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Open-Air Life: Finding Joy and Improving Health Through the Nordic Art of Friluftsliv

By Linda Åkeson McGurk

If somebody has ever tried to coax you outside in the midst of a Polar Vortex offering no sensible reason other than a cheery “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing!” you should probably blame a Norwegian. Or possibly a Swede.

This mildly lecturing proverb is believed to originate in the Nordic countries, where it’s often used to motivate people to get outside every day, regardless of the weather or the season. It’s also the collective rallying cry of the region’s centuries-old tradition of friluftsliv, or “open-air life,” as it’s usually called in English.

I like to think of it as the outdoorsy cousin of hygge.

As I write in my book The Open-Air Life: Discover the Nordic Art of Friluftsliv and Embrace Nature Every Day, friluftsliv can encompass everything from walking around the neighborhood to backpacking in the remote wilderness, and anything in between. Then again, friluftsliv is less a set of specific activities and more of a culturally learned rhythm that aims to maximize your time outside and realign yourself with the natural world.

Unlike many other forms of outdoor recreation, traditional friluftsliv is non-motorized, non-competitive and typically doesn’t require a lot of money or equipment. It usually involves learning basic outdoor skills, like making fire and identifying edible mushrooms and berries, yet it doesn’t require you to be an expert or hardcore adventurer.

Friluftsliv is an invitation to slow down and find balance in a world where life often seems to be a little out of whack and many of us spend our days in an environment that researchers have determined is detrimental to our health – indoors, sedentary and plugged into various electronic devices. With nearly 80 percent of the population living in cities today, far from the savannah where we evolved, open-air life promises to alleviate our growing alienation from the natural world.

August Casson, a teacher from Springfield, Illinois, who spent ten years living and working in the highlands of Norway, put it this way,

“To me, friluftsliv is so much more than a word, it’s a way of doing things, a way of living, and a part of the culture. It’s not something you can touch— it’s something you feel in your soul.”

The word friluftsliv first saw the light in 1859, when it was used in a poem by famed Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen to describe the protagonist’s longing for the mountains and desire to escape a predictable life in the busy village. The idea resonated with the urban cultural and intellectual elites, who yearned for a life in the countryside, away from the noise, pollution, crowds and factories.

Realizing the potential public health benefits of a movement that revolved around being physically active outdoors, the government threw in its support by creating new parks and urban trails, and even making open-air activities like cross-country skiing, hiking and orienteering a part of the school curriculum.

The health benefits of physical activity in nature are well documented. In fact, walking, which is the most common way to practice friluftsliv, can be a powerful antidote to some of the most common public health challenges of our time, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, anxiety, burnout, depression and several types of cancer. Researchers have even found that the presence of vegetation in residential areas alone can reduce mortality.

Linda Åkeson McGurk, Swedish American writer and author of The Open-Air Life and There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather

Better health is one reason why Nordic people practice friluftsliv but it’s far from the only one, or even the primary one. Rather, it’s to relax, feel good and connect with something greater than yourself.

Personally, I believe that’s what gives open-air living such profound staying power compared with a New Year resolution to exercise more, for example. Whereas the latter often feels like a burden and falls by the wayside by mid-February, the former puts mindless as well as purposeful movement back into our everyday lives and into a meaningful context. Not primarily to avoid disease, even though that is a consequence of it, but to feel joy.

Just like hygge, friluftsliv is considered key to happiness and a high quality of life in the Nordic countries. In Finland, people find community and get a natural high through the national pastime of cold swimming.

In Norway, the sacred Sunday hikes and extended trips to rustic cabins are the preferred way to cultivate family bonds across generations.

In Sweden, people turn to the woods for spiritual experiences in an era characterized by a waning interest in organized religion. And across the region, friluftsliv does with campfires what hygge does with candles, creating a cozy atmosphere and feelings of togetherness with loved ones.

Friluftsliv is also a bedrock that Nordic people lean on during times of crisis, in their personal lives as well as in the world in general. Swedish cancer survivor Annelie Dahl said she noticed that being outside made her “feel really good” even when she was sick, and helped keep her motivated during rehab.

“Taking in the fresh air, the blowing wind, and the sounds of nature made me relaxed, so I decided to be outside as much as possible. Friluftsliv became my own form of rehabilitation,” she said.

Even though the concept of friluftsliv originated in the Nordics, our yearning for nature is universal and you can apply the principles of an open-air life regardless of where you live.

The forces of nature are present everywhere around us, when we watch the clouds that go by in the sky, listen to an early morning choir of bird song, smell the wet asphalt after a gentle summer rain or feel the wind pinch our cheeks during a cold winter walk. We just need to tune into them.

So, the next time somebody asks you to come for a walk in the freezing cold, do as the Nordic people do – dress for the weather and go outside.


Author Linda Åkeson McGurk with her daughters Nora and Maya

Linda Åkeson McGurk is a Swedish American writer and author of the book The Open-Air Life and the bestselling parenting memoir There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather.

She is a passionate advocate for the Nordic outdoor tradition friluftsliv and runs the blog Rain or Shine Mamma, where she shares tips and inspiration for outdoor play every day, regardless of the weather.

When she is not working, she is usually found sauntering around the pine forests near her home in southwestern Sweden, where she lives with her two daughters, husband and two bonus daughters.

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