Free air life: What friluftsliv can teach us about happiness—and how to get more of it.
For Scandinavians, it’s been a way of life for as many generations as anyone can remember. But lately, the concept of friluftsliv, Norwegian for “free air life,” has been making a splash internationally. (This may have had something to do with the global pandemic forcing everyone to socialize outside.)
But, if you ask us, the idea of spending lots of time outdoors, regardless of inclement weather, has always held merit. The concept of friluftsliv means a mindset built around being outside, even if it’s crummy out. Rather than dodging the elements, you simply dress for them—and embrace them. Immerse in them. Ditch the digital devices, feel the air, be present, and repeat often.
Interestingly, friluftsliv (pronounced “free-loofts-liv”) doesn’t require that you do something particularly gnarly while outside. Kudos if you do. But, all you really have to do is take a walk, go camping, or simply sit at a nice overlook. All these things count as doing friluftsliv right. Not only is it great for your body to be outside, but the mental health benefits are major. (It’s not a surprise that countries in the Scandinavian region routinely rank as some of the happiest in the world.)
We all know it’s good for our minds to take a break from work, home life, and stress. Mental health studies globally back this up. (Including one German study that examined the impact of friluftsliv specifically on mental health. No surprise, participants who spent eight days in the wilderness reported higher life satisfaction, happiness, mindfulness, and self-efficacy—and lower perceived stress levels.)
But how do we bring the idea into practice in day-to-day life, since work, stress, devices, and distractions are inevitable, and not every day of our lives can be spent on a backpacking trip.
Here are a few of our ideas to bring a little friluftsliv into any day.
Get creative with the timing of weekday adventures.
Work days make it tricky to get outside—even if you work remotely, like so many people do these days, Zoom meetings and calls are often booked throughout the day, and colleagues and clients expect email replies during the day.
But there’s no reason you can’t get outside, at least occasionally, by getting up super early or hitting the trails after work. Here in Utah we call it the dawn patrol and dusk patrol, respectively, and each has its merits.
Getting up at 5am for a quick morning ski tour, hike, bike, or run feels magical as soon as the coffee cuts through your morning brain fog. (If getting up that early is a challenge, invite a friend to meet you at the trailhead or pick you up so you have an accountability buddy.) In the summer when the days are long, evening trail runs, scrambles, hikes, and rides feel downright glorious. You can treat yourself to a hard-earned apres-dusk-patrol beer and feel proud of the good you did for both body and mind.
If you have young kids, dawn patrols and dusk patrols require more of a juggle, unless you can manage to bring a kid or two along. Remember, friluftsliv doesn’t require that you get radical—just that you go outside. A nature walk, toddler-in-the-backpack hike, or short pedal totally suffices.
You can almost always socialize outside rather than inside.
This is more obviously apparent in the summer when temps are nice, but when the weather cools, there’s nothing like puffy jackets and fire pits. The pandemic inspired us Salt Lakers to make much better use of the designated picnic areas in our national forests, where fires are permitted in the established fire pits.
Portable gas firepits have gained in popularity, too. Many can be attached to a propane tank—either a typical barbecue-sized tank or a small Coleman gas canister, which puts out less heat but is fabulously portable. It’s wonderful to have a firepit that can go with you anywhere, whether a trailhead parking lot, apres ski tailgate, park picnic table, or backyard.
Just bundle up as needed, remembering it’s better to bring more layers than you need rather than less. Even a chilly winter evening is perfectly tolerable with lots of layers, gloves, a beanie, and a nice fire.
Find fun ways to eat outdoors more often.
It takes a smidge more work, but try taking occasional meals outside to your backyard camp chairs, porch steps, patio table, local park, or picnic area. Putting your phone and laptop away and making a meal into a picnic is more fun anyway, especially if you’re with your partner, friends, or family. Bonus points if you set out a blanket and do a little cloud gazing.
Plan off-the-grid adventures you can look forward to (and remember).
Not only do multi-day outdoor adventures like river trips, backcountry yurt trips, backpacking trips, and bike trips refuel our senses, but, like any experience, much of the joy is in anticipating it and then remembering it.
If you get the coming year’s travels on the calendar, recruit a crew, and plan the logistics, your body and spirit can start looking forward to it … consider it an extended-release dose of friluftsliv.
Even if you can’t quite manage a feat like this Norwegian father who’s spent 300 nights on wilderness expeditions with his very hardy five year-old daughter, you can log some solid adventure time.
Much of the medicine is in extended periods of time without work, wifi, or social media. So plan at least some of your trips to allow a full unplugging. This was key to the German study mentioned above—participants who reaped the benefits of friluftsliv time did so by being fully off the grid for days in a row.
Of course, you can’t get off the grid every day, but by baking a little friluftsliv into your routine, you can infuse some bonus happiness and presence into your life. A recent Time magazine article citing the International Journal of Environmental Health Research noted that just 20 minutes spent in a city park—even if you don’t exercise while you’re there—has a positive impact on your life satisfaction and mood. That’s not a hard prescription to fill … so go ahead and book a walk, nap, lunch picnic, or workout outside today.
Beth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.
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