The One Word That Makes Norwegians the Happiest People in the World

Grasping the meaning of this seemingly untranslatable Norwegian word (and adopting it as our own) is bound to give us a boost in the joy department.

Free education and health care are surely among the reasons why the 2017 World Happiness Report declared Norway as the happiest country in the world, but researchers attribute a Norwegian’s good cheer to one single word.

The word is dugnad and it means to do community work. Before you rush out to help an elderly neighbor cross the street or walk dogs at your local shelter (although both are worthwhile activities), you need to know that dugnad does not directly translate to traditional volunteerism, although the work of a dugnad is voluntary.

The-One-Word-that-Makes-Norwegians-the-Happiest-People-in-the-WorldFelix Lipov/Shutterstock

Deeply rooted in the country’s heritage, dugnad is different than routine charitable work. It describes times when community members come together to contribute their skills toward the goal of maintaining or beautifying a certain geographic location. This could be through repairs, building, cleaning, gardening, or painting. Norwegian law doesn’t enforce dugnad event attendance but widespread participation is expected and perceived as a vital part of belonging to neighborhoods, organizations, and workplaces, which all often coordinate their own dugnads.

A Norwegian friend tells us, “dugnad is a part of the national soul. It’s not really about patting ourselves on the back for doing a good deed.” Dugnad has a cultural resonance that aligns with Norway’s values for generosity and collective care. Dugnad participation strengthens bonds and maintains a nation; everyone benefits from a well-cared-for community.


If you’re inspired to try it yourself, here are some ideas to bring the spirit of dugnad to your area.

  • Create a neighborhood calendar where people can sign up to take turns mowing lawns for the elderly in your area.
  • Start a community garden.
  • Organize coworkers to repaint the headquarters of a local nonprofit.
  • Find schools that need books and arrange a donation drive.
  • Organize a clean up day at our local park and plant new flowers.

Remember the goal is to chip in to keep the country happy; instead of hosting a bake sale to raise money to buy a local sports team new uniforms, think of having a sewing party to repair them instead.

No worries if you don’t own any painting supplies or aren’t sure how to garden. Not all of us are the outdoor spring-cleaning type, but you can still contribute by showing up to a charitable community event with water, coffee, or baked goods in hand. Communal food plays big role in the dugnad; a meal after a day of service is customary. A shared meal in The act of helping one another followed by celebratory fellowship can bring us closer to neighbors, co-workers, or fellow parents at our child’s school. We’re all about reaping the health benefits of social connection.

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Gina Ryder
Gina Ryder is a New York-based writer specializing in psychology, relationships, and health. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest, Psychology Today, The Huffington Post, and more. A former editor with The Huffington Post, Gina is a huge advocate for the power of personal narrative to humanize news, connect people and bring social understanding.