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Lessons We Can All Learn from Nordic Culture

Writer: Natalie Chevrel

The Nordic countries are often described as what successful democratic socialism looks like. Many studies show they have the happiest people in the world, despite bad weather conditions. The quality of life is higher for a greater number of people. So what are they doing right?

There are words that exist to describe and encompass what Nordic / Scandinavian culture entails, and these may serve as an explanation for their overall happier lives:

1. “Lagom” is used in Sweden to describe how much a Swedish person needs to be satisfied or happy. The common phrase to answer this is : “Just enough, not too much or too little.” The idea of not having excess is found in Swedish society, economics, business management and other spheres of life.

A famous Swedish writer, Toru Ville, explained this concept vividly by telling a story of a cat who kept chasing his tail. The tail was a metaphor for happiness. The moral of the story was that we should not chase happiness. Instead, we should move on and live life, and happiness will follow (just as the tail will follow).

Through his story, Ville recommends to keep our income and spending in balance, to cut down on our energy and water consumption, to reduce our garbage, and to reuse old things instead of buying new ones.

2. “Arbejdsglæde” is the Danish way to love your job. It means the ability to enjoy what you do for a living by getting along with your colleagues and supervisors, performing your duties the best way you can, and improving your skills. Danish employees are the most satisfied in the world. Some reasons are they work shorter hours, get paid vacation, and “stress leave” exists (CNBC Health and Wellness). Granted, none of these things are for free, as Nordic countries pay some of the highest taxes in the world. However, most are okay with it because they get great public benefits in return.

3. “Friluftsliv” is loving Mother Nature the Norwegian way, by spending time alone in nature in order to return to one's “true self.” During this nature trip, Norwegians discourage taking so many selfies for social media. Moreover, instead of mindlessly watching TV or browsing the Internet, they encourage having chocolate and then going for a long walk, as it is more productive for your inner harmony.

4. Although the Netherlands are not considered as part of the Nordic countries, they share many similar values. “Gezelligheid” is the Dutch way to enjoy closeness.

Happiness is basically synonymous with unity with their loved ones. They truly value friendship and have Dutch proverbs that show it: “Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.” “Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.”

5. “Hygge” is now a popular word used to describe comfort and good moments. It is in fact a Danish custom that can mean many things, according to Meik Wiking, founder of the Happiness Research Institute (VICE News). These include being consciously cozy, creating a nice atmosphere, and pursuing everyday happiness. It also means socializing for introverts, being together with the people you love, relaxation, indulgence, good food, gratitude, and equality.

Seeing as most of these practices are aimed at improving the mindset and essence of individuals, it is surprising to note that most Nordic nations are not very religious. They do have ritual ceremonies, and thus religion in these countries is more something of tradition than of Faith. They have a clear separation of Church and State. Additionally, most Nordics are irreligious, but not atheist, as many believe that there is a greater force that once put us here. With increasing immigration, however, the role of religion in their societies is often changing (

As it seems for now, most Nordics live in the present, try to find peace in what they do, put out good into the world, but do not pose much thought into eternity or what comes next, after this life is over. If they do, they do it privately, at home.

Some say this is because without much to be worried about, people rely less on Faith to be supported or fulfilled. Another reason for this could also be that the strong implementation of separation of Church and State in all aspects of society has instilled a sort of secularism in most people.

When it comes to values, the Nordic countries all value egalitarianism. This includes equality between men and women, smaller inequality between rich and poor, and a great emphasis on equal opportunities. For instance, children who have a harder time learning cannot be expelled, but instead are given extra attention.

With this mindset, comes also the reality that Nordic tradition is against the success of the individual and instead fights for guarding the collective or the group. This is rooted in Jante Law, a literary element that includes 10 “laws” which establish that doing things out of the ordinary or being personally ambitious is unworthy and inappropriate. This can be seen in the cars Nordics drive, the way they dress, and in how they behave. Greatness and arrogance is not encouraged.

This idea of stomping on individualism is something completely shocking to American culture. In the U.S., individual expression and the pursuit of doing what one desires in order to reach their own “success” is engrained along with the ideal of freedom. This individualism and freedom translates into our fashion, way of life, and even tax structure.

