Lifestyle & Culture

Willeke van Doorn: The truth behind Norway’s reputation as ‘the happiest country on earth’


(Editor’s note: See our accompanying post here with details about getting long-term residency in Norway.)


‘The best country on earth to live in,’ ‘Most developed country in the world,’ ‘Happiest country in the world.’

All these headlines refer to a country in Northern Europe: Norway.

My expectations were high when I travelled to the country’s capital Oslo for the first time earlier this year. According to the United Nation’s Human Development Index (HDI), Norway is the most developed country in the world. The index takes into account the national income, the level of education and the average life expectancy.

But what do those numbers really tell us? Should we all move to Norway?



The Nordic Model

The reason Norway has made it to the top of the Human Development Index for 12 years straight now is what is called the Nordic Model. Norwegian citizens pay high taxes – 45 percent of the National Income goes to taxes.

In return, they receive a high level of social support and security. According to a survey by the Organization for Co-operation and Development (OECD) Norwegians are content. Asked to rate their lives on a scale from one to ten, Norway scores high with a 7.6. Except for Switzerland, in no other country are the people as happy with their lives as they are in Norway.

When I ask people on the streets of Oslo how they feel about their country and what it is like to live in Norway, almost everyone responds very positively. They love living in Norway. They love their cities, their nature, the social system and the equality. Knut Heidar, a political scientist at the University of Oslo, calls the equality “the social glue that holds the country together.”

‘A Very Expensive Society’

Harald N. Røstvik

Harald N. Røstvik

However, not everyone agrees. Harald Røstvik is a professor at the University of Stavanger and the author of “Corruption the Nobel Way.” “Norway has become a very expensive society, mainly because of the oil-richness. It has also been a fairly equal and stable society,”  Røstvik tells me. “But during the last two or three decades, a multi-level income structure has developed.

“Those who work in oil businesses, even in those that are state owned, have on average been paid two or three times as much as a publicly employed nurse or teacher. The high income level for many has driven up housing prices. The people who cannot afford those become relatively poor.”

While Norway is generally perceived as a very rich and egalitarian country, this is not the entire truth.

According to the most recent report by the Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research, 6,259 people in Norway are currently homeless. Most homeless people in Norway are men, live in the big cities and are young. One in four is under the age of 25. The large majority – 77 percent – is Norwegian, but the country also attracts a large group of people from abroad trying their luck in Norway.

Those who travel to Norway seeking a better life are often disappointed. It is hard to find a job when you do not speak Norwegian, the housing prices are very high, and your savings do not take you very far in such an expensive country.

Not quite perfect … but very close

Homelessness and inequality are just some of the problems Norway faces. Just like the rest of Europe, terrorism is a serious threat. Still, Norway is one of the safest countries in the world.

THE VIEW FROM OSLO'S OPERA HOUSE. (Photo by Willeke Van Doorn)

THE VIEW FROM OSLO’S OPERA HOUSE. (Photo by Willeke Van Doorn)

I am surprised to see the level of trust between the people in Norway, even in a big city such as Oslo. When I step into a small coffee shop to grab some lunch, I sit down at a table across from a student. She is taking up two tables with her laptop, books and notes. While sipping her coffee she stares intently at the screen of her Apple Macbook and writes something down in her notebook. Then she gets up, walks away and does not return for a good 10 minutes while leaving her expensive laptop out on the table.

Even though I feel safe most of the time at home and in most countries I travel to, I would never do this. Here, it is not so strange.

According to Jon Erik Dølvik, Norway’s wealth is one of the reasons the country is as safe as it is:

It does not directly explain why there is so little crime in Norway, but it does help. The high level of employment and the high level of education make sure that most people can make a living the legal way. Besides, there is a high level of trust between the people and politicians, which is an important factor as well.

An uncertain future

It is, however, questionable whether Norway will be able to maintain its wealth in the future. Norway relies heavily on its oil which will eventually run out. To be prepared for that moment, Norway has saved the oil revenues in a giant fund for future generations. Yet, the Norwegian economy and the Nordic Model are threatened by immigration and an aging population.

ISLANDS IN THE OSLO FIJORD. (Photo by Willeke Van Doorn)

ISLANDS IN THE OSLO FJORD. (Photo by Willeke Van Doorn)

Within the next few decades the working population of Norway will not be big enough anymore to support the extensive welfare system. Political scientist Knut Heidar expects this problem to really hit the country in the 2050’s and 2060’s.

So in the meantime, can we say that the Norway of today really is the best country in the world to live in?

The numbers that make up the Human Development Index suggest that it is, but the goal of that list was never to assign a “number one.”



“The HDI is not an index that shows which country is best to live in,” Milorad Kovacevic, chief statistician at the Human Development Report office, said. “It is rather an index of capabilities, assessing the basic conditions that a country provides so that an average resident can live a long and healthy life and be knowledgeable and advance other goals.

“Norway is therefore the country in which people have the best chance to develop their full potential and live lives that they value.”

About the author: Willeke van Doorn is a journalism student at Fontys University of Applied Sciences in Tilburg. Her experience includes an internship at National Geographic Traveler in Amsterdam.

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