kate.

Then it translates to contentedness for a more long term effect, you know when the job is going well, you’re having a good run with the in-laws and the kids are following about 30% of your instructions without flat-out rejection.  Life is good and you can safely beam in smug contentedness as you have it all sorted.  But whatever you want to call it, being content or happy, I think the Norwegians have a great dose of both and here’s what I have learned after my 3 years and 355 days living here.

1.Queuing leads to misery.

They are not great at queuing here and look how happy it makes them. Think of all the stress that comes with forming an orderly queue for a bus when you are trying to get to work, “How many people are ahead of me… Is she really trying to jump the queue… I’m gonna thump that guy in a minute… That’s it, it’s WAR!.” and so on. Oh, the stress levels. Meanwhile, these chilled out Norwegians are busy not forming any queue and thinking about cabins in the mountains, fish, skiing and plans for the weekend. If you are waiting for a bus here, it’s up to yourself how you want to push forward to get on first, even if there are 20 people ahead of you, everyone gets on in the end. No-one minds, as long as you do it without making bodily contact with another, vital point that.

2.What is that thing called corruption?

Fear that the people running your country are absolute goons can cause fright, panic, despair and general depression, the very antitheses of happiness. Once again the Norwegians have this sorted, they actually trust their government to rule with honesty and transparency and in the best interest of the country. Of course Norwegians moan about politicians the same as the rest of us but this is more to do with policies and preferences, and not to do with allegations of dishonesty or corruption. There is institutional trust of the government and this seems to be the case regardless of which party is in power.

I read a book recently on the Norwegian oil industry and why they were able to develop such an effective strategy for dealing with the country’s oil wealth. Economist Petter Nore^ has a view that gaining control of revenue for the benefit of all Norwegians came down to the country’s competent and non-corrupt civil service. He confirms that there has not been one single example of irregularity or corruption relating to the national civil service in the oil and gas industry. When I think of all the hours I’ve spent drinking tea (or Guinness, it has to be said ) bemoaning systemic corruption and bribery in Ireland, I can understand how the lack of a need for this would lead to inner happiness, albeit with great thirst.

3. People are fundamentally reasonably sort of OK, trust them a bit.

It’s OK to leave your unlocked bike clearly visible in the garden overnight, your baby sleeping in the pram in the garden unattended, your house unlocked – even at night. We have left our door open, probably too happy at the time to slither to the door to turn the key.  A premise that society is fundamentally good and people are fundamentally honest seems to be a cornerstone belief here. It’s hard to over-emphasise the peace of mind and day-to-day happiness this brings.  In places like Ireland, Germany, the U.K, you’ve needed a coin to get a shopping trolley for years. Supermarkets lost trust in all of us long ago and decided the only option was lock-down. In our local supermarket here, it was introduced in 2017. This was possibly due to the number of non-Norwegians in the area who took the trolleys off home for a spin and expected them to miraculously find their way back on their own, which they didn’t. That was a black day when we realised that from now and forever, you needed 10 kr, that you never have on you as it’s a cashless society, to release a trolley here. The husband said there was no going back to the good old days now, distrust had somehow crept in and those free-living hazy days when you could coinlessly waltz in to the supermarket with your trolley were over. Not a great day for happiness but we are dealing with it.

4. No need for conflict, just get on with it.

Norwegians are notoriously conflict shy, so their stress hormone – cortisol – level must be lower than the rest of us. In my experience, they are just not interested in arguing about the small stuff.   I was at my son’s karate class a few weeks back and the instructor, for the 3rd time since October, called out names of kids who still hadn’t submitted the required paperwork. The lady sitting next to me grumbled that this was the 3rd time she had filled out the form, she got up and marched across the gym, I held my breath as I thought she was going to give the guy a right piece of her mind. Nope, up she marched and then veered left as she reached him to take another copy of the form to submit again. To me, it was so Norwegian. It’s about picking your battles, well, preferably never having any. It doesn’t mean that Norwegians are walkovers, absolutely not, they are kind and rational and will of course get wound up if the situation warrants it, then you are in BIG trouble.  But not wasting time on stupid conflicts must surely make for a more sunny, contented, outlook on life.

5. It’s not all about me. Really?

The Law of Jante, or Janteloven, as the unofficial Norwegian social law is called, is something all Norwegians live by. It advocates putting society above the individual. It’s not in a communist sort of way that you have no right to an individual opinion or don’t even count as an individual, it’s more that you shouldn’t think that you are really special or better than anybody else. Because if you think you are the bees knees, then you may well mock, deride and look down on others as you feel entitled to, due to that big ego of yours. And this is not good for society.

I asked a Norwegian friend recently to look at some project information I was adding to my CV. She immediately started to suggest amends, explaining that here in Norway, you don’t say ‘I did’ and ‘I managed’ when it comes to team achievements, even if you managed the team and did a great job.  Don’t take individual credit like you are better than the rest, the better way to say it is that  ‘the project was delivered’ in a passive voice, suggesting team effort and harmony. That’s how subtle Janteloven is. After 4 years here, I have yet to meet an annoying big-headed egotistical Norwegian, I’m not sure they even exist. They are too busy focusing on things that matter like fresh air, kids, and getting their work done within allocated hours so that they have balanced down-time every day. It makes for an effective low-stress society.

6. A technically smart country

All I’m going to say about this one is that my bank issued an ID for me that I use to access not only my bank account but also my tax records, the Norwegian social welfare system (NAV) and the school website so I can see my son’s school reports.  It’s like I’ve fast forwarded to this dream world where organisations collaborate with each other and put the ordinary citizen central to making life stress free. How did they become so clever here, I’m still figuring it out.

So in a nutshell, I am not surprised that Norway came top of the pile on the happiness stakes. Happiness here is about a sense of safety and trust, going about daily life in a calm non-combative uncomplicated sort of way. As an immigrant, it takes time to learn the subtle codes and what the unsaid means but you get there by paying attention and adapting. Of course, things like a good public school system and free university education add to overall contentedness here but it’s about attitude to life more than anything.

Now I’m off to have afternoon tea with a polar bear.


^ Cleary, P (2016) Trillion Dollar Baby, London. Biteback Publishing. p47.


  1. Margaret Poulsen

    Norwegian happiness in a nutshell, interesting reading for an Irish immigrant that has been happily living here for nearly 38 years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *