After six years living in Norway, I’ve quickly gotten used to hearing that I’m supposed to be one of the happiest people on the planet.

Norway regularly places in the upper ranks of annual surveys about quality of life, and this year’s World Happiness Report ranks us as the happiest country in the world. It has topped headlines but left many people asking one simple question: why?

small coastal town in Norway

Norway regularly places in the upper ranks of annual surveys about quality of life. Photo © David Nikel.

Work-Life Balance

Working conditions in Norway heavily favor the employee: it’s very difficult to get fired and everyone is entitled to five weeks paid vacation. Salaries for low-skilled work are relatively high, which ensures even burger flippers can afford a smartphone and a few weeks in the Mediterranean sunshine.

In the unlikely event you lose your job, unemployment benefits are some of the most generous in the world. A short working week, extensive paid parental leave, job security, and genuine focus on work-life balance removes a lot of the stress that many people outside Norway experience with their careers.

A Return on Tax Payments

Whether it’s because of quality public services or that anyone can look up how much tax someone pays, Norwegians seem to genuinely be happy to pay their taxes.

While far from perfect, the national healthcare system is easy to access and treatment costs for patients are capped at around $300 per year regardless of your condition. New investments are made in roads, rail, bridges, tunnels to get around this geographically awkward country.

The Great Outdoors

Much to love about living in Norway has nothing to do with money.

“Norwegians are born with skis on their feet,” or so the saying goes. But they also seem born with a natural love of hiking, cycling, running, and spending time in mountain cabins. Norway is a naturally beautiful country and there’s a lot to be said for choosing the great outdoors over starting yet another series on Netflix. Even city-dwellers have easy access to nature: Bergen is surrounded by mountains, while Trondheim and Oslo have miles of forest trails on their doorstep.

Trolltunga, Norway

Norwegians seem to be born with a natural love of the outdoors. Photo © Simon Dannhauer.

The Downsides

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows in this corner of northern Europe. There are some downsides to living in Scandinavia that have left many of my fellow expats scratching their heads about Norway’s lofty ranking.

While milder than you may expect, Norwegian winters can be hard going. Days are short and the darkness can play havoc with your body’s internal clock, so much so that Seasonal Affective Disorder is a problem across Scandinavia. Rjukan, a village in a remote central valley, has even erected giant mirrors high in the mountains to beam sunlight into the town square.

There’s also the colossal elephant in the room of what happens when the oil runs dry. The industry has taken a hit in recent years and yet the government has been slow to respond. Whether Norwegians will make the necessary adjustments to become competitive in a global knowledge economy remains to be seen.

snowy slopes in Norway

While milder than you may expect, Norwegian winters can be hard going due to short days. Photo © David Nikel.

It Depends on Who You Ask

While I’m not suggesting the participants from Norway lied, Norwegians are brought up inside a behavioral bubble known as janteloven, which encourages a focus on the needs of society over the wants of the individual. It’s a similar story in the other Nordic countries, so perhaps it’s little surprise that all five of them placed in the top ten.

So yes, Norway is the happiest place on earth—but only if you’re Norwegian. But for everyone else, especially if you have even a passing interest in hiking, sailing or relaxing in front of dramatic scenery, Norway is a very happy place to visit!