Finnsæter, Norway • On a remote island in the Norwegian Sea, where fishing villages line the shore and cliffs jut thousands of feet over the fjords, a happy woman lives inside a theme park that is home to the world’s largest troll.
The 59-foot, molded concrete statue is both whimsical and ghastly. Visitors pay to meander the two floors inside, where trolls appear in a bar, in jail and in other scenes, and singers called The Trolling Stones perform.
Siw Rubach may live 5,000 miles away, but what she and her countrymen and -women have to say about how they live — along with science-based tips from a Utahn who is a world expert on happiness — can help those of us who want to live a happier life in 2018.
Norway has been dubbed the happiest country in the world by the United Nations, based on how content residents report feeling.
The troll park “is our lifestyle. … We have so much [joy] and we get so many good comments from the people about what we do,” Rubach said, in between serving free coffee and showing a visitor the cow’s tail that’s part of her costume as a hulder, a seductive forest creature in Norwegian folklore.
“We don’t work so much to get rich,” said Rubach, who, like all the Norwegians interviewed for this story, is fluent in English. “If we have enough to travel and do things we want to do, then we are happy.”
The answer to how we can all be happier in the new year is right there: Have enough money to live comfortably, connect with others, have a purpose. Traveling to Norway may be a luxury, but happiness is not, said University of Utah psychology professor Ed Diener.
Dubbed “Dr. Happiness,” Diener has studied how to measure and boost “subjective well-being” — the scientific term for happiness, and one he invented. His work has prompted some governments to include well-being in their analysis of how their people are faring.
“Happiness is not frivolous. It is not hedonism. Happy people have better health, better relationships on average, are more productive at work, and are better citizens,” Diener said. “Depressed and angry people do not do well.”
NORWAY IS NO. 1 FOR HAPPINESS
Norway was ranked as the world’s happiest country in the 2017 World Happiness Report by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
Survey respondents were asked to imagine a ladder with the number 0 on the bottom rung, representing the worst possible life for them, and steps numbered up to 10 at the top, representing their best possible life.
Norwegians averaged step 7.5, closely followed by their Nordic neighbors Denmark, Iceland and Finland. Americans ranked 14th, at 6.99, down half a step in the past decade.
Don’t focus on money
It would be easy to write off Norwegian happiness as a product of the nation’s immense wealth. Its offshore oil fields help pay for universal paid parental leave, subsidized day care, free medical care and higher education, along with generous pension and unemployment benefits.
Between pouring beers at an outdoor bar near a medieval castle overlooking a harbor in Oslo, a 25-year-old bartender named Nils said he makes a good living and doesn’t stress about finances. “If I want to do something, I can. There’s nothing stopping me, literally nothing.”
He doesn’t want to say money buys happiness, “but it helps.”
Diener agreed. People who have enough money to cover their basic needs, plus some more for leisure, are happier, he said. But studies show that continuing to move up the income ladder above around $100,000 will not add any more day-to-day joy. That’s because more money may lead to more pressure to achieve ever-higher goals, increasing dissatisfaction.
“Imagine that everybody was gone in the world and you were left behind and you owned the entire world,” Diener said. “You could do anything, you could live in the most expensive house, you could have the most expensive car. … You’d be miserable because you need other people to really thrive and enjoy life.”
Take time to ‘dugnad’
Eight men in their 50s and 60s were together, full and happy, after a meal at a Viking-themed restaurant that served venison and smoked reindeer. They were celebrating the end of a weeklong fishing trip in the tiny town of Flåm.
If there’s a secret to happiness, it’s social relationships, said Diener. The happiest people have supportive, positive, trusting and respectful ones.
But happiness also comes from giving support, which is why those men, when asked why Norwegians are the happiest, used the word “dugnad.” It’s the Norwegian concept of unpaid work for a cause. It’s technically voluntary, but essentially required for the good of the community.
