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Updated: Sep 27, 2023

What is ‘friluftsliv’? How a Norwegian idea of outdoor living could help us this winter.

People hiking through the mountains of Norway

From the remote Arctic to urban Oslo, friluftsliv means a commitment to celebrating time outdoors, no matter the weather forecast. The idea is as Norwegian as cross-country skis and aquavit and friluftsliv might also be a model for coming more happily through the northern hemisphere’s approaching winter season.

During the summer months, people around the world shift life outdoors. But, in winter, why not embrace the outdoors too?

Norwegian friluftsliv is full of cold-hardy inspiration for a frigid time of year. Like the cabin-cozy word hygge, which spurred a worldwide run on candles and fuzzy blankets, it’s proof that mindset can transform the way we experience our world.

“Friluftsliv is more than just an activity, it’s a kind of lifestyle,” says Lasse Heimdal, secretary general of Norsk Friluftsliv, an organization representing 5,000 outdoors groups in Norway. “It’s very tied to our culture and what it means to be a Norwegian.”

Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen is generally credited with inventing the term in the 1859 poem On the Heights, which recounts a farmer’s yearlong trek through the wilderness. By the end of the poem, the protagonist ditches civilization for good.

But Heimdal says friluftsliv isn’t just for hard-core athletes and intrepid explorers. Friluftsliv can also mean long strolls with friends, picnics, a leisurely afternoon bike ride, or walking the dog on a chilly morning. There’s even a special word, utepils, for drinking a beer outdoors.

“Most people think it’s healthy, it’s social,” Heimdal says. “You get kind of a time-out from cell phones and computers … being outdoors and in nature, it’s one of the best places to relax.”

Experts have long known that time outdoors makes you happy. Spending just two hours a week in natural environments such as parks or green spaces boosts well-being, according to a 2019 paper published in the journal Nature.

Despite their country’s astonishing natural beauty, Norwegians don’t always have it easy when it comes to getting out. Even in summer, days of rain can drench the countryside. Up north, winter hides the sun for a long, polar night. But complain to a Norwegian about the weather, and you’ll likely hear a cheery refrain: “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing!” (In Norwegian, it rhymes.)

Locals have more than long johns and wool hats to protect them against the elements, however. They also have what Stanford University health psychologist Kari Leibowitz calls “positive wintertime mindset.”

Somebody with this attitude “sees the opportunities of the season,” says Leibowitz, who learned to live with the dark and cold when she spent a year in Norway’s Arctic city of Tromsø. “In Norway that focuses a lot on being outdoors, even when the weather is cold, or wet, or snowy.”

So, to keep yourself mentally and physically fitter this winter, open the door, step outside, and take a deep breath, and say: “I’m going friluftsliving.”


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