“What is your idea of perfect happiness?”
This is the first question on the Proust Questionnaire, an anecdotal personality test popularized by Marcel Proust, a French writer, in the salons of 19th-century Paris as a provocative and revealing parlor game. Even today, Vanity Fair uses the probing set of questions to illuminate the inclinations and idiosyncrasies of well-known actors, musicians, writers, politicians, and other celebrities. Contemporary figures from Tina Fey to Margaret Atwood, and Martin Scorsese to Dolly Parton have answered the questionnaire, which includes: “When and where were you happiest?” and “What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?”
The diversity of answers to these questions illustrates that happiness is subjective, and what defines it is debatable. That said, each year the London-based Legatum Institute publishes the results of its Prosperity Index, an annual ranking of 142 countries based on a variety of factors including wealth, economic growth, and quality of life.
In 2015, Norway ranked first overall for the 7th consecutive year (incidentally, the Netherlands ranked 8th, and the United States ranked 11th). So, what makes those Norwegians so happy? While January may not be the best time of year to ask, I did just that by traveling to the winter wonderland of Tromsø, Norway.
Known as “The Capital of the Arctic,” Tromsø is located 217 miles north of the Arctic Circle in the middle of the Aurora Borealis zone. For this reason, it is one of the best places on earth to view the Northern Lights. Even if the average high temperature in January is -2.2° C / 28° F, winter is the time of year to see the Northern Lights because it is so breathtakingly dark. Tromsø experiences polar nights during January, where the sun remains continuously below the horizon. For the first half of January, Tromsø has zero (yes, zero) hours of daylight. By the end of the month, that number has increased to just less than five hours of daylight.
Standing under a luminous emerald-green sky at 1 AM, I knew neither Norway’s deepest night nor its coldest frost could shake the serene sense of well being natural beauty always seems to evoke in me. I’d come to understand something of what must make Norwegians happy—nature’s otherworldly winter magic, the Northern Lights, in all their radiant, dancing wonder. The Aurora Borealis—Aurora, for the Roman goddess of dawn, and Boreas, or “north wind” in Greek— is an emblematic name for the enchantingly beautiful phenomena reverently beheld by humans throughout history.
But, the Aurora Borealis isn’t the only beauty to behold in Norway. The particular mix of vast, sparkling fjords against stark, foreboding mountain peaks means, for me, “Tromsø, Norway,” could be among my top answers to Proust’s question, “When and where were you happiest?” particularly since one of the best ways to experience Norway’s awe-inspiring landscape is behind a team of six powerfully lean huskies.
During the sparse daylight hours, Mark and I took turns riding in and driving a dog sled across Norway’s alpine tundra—a thrilling and chilling prospect. Maintaining some semblance of control (or at least the appearance thereof) over six wily, free-spirited animals while moving rapidly across packed snow is not for the faint of heart, but I imagine there are few better ways to authentically experience Norway’s beauty than in its wilderness in the company of canines, but then again, I have a particular fondness for furry, four-legged companions.
Perhaps it’s all the opportunities to get outside and experience nature’s beauty that makes Norwegians so happy. There is a ream of research that supports the claim that spending time in natural environments boosts happiness and wellbeing, as well as physical and mental health.
That said, there are plenty of things to see in Tromsø that don’t require a snowsuit, woolen hat, massive gloves, and very warm winter boots. The Arctic Cathedral’s spectacularly lit triangular façade stands guard over the city and is worth a visit. Likewise, a stroll along the town’s streets of wood-clad shops is a charming way to spend an afternoon and to see the work of local craftspeople such as glassmakers, painters, woodworkers, and knitters. Any time of day, Tromsø’s glowing restaurants serve everything from filet of reindeer to dried, salted cod (as well as hamburgers for those less adventurous eaters). And, Tromsø has no shortage of museums, which include The Polar Museum, The Art Museum of Northern Norway, The University Museum of Tromsø, The Perspektivet Museum, Tromsø Gallery of Contemporary Art, and Polaria, an aquarium that features arctic sea life and offers a spectacular panoramic film on the Northern Lights.
I can’t guarantee that you’ll find perfect happiness in Tromsø, but perhaps you’ll come to know something of it. As Helen Keller said, “Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I may be in, therein to be content.”