How the Concept of Friluftsliv Can Help You Get Outside

McKenna Princing Fact Checked
Man hiking in the fog
© Kim Jay Photography / Stocksy United

Research continues to show that going outside is good for mental and physical well-being. But rather than begrudgingly going for a stupid walk for your stupid mental health, is there a way to embrace being in nature more as a lifestyle and less as yet another thing to check off your to-do list?

The answer is yes, and we have Norwegians to thank for the concept.  

Enter friluftsliv, aka life in the free air 

Friluftsliv, pronounced FREE-loofts-leave, is a Norwegian way of life that literally translates to “life in the free air” aka life spent outside.  

“A lot of articles today portray it as some secret or sellable concept, but it’s really just about being outside,” says Andy Meyer, an assistant teaching professor of Norwegian at the University of Washington.  

Like the hygge hype from years ago, the growing friluftsliv fad in the U.S. news cycle is simpler than it may seem: If you’re being active outside, focused on the natural world, you’re participating in friluftsliv — it doesn’t matter if you’re hiking, cross-country skiing, walking through your neighborhood or doing yoga in your yard, it all counts. 

The concept originated in a poem by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, who wrote about a character swapping out the noise and busyness of city life for the peace and quiet of the mountains.  

The idea captivated Norwegians, who live in a naturally beautiful environment (much like we do here in the Pacific Northwest) and began building friluftsliv into the infrastructure of the country.  

“In my experience living in Norway, most major cities are designed in such a way it’s very easy for someone to get out to the woods, the open air, quickly,” says Meyer.  

The connection between nature and mental health 

“Friluftsliv in Ibsen's poem wasn't necessarily about physical health but mental health, giving yourself breathing room for the body and thoughts,” Meyer explains.  

Of course, being active and moving your body — whether that’s outdoors or in — is healthy. What’s more meaningful about friluftsliv is the way it affects your mind.  

“Being active outdoors significantly benefits mental health by reducing stress, enhancing mood and improving cognitive function. It helps make us happy,” says Peter Kahn, a psychologist with the UW Department of Psychology who specializes in ecopsychology.  

Research that he and his colleagues conducted has also shown that time with nature helps provide you with a sense of meaning and purpose, increases social interaction, makes day-to-day life seem more manageable and may even help improve sleep.

How to live more friluftsliv-like 

Though farther north than us and a little chillier, Norway has a few things in common with Seattle. For example, we both have a sizable Scandinavian population (looking at you, Ballard), all four seasons, a relatively temperate climate and a love of the outdoors.

So how can the friluftsliv-curious here in the PNW adapt this lifestyle?  

Appreciate the sidewalk crack plants 

If you have the time and resources to go on long hikes every weekend, more power to you. But if you don’t, try not to stress — getting outdoors and moving around is what matters, and a little bit of time outside is better than none. 

“An hour outside can offer more substantial stress relief and cognitive benefits than 30 minutes, although even short durations are beneficial,” says Kahn. "So, yes, if possible, seek deeper and longer experiences in nature, but don’t let that aspiration get in the way of your being outside every day — even for 20 minutes, even for five minutes.”  

If all you can manage is a walk around your city block, that’s OK. What matters more is how you interact with that space. Take your time, put your phone away and engage your senses with the environment around you, giving yourself an opportunity to notice things you may not otherwise.  

“Even in the less picturesque neighborhood, there’s an interesting lizard or a plant growing between the sidewalk cracks. Nature happens in places that we don’t consider nature,” Meyer says.  

Be curious rather than judgmental 

When venturing out into less-desirable weather, it can help to be curious about the experience rather than judging it as a negative thing and assuming you won’t have a good time.  

“It will be a little uncomfortable no matter what gear you have until you get used to it. If I’m really cold, I tell myself this is just what it feels like to be cold,” Meyer says. 

This also means not judging yourself if you’re internally (or out loud) complaining a little about having to drag yourself into the winter wilds of the Big Dark.

You can always come back in if you’re just not having it, but you may notice that once you’re outside and have adjusted to the weather, you’re enjoying yourself after all. 

And yes, all those mental health benefits of nature still apply when it’s dark and dreary outside, says Kahn, adding that if you’re someone who deals with seasonal affective disorder, aka SAD, getting outside in the darker months is especially important to make sure you have exposure to some daylight.

Advocate for outdoor access for all 

Unfortunately, few parts of the United States have the public transportation and easy nature access that Norway does (and even Norway isn’t perfect). Here in the PNW we’re lucky to have lots of parks and natural areas, but many of them are far enough from major cities that you still have to drive to reach them (though in the summer there are public transit options). 

Gear and proper clothing are also an issue. There’s a Norwegian saying that there is no bad weather, only bad clothing, but that’s only true if you can actually afford that expensive puffer coat that will keep you warm in a blizzard.  

That’s why it’s important to advocate for outdoor access for everyone, including people who are often left out of the conversation, such as lower-income people, people of color and people with disabilities.  

There are many ways to be an advocate, including raising the question to your local government leaders, volunteering with organizations that focus on accessible recreation, helping create a work culture that encourages daily breaks outdoors, and helping friends and family get outside if they want to but have trouble doing so on their own.  

“Most of my evidence for it would be anecdotal, but I see Norwegians as slightly less stressed people, partly because of friluftsliv,” Meyer says. “Early on, Norwegian culture found a relationship with the outdoors as vital to social health.”