Imagine a place where paternity leave for both parents is the norm, children get social security, healthcare is free, and the state pays for your wedding ceremony (at least the church and priest) and your funeral. From an American perspective, it sounds hard to imagine—but it’s the reality in Norway. A country of five million people, Norway has one of the highest standards of living in the world, and has been voted the best country to live in for nearly 10 years in a row.
As a human rights lecturer at a New York-based Norwegian institution, Gateway College, I teach university students who are experiencing New York for the first time. Many come from small villages or Norway’s capital city, Oslo, and New York is probably one of the most intense and eye-opening experiences of their lives. It’s been a blast to watch these students grow over the semester, and realize how many lessons they will take from America back to Norway.
But at the same time, we Americans can take some lessons from Norwegian society, too. There is a reason Norway is so successful (and not just because it’s just an oil country), and I would argue there are a few lessons we should take from this Scandinavian country and apply to our thinking and our daily lives.
1. Learning to JanteLoven
The concept of Jante Law is widespread around Scandinavia, but in Norway, it is known as JanteLoven; a code of social behavior emphasizing modesty, collectivity, and social equality. In essence, it suggests that no one is better than another person, and that we should not brag about our skills or be too proud.
It’s hard to imagine JanteLoven in an American context, because we are often so competitive and so focused on our individual accomplishments and goals (I did this, I built that, I achieved this). It took me an entire semester to realize each student's unique interests, because they didn’t even really talk about themselves for fear of coming off too forward about their work. Students would never say “I,” they would only say “we” to emphasize the collective and the community. And I have to admit, it took a little getting used to.
As their professor, I made sure students understood the American way of networking and speaking up about your accomplishments. But as I’ve learned from the Norwegians, being humble and modest has its place, too. For example, when discussing social problems, students would rarely use their personal anecdotes to relate—they would instead focus on ways of efficiently solving the problem for everyone. And so, when students did speak about their personal experiences, it would have a stronger impact.
2. Celebrating Equality
Norway is also one of the most egalitarian countries in the world—gay couples have equal rights in marriage and employment and Norway is currently number one on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index. The workforce is made up of 75% women, women occupy one-third of the seats in Norwegian parliament, and in 2003, the parliament passed a law stating that 40% of all companies’ board members must be women.
It’s also the best place in the world to be a mother. Mothers can get 10 months of full pay while on paternity leave, and fathers help out, too—they get 10 weeks of paternity leave during the first year of the child’s life.
These statistics stand in stark contrast to American society, where women make 70 cents to the dollar of men, we rank the 55th country worldwide in political empowerment, and rarely a day goes by that you don’t hear about the gender gap. While this is certainly something that can’t be changed overnight, we could use to keep in mind Norway’s success in this area. Striving for equality makes it easier for the entire society to succeed.
3. Appreciating What You Have
As our own fiscal cliff is all over the news in America, I would also argue that we could take a lesson from Norway, which has a $660 billion Petroleum fund and no national debt.
Granted, it also has some of the highest taxes in the world (about 28% income tax), which support its great social programs. And the cost of living is the highest in the world (a car that retails for $30,000 in the United States would sell for three times the price in Norway). But one thing students often brought up was how poverty and hunger didn’t really exist in Norway, and how eye-opening it was to see the range of different economics and struggles here in New York. What struck me most is that the students genuinely understood their privilege and felt the need to use it for aid and development efforts around the world. And no matter how you feel about government or taxes, having a mindset of appreciating what you have and helping those less fortunate is a good thing.
4. Ga Pa Tur (Take a Walk)
Ga Pa Tur translates "to take a walk"—with no other goal then actually walking. In Norway, there’s no destination or no rushing—they love just walking, picnicking, or simply experiencing life outside. In America, the idea of doing things "just because" is something we often lose sight of in our constant connectedness and competitive work week. We could certainly adopt the philosophy of Ga Pa Tur—and I’m sure it would help us significantly de-stress and enjoy the little things in life.
While Norway has many great things about it, I also watched my Norwegian students gripped by America and our values—they were fascinated by the “American dream” and questioned whether or not it still held true. They wanted to understand and celebrate American diversity and innovation, they were struck most by the idea that you can be an individual here and do whatever you want, whenever you want.
My students have learned a lot from their experiences in the United States, but more importantly, they immersed themselves in diversity, stepped out of their comfort zone, and challenged themselves to understand a different model of success. And we can all benefit from doing the same.