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10 Tips to Boost Mental Health with Sea Kayaking and Nordic Friluftsliv

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues:

“Take 2 Nature Pills and call me in the morning”


Why do Denmark and its Nordic neighbors consistently rank as the happiest countries on earth according to the World Happiness Report? Is it the work-life balance? The high level of social trust? The generous welfare state? Or could it be the physical movement and open-air living baked into everyday life? As a sea kayaker who wrestles with physical and mental health issues, I was curious to investigate the Nordic happiness recipe on a recent trip to Copenhagen. What I found there, I’m happy to report, is easily applied back here in British Columbia.

Open-air Life in Copenhagen’s Inner Harbour
Paddlers from the 'Kayak Republic of Denmark' Enjoying Open-air Life…with Beer

The Secret to Nordic Well-being — Friluftsliv (open-air life) and Hygge (coziness)

The Nordic happiness recipe begins with Friluftsliv. Translated literally as ‘open-air life’, the term was coined by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen in the 1850’s and today is used by Danes, Swedes and Norwegians. As a philosophy, friluftsliv is about disconnecting from daily stress and living a simple life outdoors, in nature, without disturbing it. Friluftsliv can refer to anything from a short paddle in a sea kayak, to a walk with friends, birdwatching, a chilly lake swim, a bike ride with your family, camping outdoors, picking berries, cooking hotdogs around a campfire, or simply sitting in the woods. Friluftsliv isn’t about going far or racing competitively. You don’t have to paddle to an offshore island or march deep into the darkest part of the forest. Just turn off your phone, and head outdoors. Anywhere you connect with nature will do.

During the dark winter months, Danes dial up the good cheer by adding a side helping of hygge to everything. Hygge is about coziness and surrounding yourself with the simple things that make life good, like warmth, security, togetherness, friendship, laughter, and seasonal food and drink. Meik Wiking, CEO of Copenhagen’s Happiness Research Institute and the author of The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way To Live Well, describes hygge as the coziness, comfort, and contentment that come from warm food, candles, wool blankets, alcohol or hot chocolate, and lots of small gatherings with friends. Hygge, he says, can be created indoors or out, year around, and is one of the Nordic keys for living a happy life.

Copenhagen’s Active Outdoor Life

On my July 2023 trip to Copenhagen, I wanted to size up the paddling scene, witness friluftsliv firsthand, and see why The Economist ranks Copenhagen as the second most liveable city in the world (a few notches above Vancouver at number five).

World's Most Liveable Cities, According to 'The Economist'

I began with a walk around Copenhagen’s inner harbour. I was struck immediately by the parks, trees, and water features spread throughout the city. Nearly everywhere, a little glimpse of nature is only a block or so away. Tens of thousands of people like me are wandering around the harbourfront on foot, and suntanning, swimming, and paddling seemingly anything that floats. Despite the crowds, no one seems rushed or stressed. Instead, the atmosphere feels festive: relaxed, happy, friendly, orderly, and safe.

More than 230,000 swimmers each year use the harbour’s unheated floating pools, unexpectedly earning Copenhagen the CNN’s crown as the #1 city in the world for swimming. Although Vancouver ranks #5, I would personally rate our sandy beaches and heated waterfront pools ahead of Copenhagen’s.

Islands Brygge Floating Pool in Copenhagen’s Inner Harbour (Photo by Maria Rasmussen)

For the paddling community, Kayak Bar is Copenhagen’s main social hub with a waterfront restaurant, bar, and music venue. Kayak Republic next door offers kayak rentals, lessons, and paddling tours of Copenhagen’s beautiful harbour and canals. Nearby Bryggens Kajakpolo is the venue for kayak polo with four courts hosting spirited matches throughout the day.

In comparison, B.C.’s paddling scene is more diverse with kayaks, SUP’s, surf skis, racing canoes, outriggers, dragon boats and an annual Dragon Boat Festival. Our vibrant paddling community revolves around a plethora of paddling clubs supported by physical hubs that include Vancouver’s Jericho Beach Kayak, Club Locarno, and Creekside Paddling Center; North Vancouver’s Deep Cove Kayak Center; and Victoria’s Ocean River Sports.

Bryggens Kajakpolo has Four Courts for Kayak Polo
Sooke’s Single Court for Kayak Polo

Copenhagen’s winter paddling scene trumps ours in British Columbia. The highlight is the Saint Lucia parade on December 13th when kayaks dressed up with Christmas lights meet at Kayak Bar for mulled wine, then paddle in a procession through Copenhagen’s canals while singing Christmas carols. Afterwards, there’s more mulled wine at Kayak Bar, served with hot Bouillabaisse, bread, candles, and a helping of hygge.

Saint Lucia Parade

Copenhagen and Amsterdam annually rank as the world’s top cities for cyclists. Both have huge networks of dedicated cycle paths, separated from traffic. Many of these paths provide a strong connection to nature by passing through parks, along the waterfront, or beside tree-lined streets. In 2022, 62% of Copenhagen’s residents enjoyed ‘open-air life’ by commuting to work or school by bike, compared to 16% in Victoria and 9% in Vancouver. Nevertheless, for cycling through nature, Copenhagen has little to match Vancouver’s seawall promenade (the longest in the world), or the Lochside and Galloping Goose trails around Victoria.

