Travel to happiness: Why Scandinavians are so happy


Scandinavians often top lists of the world's happiest people, but Brian Johnston reckons that we can all acquire a little bit of that happiness just by visiting.

First off, let me say I'm not entirely convinced that Scandinavians are answering happiness surveys truthfully. Does that screaming bloke in the Munch painting look happy? Was the great Danish philosopher Kierkegaard feeling joy when he said trouble was the common denominator of living? And as for dragon tattoo girl, she isn't exactly a poster-child for cheerfulness.

Don't be fooled by glum Nordic movies and the recent spate of anguished Scandinavian detective stories, however. Scandinavians report high levels of wellbeing in all kinds of surveys from important world bodies. This is often explained by their good healthcare system, security, personal freedoms and quality education. Scandinavians have a jolly good life, driving safe Volvos, using Lego and nice Ikea bookshelves, and eating pickled herrings. Question is, can any of this happiness be attained by mere visitors to these chirpily cheerful countries?

I say yes. There's a lot to smile about in Scandinavian cities, with their compact chic and relaxed lifestyle. You can pedal about by bike, feel safe after dark, hobble along cobbles in gingerbread old towns, then indulge in some serious contemporary flair in design shops and New Nordic restaurants. Though it mightn't be PC to say so, its streets are so full of gorgeous blondes you'll overdose on eye-candy. And while the region's capitals are old enough to reward you with castles and cathedrals, they're trendy and experimental too. Copenhagen's opera house and public library are avant-garde, its design shops beautiful, and its top-class restaurants push culinary boundaries and set trends for the world.

Scandinavia makes me happy because it fulfils the stereotypes I expect: long summer nights, vodka bars, reindeer, impossibly scenic fjords, long-shanked cross-country skiers and minimalist designer chairs. Both summer and winter have their own particular pleasures. Summers are short, so the sun brings out high spirits. Scandinavians lounge in parks, swim in canals, sit in cafés and celebrate festivals, and have plenty of time to party; the sun is only dipping at midnight. Winters are frigid but have an ice-encrusted beauty and bring out that Nordic cosiness exemplified by candlelit windows, afternoon coffees and glittering Christmas markets. You can ice skate in town squares and reward yourself with glögg (mulled wine) as snow falls and lights twinkle.

Scandinavians are also happy because they've perfected the knack of combining scenery with sophistication. In other parts of the world, cities set among forest, lake and mountain would be full of grunting lumberjacks and gap-toothed truck drivers. But take Bergen, gateway to the fjords: this old fishing and trading port is also the birthplace of playwright Henrik Ibsen and composer Edvard Grieg, whose lovely romantic music celebrates Norwegian rural life. Or take Oslo, Scandinavia's smallest capital. It has small-town charm and is enfolded in forests great for hiking, but by afternoon you could be visiting first-class museums, and by evening enjoying La Traviata in its iceberg-imitating harbour-side opera house.

I wonder whether it's actually possible to be unhappy if you live surrounded by water, which is what most Scandinavians do. Helsinki, for example, sits across a series of pine-scented islands and peninsulas in the Gulf of Finland, with watery vistas at every turn. Ferries chug, seagulls shriek, salty air invigorates. Little red cabins sit at the water's edge, providing saunas from which the Finns leap into the water, not before slapping themselves with birch twigs. It's most peculiar, but give it a go yourself and your entire body will feel happy.

Stockholm is equally married to the sea, most evident if you sail into the Swedish capital on a cruise ship past a thousand cottage-clad islands towards an old town of thrusting spires and antique bridges. Boats sail past the train station, and you can visit the pretty baroque palace of Drottningholm by ferry. You can stumble out of a live-music bar in trendy Södermalm district near midnight and be rewarded (in summer at least) with a vista of sunlight glinting on the sea.


Happiness isn't just found in Scandinavian cities, however. Innumerable towns have their temptations, too. Rønne on the Danish island of Bornholm is a cheerful old town of brightly-coloured houses, with a church dedicated to seafarers and chimneys dedicated to smoking herring. Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland is a former Viking stronghold and medieval trading centre whose fortified walls, punctuated with 44 towers, provide delightful views across the countryside and sea. And Trondheim seems lost in the far north of Norway, but is a university town with a taste for jazz bars. In short, why wouldn't anyone be happy in Scandinavia? I think that fellow in the Munch painting might just have been screaming in pleasure.

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