A hiker sits atop Trolltunga, or "troll's tongue," a famous rock formation in southwestern Norway. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Scandinavia seems to have all the answers. Not only is Denmark the happiest country on Earth, according to U.N. rankings, but Norway is No. 2. And just as Denmark partly explains its joy with an untranslatable word — hygge — Norway cites an arcane, tongue-tying ethos of its own: friluftsliv.

Friluftsliv literally means "free air life" in Norwegian, but like hygge, its cultural connotations go far beyond any English approximation. Both words refer to uplifting ambience, but while hygge focuses on coziness and human relationships, friluftsliv dwells on our outdoor dynamic with nature.

"It is a term in Norway that is used often to describe a way of life that is spent exploring and appreciating nature," says Anna Stoltenberg, culture coordinator for Sons of Norway, a U.S.-based Norwegian heritage group. "It is also the name of a course at many folk high schools in Norway."

Friluftsliv classes may be rare at U.S. schools, but Americans still appreciate the outdoors. We just also have a problem with dangerously sedentary lifestyles. And since the U.S. ranks 15 spots behind Norway in the U.N. happiness index, maybe it's time to rekindle an American spirit of friluftsliv.

A river of blue meltwater flows from the Briksdal Glacier through Sogn og Fjordane, Norway. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Built fjord tough

Friluftsliv — pronounced free-loofts-liv — was first published in 1859, appearing in a poem by renowned Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Titled Paa Vidderne ("On the Heights"), the poem follows a protagonist who needs solitude in nature to clarify his thoughts about the future. Below is an English translation of Ibsen's original usage, courtesy of Nord-Trøndelag University College:

In the lonely seter cottage
My abundant catch I gather;
There is hearth, a stool, a table,
friluftsliv for my thoughts.

Ibsen didn't coin this word in a vacuum, though. Similar lingo had existed for decades, like the phrase "frilufts-painting" used by some artists of Europe's Romantic era. Friluftsliv is also informed by the old Norwegian concept allemannsretten, which literally means "all men's right" but is also translated as "freedom to roam." It lets anyone explore undeveloped private property as long as they obey certain rules, an ancient tradition encoded into Norwegian law with the 1957 Outdoor Recreation Act.

"You can even camp on someone else's private property for one night," explains a post on the Sons of Norway website, "provided that you're polite and stay at least 150 meters away from any buildings."

Norway forest

Moss and ferns carpet a forest floor in Vest-Agder, Norway. (Photo: Randi Hausken/Flickr)

By allowing so much rambling while also mandating good behavior, allemannsretten may have helped sow two key seeds of friluftsliv: curiosity and composure. "The fact that Norway has the allemannsrett law easily enables people to explore nature freely, and that capability has encouraged and developed the friluftsliv way of life," Sons of Norway fraternal director Linda Pederson tells MNN.

Aside from the legal and linguistic hurdles in the U.S., Pederson says, the main differences between Norwegian and American "outdoor life" mirror differences in each country's outdoors.

"There are plenty of Americans who love the outdoors, [but] America is so large and spread out that not everyone can appreciate the mountains in their backyard," says Pederson, a native Norwegian from the coastal town of Alesund. "It is different because the two countries are so different. Norway is a small country covered with beautiful mountains, fjords, coastlines and more, so the fact that Norwegians are naturally 'outdoorsy' is because of tradition and surroundings."

Norway northern lights

Northern lights, aka aurora borealis, dance high above the far-north county of Troms, Norway. (Photo: Carsten Frenzl/Flickr)

Straight from the Norse's mouth

America's wilderness may be more spread out than Norway's, but the U.S. has more than its share of awesome scenery. Four out of five Americans consider it a patriotic duty to conserve U.S. wilderness, according to a 2012 survey, and more than 270 million people visit the country's national parks every year. Given this endemic fondness for nature, friluftsliv might not be as foreign in America as it sounds.

English is already teeming with Scandinavian words — so many, in fact, that a 2012 study suggested English is actually a Scandinavian language. "Modern English is a direct descendant of the language of Scandinavians who settled in the British Isles in the course of many centuries," argues University of Oslo linguist and study co-author Jan Terje Faarlund. In addition to its use of Scandinavian sentence structure, modern English contains lots of everyday words that date back to the Viking language Old Norse, including bug, egg, fog, leg, saga, sky, take, trust and Thursday.

Friluftsliv is a mouthful, though, so it may not invade English as easily. And it doesn't really need to. While words are important in shaping how we think, it's still the idea behind them that counts. And there's a dire need for the philosophy of friluftsliv — by any name — in American schools.

Norway horse

A Norwegian horse near West Cape, the westernmost point in mainland Norway. (Photo: John Christian Fjellestad/Flickr)

From start to Finnish

Regular exposure to nature has well-known mental and physical health benefits, especially in kids. It's linked to reduced ADHD, more creativity, better critical thinking, better behavior, better test scores and even a stronger sense of purpose. That may help explain biophilia, or "the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life," as defined by American biologist E.O. Wilson.

Yet despite high ADHD rates and low educational ratings, up to 40 percent of U.S. schools have cut back on recess in recent years, and only about a quarter of U.S. students ages 6 to 15 get the recommended amount of daily exercise. Friluftsliv is a childhood staple in many parts of Scandinavia, meanwhile, from Norway's folk high schools to Finland's acclaimed comprehensive schools.

"Friluftsliv promotes direct experience in the natural world — picture a three-year-old gamboling about in the woods, picking up leaves and peering into hollow logs," explains a recent post on the Children & Nature Network by Erik Shonstrom, founder of Nomad Youth Adventures and a professor at Champlain College in Vermont. "It's a philosophy that plays a vital role in Finland's educational system, which consistently ranks as one of the world's top three countries in academic performance."

Lake Bondhus

A boat floats in Lake Bondhus near Norway's Bondhusbreen Glacier. (Photo: Heinrich Pniok/Wikimedia Commons)

The finer points of Finnish education aside, the basic principle of friluftsliv is simple: Let kids outside. Outdoor play — especially self-directed play, like recess — can be a panacea for cooped-up kids who struggle to sit still or focus. Shonstrom, who previously taught middle-school math and science at a Los Angeles charter school, says it made a world of difference when he instituted an hour of outdoor time every morning for 90 students. "The benefits were immediate," he writes. "My students were more focused, less wired and more settled when we came back to campus."

There is some flexibility in friluftsliv, but one consistent tenet of the philosophy is that exploring nature shouldn't be complicated. The free air life, therefore, doesn't depend on expensive equipment or glamping accessories that can create walls between us and the wild. Whether it's a rugged mountain hike or a lazy walk in the park, friluftsliv is a minimalist communion between humans and their habitats. And as with most kinds of cultural heritage, it only counts as culture if you pass it on.

"It is a way to get exercise, get away from reality, or just purely to socialize," Pederson says. "Children grow up spending time in nature, and so it is instinct to share this way of life with their children."

For a deeper look at friluftsliv, check out the documentary video below:

Russell McLendon is science editor at MNN. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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