The World’s Happiest Country

Last week, I returned from my fourth trip to Norway – the country where my boyfriend of 4 years is from. For me, visiting Norway is unlike any other travel experience because I am truly engrossed in Norwegian culture as I stay with Knut’s family, eat brown cheese and Norwegian waffles for breakfast, play Cards Against Humanity in Norwegian with his friends, and participate in classic Norwegian activities, like hiking and cross-country skiing. Every time I go to Norway, my understanding of the world’s happiest country becomes deeper and my interest in its society grows stronger.

While I have visited Norway three times before (twice in the summer and once in the winter), this was the first time that I stayed for an extended period of time during the winter – the time that seems to be the most quintessentially Norwegian to me with snow falling every day, everyone enjoying their holiday time off, and gløgg served every evening. As I have already done the more touristy Oslo adventures including visiting the Opera House, walking through the Nobel Peace Prize museum, and biking and hiking around mountains lined with fjords, this trip was much more low-key.


Without the urgency that comes with attempting to fit in every tourist destination, my trip felt like more of an immersive Norwegian experience. As Knut’s family was off from work during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, we started each day quite similarly with a long breakfast complete with breads, a cheese board (with brown cheese, of course), lox, jam, the occasional Norwegian waffle, and lots of coffee. Something I didn’t realize until this trip was how obsessed Norwegians are with coffee; in fact, Norwegians are the world’s #2 biggest coffee drinkers falling close behind their Scandinavian neighbor, Finland. After breakfast, we would either go hiking around Knut’s neighborhood in Tranby, Buskerud, Norway, or we would head to the cross-country ski slopes nearby. Something I appreciate about my trips to Norway is that I am able to truly live like Norwegians during my stay, allowing me to participate in activities that I would probably never engage in otherwise. Initially, I was surprised by how difficult cross-country skiing was, as unlike alpine skiing, it can be quite a workout, as you are essentially jogging in skis. I also found it odd that you literally line your skis into tracks that are pre-made by snow plows. Unfortunately, I never mastered cross-country skiing during my week there, but I did thoroughly enjoy myself!

Something noteworthy about this trip to Norway was that I really got to know Knut’s family better as his parents, brother, sister, and brother-in-law were enjoying their holiday vacation time. The United States is the only developed country in the world without any requirements for paid vacation or holiday leave. While some Americans are lucky to receive weeks of paid leave, the average American receives 10 days, and 23% of Americans have no paid vacation or holidays. If Knut had come to visit me during the week after Christmas, his interactions with my family would have looked quite different. In Norway, employees must receive 21 paid vacation days, however 25 is customary. This means that most people are either given the week between Christmas and New Year’s off to spend with family and friends, or they are able to take that time off to enjoy their cultural traditions. And you wonder why they were rated the world’s happiest country for the 3rd year in a row…

As I was sitting around Knut’s living room enjoying a typical Kransekake for dessert and chatting with Knut’s brother-in-law, a fascinating topic emerged. While we were all watching Knut’s 1-year-old nephew run around the house, and I was flipping through a photobook of his first year of life, I stumbled upon photos of him and his mom, (Knut’s sister), posing everywhere from their family cabin in Lofoten to Venice to Tuscany to Dubai and beyond. Equally surprising was her husband’s presence on many of these trips. The photos of the toddler’s excursions point to an aspect of Norwegian society that would make his adventurous reality much less possible had he been born in the U.S. You see, in Norway, “parental benefit” is 49 weeks of paid leave at 100% pay or 59 weeks at 80% pay. While 3 of the weeks are reserved for the mother to be used prior to the child’s due date, mothers are free to take off up to 12 weeks before the due date. Each parent must take 10 weeks off, and the remainder of the time (26 or 36 weeks depending on if you chose the 100% or 80% pay option), is considered “shared period” time and can be distributed however the parents choose. In Knut’s sister’s case, her husband was able to postpone his paternity leave until the baby was 10 months old, allowing the family to travel for weeks when he was old enough to be hopping on and off planes. For contextual reference, she is an attorney and he works in an international bank.

On the other hand, the U.S. is one of four of the world’s 196 countries with no mandated parental leave. As a young woman who aspires to have a successful career, while also raising children one day, this worries me. The women in Knut’s family live in a society that supports them and values their innate femaleness. His sister is able to sustain both a professional career as a lawyer, and the important role of a mother. Further, Knut’s mother is a doctor, earning a higher income than her husband, who is a high school vice principal. In the U.S., only 29.3% of women make more money than their husbands. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a matching statistic for Norway, but I did stumble across a Business Insider article that rates Norway as the #2 (2016) and #3 (2017) best nation for women to work in thanks to 40% of parliament being female, 31% of senior managerial positions being females, a law that requires 40% of public limited company board members to be women, and much more. The U.S. scored #17 (2016) and #16 (2017). Clearly, in Norway, it is not an anomaly to be a mother with a successful professional career.

In Norway, the phrase “stay-at-home-mom” is practically nonexistent because it is atypical of women to leave behind their careers to raise children when they are able to spend the first year of their child’s life at home, as well as given adequate vacation time to spend with their families. When I think about my own future, I wonder how I will be able to do it all. Will I be forced to put aside my professional ambitions, or will I miss out on my children’s childhoods? Today, it seems that I will have to choose one of the two.

Sometimes, Norway seems like a utopia to me. The people are beautiful, the cuisine is fresh, the nature is incredibly picturesque, and their society is so unbelievably well balanced. However, I quickly realize that this isn’t isolated to Norway – this type of society that supports work-life balance and recognizes what is necessary to maintain a society filled with successful females exists across Europe. Just last week, Iceland became the first country in the world in which it is illegal to pay a man more than a woman. In fact, they aim to completely eliminate the gender pay gap by 2022.

While I understand that these countries are much smaller and much more homogenous than the U.S., and that the policies that work in one country may not function the same way in another, it is difficult to comprehend that one of the world’s greatest powers is also one of the only countries in the world without mandated paid holiday and parental leave – two policies that support working women. It is inconceivable to me that a country that puts so much value on innovation and encourages chasing dreams makes little effort to support the childbearing portion of the population (and many other groups, as well).

When I think about the future, I am confident that we will be the generation who will not stand for such treatment. We will be the ones who demand more. We will be mothers, businesswomen, doctors, and lawyers. We will be exactly who we want to be.

For everything travel has taught me, I am most thankful for this greater understanding of the world that I have gained. Before I started traveling, I saw my way of life as the only way. I wasn’t as aware of my own privileges, and I also wasn’t as aware of how my society is flawed – just as they all are. Travel has given me the opportunity to see my world from the viewpoint of someone else. Of everything that my trips to Norway have given me, I am most thankful for the country that has shown me that it doesn’t have to be like this. That maybe, just maybe, we can do it all.



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