Happiness is contagious, right? When you surround yourself with genuinely happy people, your spirits tend to lift and your mood starts to brighten, all thanks to the feel-good vibes surrounding you. If you're nodding your head in agreement, then you can only imagine how I felt after spending four days in Iceland, aka one of the happiest countries in the world. Honestly, I never thought that just a few days would be enough time for me to begin to reap the benefits of a Nordic lifestyle, but I've quickly come to realize that Scandinavians don't mess around when it comes to self-care, nurturing their mental health, and living life to the fullest. Though my time there was short, immersing myself in their way of living has shifted my perspective on wellness as a whole, in a way that's sure to stick with me for the rest of my life.
Now, hear me out: I'm not saying that traveling to Iceland is the only way to experience this blissful Nordic lifestyle I'm raving about (though if you have the chance to visit, I highly recommend it). I was lucky enough to be invited on a once-in-a-lifetime trip with Icelandic Provisions, a skyr food supplier (more on what skyr is in a bit — hint: it's delicious), to experience the Nordic culture firsthand, and though I was fortunate enough to learn about the Nordice lifestyle myself, I'm here to tell you that you can easily adopt some of these happiness-boosting habits yourself, no matter where in the world you live.
Icelandic wellness all starts with making an unconditional commitment to a Nordic way of living called "hygge," which is basically an accessible state of mind that prioritizes anything in life that brings you contentment and joy. The presence of hygge is so strong in Iceland, and the Nordic word essentially translates to finding immense pleasure in comfortable, cozy, enjoyable, and soothing things — or the absence of all things overwhelming.
"Hygge is a Danish concept that now is a big buzz-word in the U.S.," Gunnar Freyr, an Icelandic photographer and founder of the creative workspace, The Space Reykjavik, tells Elite Daily in a phone interview. "Icelanders hygge by doing things like getting together and berry-picking to connect with the local seasons, lighting candles and sitting on the couch with family, or simply cuddling at home with loved ones when the weather is bad outside."
Freyr says that for him personally, hygge relates to the concept of being cozy, and that it's important to his mental health to take moments of hygge within life's inevitable chaos. "When you remind yourself that life is not so serious through implementing hygge, then you'll have a fresh view of things when they're overwhelming and there's too much to do," he explains. "The Nordic lifestyle [and hygge] basically embodies the feeling of when you go away on vacation and forget about the past and future and just focus on the present."
It seems that being emotionally overwhelmed or overworked simply doesn't have a place in Nordic culture, and that's the stark, glaring difference between Iceland and the U.S. Here in America, it can often feel like you're constantly being pushed toward capitalism-driven, materialistic measures to feel your best. And while green juice, workout classes, and superfoods are great in their own ways, honestly, they've got nothing on hygge. In fact, sometimes I feel like Americans might just be looking in all the wrong places when it comes to wellness. Think about it this way: While lengthy treadmill runs and trips to the gym do give you a temporary rush of endorphins, hygge-inspired exercises, like yoga, can unite both your body and your mind, leading to a more tranquil quality of life and much less stress in the long run. "Going outside is the best kind of [workout]," Freyr says. "My [idea of going to the] gym is to take my camera bag and go explore in nature where humans are designed to feel their best."
Being present, connecting with nature, and staying active without forcing it is the Nordic way of fitness, which is why, during my time in Reykjavik, I had no solid workout routine. Now, as both a yoga teacher and wellness writer, this is rare for me. But, interestingly enough, I felt the best I had in a long time during my trip. Mindful, intuitive movement was and is the name of the game in Iceland, and in my experience, this ranged from walking around town, to hiking to the top of a stunning mountain, to exploring the insides of waterfall-decorated caves.
And I wasn't "eating clean" in Iceland, either — at least, not in the typical American definition of the term. In Iceland, we foraged herbs to garnish our meals (which were always leisurely enjoyed) and picked fresh berries to put on top of our sweet, skyr-based desserts. FYI, skyr is a full-fat, creamy Icelandic yogurt and yes, it's as delicious as it sounds.
The Nordic diet is all about eating whole, unprocessed foods without restriction, and with an emphasis on mindfulness, enjoyment, and absence of stress during meal time. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, Nordic culture has one of the healthiest diets, not to mention mindsets around food, in the entire world.
But, again, the Nordic lifestyle, as I experienced it at least, doesn't just promote wellness in the areas of food and exercise. Wellness seems like an underlying, powerful current to the way Nordic people live their lives. For instance, when I was walking down the street, strangers would smile at me for what seemed to be no reason at all (and not in the creepy way you're probably used to if you live in a big city like Manhattan), and when I engaged in conversations with new people, I would never feel rushed, talked over, or unimportant. Talk about a stark contrast from American life, right?
One of my best memories from my trip was when I was speaking to a group of Scandinavian men, none of whom I'd ever met in my life, and I legitimately felt equal in every sense of the term. I soon realized this was because Iceland consistently tops the World Economic Forum’s survey for gender equality, and has even been referred to by some as the world's most feminist country. What's more, Iceland takes political empowerment among women very seriously, and the country is said to constantly be working toward closing the gender income gap and ensuring that women have significant and noticeable representation on company boards.
All of these incredible aspects of Nordic culture seemed to hit me in waves during my time there, and it all made me feel a few very specific emotions: contentment, comfort, and safety. I mean, I was visiting a different country all by myself, and spending a lot of my time with men I'd never met prior to this trip — and yet I felt 100 percent at-ease the entire time. According to Freyer, Iceland is one of the safest countries in the world, which he says has an impact on people's ability to not just feel comforted, but even creative, and it allows you to express yourself to the fullest, he explains.
I was lucky enough to visit Freyr's beautiful social workspace and creative studio on my trip, which was essentially a plant-infused, woodland-inspired oasis where people can just go to sit for hours and let their imaginations run wild. Spending some time in the The Space Reykjavik allowed me to visually absorb the vast amount of artistry flowing through the country. The studio was kind of like a hip, Brooklyn coffee shop, except much cooler, and much hygge-ier. New York, take notes.
The bottom line is, if you're reading this and thinking that the Scandinavians have got it all figured out when it comes to navigating this weird thing called life, it's because they kind of do. Watching Netflix on the elliptical because it's what you feel like you're "supposed to do" would be low-key unheard of in Iceland — but being wonderfully engaged, present, and in-tune with the natural world and your body? That's the sh*t Nordic people like.
Listen, I'm totally not judging you for rushing home from a long work day to binge-watch The Office or squeeze in a HIIT circuit, but I am saying that many Nordic people, including Freyr, probably don't even have Netflix or gym subscriptions. Instead, they prioritize their hobbies, spend time with family and friends, and nourish their bodies with joyful movement and lovingly prepared food. If that doesn't sound like the epitome of wellness to you, then I don't know what does.