The Gallup World Poll used to ask respondents: If you lost your wallet, would your neighbor return it? Responses from Scandinavians revealed an expanded social trust network, Diener said. “They not only say their neighbor would return it, but a stranger would return it.”
And there are easy ways to build trust in a community, said Diener: Volunteer. Join or create neighborhood watch programs, walking groups, book exchange boxes, community gardens, neighborhood cleanup days, block parties or street fairs.
Even making small talk on the train, letting other drivers into traffic, giving compliments and expressing gratitude pay happiness dividends, he said.
The response was similar from all Norwegians asked about why they are considered the world’s happiest: Look around.
At the mountains jutting improbably from the fjords, at the uncountable waterfalls, at the forests and glaciers and clean waterfront cities.
“I feel very privileged to have these surroundings,” said 56-year-old nurse Torill Solstad, who was sitting in a seaside resort outpost designed like a lighthouse. Visitors had gathered to watch August’s midnight sun slip into the sea above the Arctic Circle but never truly set.
She appreciates the sense of perspective that nature brings — feeling small in the vast outdoors. Nature “has been forever and I can be a part of it. I can experience it. That makes me happy.”
Studies have found several ways nature contributes to happiness: It increases self-esteem and mood; reduces stress, anger and anxiety; promotes social interactions; and is a source of awe.
“People like looking out on landscapes. They like being near water. Just the views of nature are calming,” Diener said. “We’re pretty lucky here in Utah. We have nature all around us. You don’t have to go skiing. You can walk around Liberty Park.”
Look on the bright side
There’s no bad weather, just bad clothing, a Scandinavian saying holds. Some Norwegians look forward to the dark winters as a time to get cozy by a fire and enjoy warm drinks and good company. Their embrace of the cold is a choice.
“One of the things you can say about happy people,” Diener said, “is they learn to appreciate what they’ve got.”
That was evident in Bergen, a city on Norway’s southwestern coast where it rains more than 230 days a year. Two Norwegian women in a coffee shop were philosophical about it.
“Wherever you go, there’s going to be rain,” said Thordis Grímsdóttir, 25. “If you let it control your life, you’re going to be distressed.”
“It is not realistic to always experience good weather or good days,” added Veronica af Geijerstam, 28. “I appreciate them both equally. I am realistic. I like things how they are.”
Some people are born to see the positive, but we can train ourselves to savor the good and stop ruminating and worrying, Diener said.
One tried and true practice, created by Diener, is called AIM: Pay attention to the things that make you happy. Choose to interpret events in the best light. Focus on your positive memories.
Find a purpose
Rocade Records in Bergen has a deep collection of vintage country vinyl, from crooners like Johnny Cash and Hank Snow to autographed albums by lesser-known artists — such as Vernon Oxford’s 1967 “Woman, Let Me Sing You a Song,” which owner Roald Atle Larsen describes as “too country for Nashville.”
“I’m a lucky duck in the water here,” said Larsen, 66. He credits his faith, health and family for his happiness, but also country music. “I wouldn’t feel like a duck as a bus driver. This is where God has put me. Everybody has a calling.”
To be happy, Diener said, you must “do something with your life that’s bigger than yourself.” And work should be an essential piece of the happiness puzzle since it takes up so much of our lives, he said.
But it doesn’t have to involve following your passion, as Larsen did. Diener cited a study that showed how janitors find happiness in their work by crafting meaning and purpose in it, such as seeing themselves as reducing infections.
For many, religion provides meaning and purpose — even in Norway, one of the least religious countries in the world. At a secondhand store run by the Norwegian Mission Society in Bergen, a volunteer named Kjersti, 80, said her happiness comes from her religion. “For me, it’s the faith. I believe in Jesus Christ. That is very important to me.”
As if to underscore Norway’s philosophy on happiness, she sold a mug adorned with a quote from Norway’s famed playwright Henrik Ibsen. Loosely translated, it said: “If man is made for pleasure, he must enjoy.”