Knowing that Americans value freedom and individuality, companies take advantage of these values, and we see these results through mass consumerism. Fast fashion is an example of a rapidly growing industry that thrives off of the idea that more is better. They promote the idea that the individual is constantly changing how they look in order to establish who they are in society and clothing is the way to express that. The reality is, we need only be ourselves, and change our inner reality, and those who love us will love our essence. Although fashion can also serve as a way of expressing an identity, we must learn how to do so sustainably.

Moreover, the U.S. tax structure is in constant debate because many say our “freedom” and “individual success” is “at stake.” Nordic countries understand that at a certain point, additional income does not lead to improved quality of life. Instead, a tax structure that helps the most vulnerable is important so that more people can have access to a better quality of life.

In Nordic countries, one waits their turn in line, as there are no special exceptions. They understand that at the end of the day, no matter how many diplomas you have or what your income is, you are not better than the person next to you. Some argue that this way of thinking may hold people back from pursuing the life they want to live, as you have to give up some things in order for others to live with dignity. The Nordics, known to be the happiest people in the world, show that you don’t need to be at the top to be happy. Instead, valuing the members of your community even if you may not know them personally can instead bring you peace, gratitude and ultimately, happiness. They understand that every person is worthy of dignity and their laws must therefore reflect that.

With Nordic countries valuing a good quality of life for all, some realities are paid maternity leave, a great high school education for everyone, free universal healthcare, government funded childcare, and unemployment aid. All of these work to support and prioritize the family, the basic unit of society that needs to be cared for in order to build a better world.

Along with protecting the family, Nordic countries understand the importance of caring for our Earth. This is why governments invest in renewable energy and establish sustainable practices in public places. As an example, in the south of Sweden, about 40% of households get their district heating from garbage. Everything is recycled and very few things are thrown away (Sweden Actually Turns Its Garbage Into Energy). In Iceland, almost all electricity is produced using renewable energy sources, with 73% of electricity provided by hydropower plants and 26.8% from geothermal energy. This accounts for over 99% of total electricity consumption in Iceland (Watch Netflix’s “Down to Earth with Zac Efron” episode on Iceland). Of course, Iceland’s different environment allows for all of these practices, but it took leaders and CEOs who prioritized co-existence with the environment for all of it to be implemented.

When it comes to law enforcement, Norway’s prison systems seem to be very successful. The reason is that they focus on the criminal’s rehabilitation, instead of punishment. In fact, when criminals in Norway leave prison, they stay out. It has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world at 20%. In comparison, in the US, 76.6% of prisoners are rearrested within five years. Some criticize Norway’s system because it seems to not establish justice for the victim or victim’s family. Those in favor counteract this argument by asking: “Every inmate in Norwegian prison is going back to society. Do you want people who are angry, or people who are rehabilitated?” (Business Insider).

All in all, the Nordic countries have numerous ideas, practices and ways of living that other countries can admire and implement:

Finland has one of the top education systems, by providing less homework, and more leisure time to be a kid. Equality is their mentality, and therefore they put women in positions of power. Security is key in their policies, as they provide great public schools, free public healthcare, paid maternity leave, and paid unemployment. In Helsinki, Finland, homelessness was eradicated (The city with no homeless on its streets). Also, there exists such a thing as a “Baby Box”, which is given to all Finnish mothers when they give birth, and includes all necessary clothing and objects for a safe and healthy first year.

Moreover, Nordics prioritize nature and the environment by having eco friendly practices, biking everywhere, installing renewable energy, and having public systems such as getting your money back for recycling plastic bottles.

The prison systems in Nordic countries, while controversial to some, teaches inmates to live in harmony with others.

Lastly, the importance of being together with people you love and making time for family and friends is at the center of Nordic peace. Whether it is by practicing hygge or volunteering, Nordics prioritize and build their life around the most essential things: a healthy family and Love.

Reflecting on the basis of all of these actions and policies, the words that come to mind are “selfless”, “generous”, “caring” and the like. Nordic countries are a clear example of how governments and society can work together to enhance the quality of life for all of its citizens, not just a few.


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