According to UN data, the average life expectancy for someone born today in the United States stands at 79.1 years. Scandinavian countries Sweden (83.3), Norway (82.9) and Denmark (81.4) all rank higher, as do Nordic nations Iceland (83.5) and Finland (82.5).
There are many reasons why the U.S. falls short compared with northern Europe, not least the approach to healthcare and pensions. But could part of the puzzle lie in simple lifestyle habits?
After almost 10 years living in and exploring the region, I have spotted a few healthy habits from which all us non-Scandinavians could learn a thing or two.
Friluftsliv: The joy of being outdoors
Friluftsliv is an amalgamation of the Norwegian words for fresh air and life or lifestyle. Scandinavians—especially Norwegians—are hikers. But the lifestyle isn’t anything to do with showing off the views from your hike on Instagram. It’s a term first coined by playwright Henrik Ibsen back in the 19th century and one that has stood the test of time.
Adopting the habit for yourself doesn’t have to involve exhausting hiking trips or even leaving a city. It can be as simple as taking a stroll through your local park to reconnect with nature, but that of course means not staring a screen while you’re doing it.
The simple Scandinavian diet
Many restaurants and dinner tables around the region prioritize fresh, local and seasonal ingredients wherever possible.
Dishes often record a low ‘miles to plate’ number by combining the best of the fjords with the best of the mountains. Fish and seafood are common focal points, while mushrooms and berries are among the popular accompaniments.
However, it should be noted that Scandinavians love a burger, frozen pizza or a lazy takeout just as much as anyone. That being said, several studies have confirmed health benefits of the Nordic diet, so at least they’re being healthy some of the time.
Work to live, not live to work
If you happen to find yourself in a Scandinavian office at 5pm, chances are you’ll be on your own. Working hours rarely extend beyond 7am-3pm or 8am-4pm, often finishing earlier on Fridays and/or shorter hours in the summer. In many companies, choosing to work late is rarely seen as a positive. Rather, bosses may think you have too much work to do and/or cannot manage your workload.
On top of this, most Scandinavians receive generous vacation entitlement. Five weeks paid leave is the norm in most of the region. Some companies have experimented with six-hour working days, while the concept of a four-day working week is occasionally floated.
Of course, adopting this Scandinavian habit is more difficult than changing your diet or going for a walk, but there is still a lot to be said for leaving your office on time and reserving your evenings your family time over emails.
The true meaning of hygge
Following the rabid commercialization of the term hygge in recent years, you could be forgiven for thinking that happiness if guaranteed if you just buy the right candle or cushion. “Hygge, to me, has never been something you could buy,” explained Danish-born writer Laura Byager in Mashable.
Sure, lighting candles and sitting amid cushions are part of it, but so is slowing down, spending quality time with friends and family and simply being present. “For me, hygge is comfort. It exists only in the complete absence of stress and nuisance and feeds off feelings of happiness and relaxation,” adds Byager.