Car-free Cycling in Copenhagen
Car-free Cycling on Victoria’s Lochside and Galloping Goose Trails

Copenhagen’s Happiness Museum

While touring Copenhagen, of course I had to check out the world’s first Happiness Museum, opened in 2020 by The Happiness Research Institute. Could a visit there reveal more about the secret recipe for Nordic happiness?

Sure enough, displays at the museum drill down into the Nordic ingredients for building a happy life. Exercise is cited as the most impactful ingredient, increasing happiness by 6.5 points on a scale from 0 (not at all happy) to 10 (happy most of the time). Being out in nature and socializing with others each boosted happiness by 4.3 points. Gratitude and mindfulness boosted happiness, but checking social media hurt overall well-being. Temperatures >24°C were shown to increase happiness by 5.1 points. Unfortunately, researchers didn’t pinpoint whether this is a direct effect of the temperature or an indirect effect from all the women in bikinis and brawny shirtless Viking dudes.

As I wander from display to display at the Happiness Museum, I begin to see a convergence between the Nordic recipe for happiness, my personal happiness recipe, and the formula most recommended by happiness researchers. It seems we’re all using similar ingredients to bake the same cake!

At the Happiness Museum

My Personal Happiness Recipe

After serious medical issues pushed my happiness needle to a worrisome low, I spent years with a team of medical specialists seeking tools that might help. Eventually, I settled on a regime of medical treatments and psychotherapy that works for me. I also settled on a behavioural formula to dial up my personal happiness a few notches from a low baseline. I call it ‘Hip-Jeans’ which is short for Human-Powered Journeys along Novel Natural Shorelines. These journeys by kayak, bike, or on foot might last 20-30 minutes, or extend to multiple weeks. The key is to get moving outdoors in nature, exploring somewhere with a water view. Every time I do it, I feel better. And the happiness boost seems to last.

My ‘Hip-Jeans’ Happiness Recipe: Human-powered Journeys along Novel Natural Shorelines
Open-air Life in British Columbia

It works best when my cell phone is on airplane mode or turned off completely, and if I’m sharing the experience with companions. Along the way, I try to be mindful of the many things in life that I’m grateful for (among them are the timely medical interventions without which I would be dead several times over instead of writing this article).

Feeling Grateful for Time Outdoors

The Happiness Recipe Most Recommended By Researchers

My personal happiness recipe lines up closely with what happiness researchers now recommend. According to a recent paper, the five most common ways researchers advise people to seek happiness are:

  • exercising,
  • being in nature,
  • socializing,
  • gratitude, and
  • mindfulness

In a remarkable convergence, the friluftsliv formula for Nordic happiness covers all of these bases. So does Hip-Jeans.

Simply put, our bodies were designed to move. And we especially benefit from moving through natural settings, filled with greens and blues that mimic the forests and water features humans have associated with food and safety throughout our evolutionary history.

And yet today most of us live in densely populated cities, surrounded not by nature but by grey concrete. We are constantly assaulted by traffic noise that our bodies are hard-wired to perceive as a threat. Instead of moving or hanging out with friends, we sit alone for hours at a time in front of omnipresent flashing screens and beeping cell phones. Living in this environment we are so ill-suited for is like having an unrelenting stress bomb going off in our brains all day, every day; it is unhealthy not only physically, but mentally. A sure way to boost happiness is to get away from the concrete, leave the screens behind, and move our body out in nature. But how?

Leave the Screens Behind and Move Outdoors in Nature

In her study of the mental health benefits of walking on England’s South West Coast Path (link  at the end of this article), Dr. Carole Peterson at the University of Exeter doubles down on the friluftsliv and Hip-Jeans formula. Being out in nature, she says, provides enormous benefits to health and well-being. These benefits include reductions in stress, fatigue, anxiety, and depression, and an increased ability to ‘function well’ in society. Some of these benefits are hedonic (positive feelings and mood), while others are eudaemonic (feelings of competence, purpose, achievement, and autonomy). Outdoor adventures teach us to be stronger, braver, and more resilient, she says, via three separate pathways: restoration (restoring previous capacities), instoration (building new capacities), and mitigation (reducing harm).

Interestingly, Dr. Peterson’s report notes there is strong and growing evidence for the benefits of spending time in blue spaces in particular, i.e., the ocean, coastal areas, lakes, rivers, and canals (but not hot tubs, much to my dismay). It seems that spending time specifically in marine and coastal spaces boosts happiness more than green spaces and urban environments. Novelty is also important. Exploring somewhere new adds excitement to our interactions with nature and helps our ‘remembering self’ remember the experience more vividly and positively. This matches my personal experience and is why I inserted ‘novel’ and ‘shorelines’ into my Hip-Jeans happiness recipe.

A 2019 study in Frontiers in Psychology showed spending as little as 20 minutes in nature significantly lowers stress hormones. Time in nature has been linked to better sleep, reduced inflammation, improved immune function, and better mental well-being. The findings, which the researchers called a ‘nature pill’, have special importance these days with so many bad things in our daily news feeds.

Take a Nature Pill

One logical implication from the happiness research is that paddling a sea kayak, SUP, or canoe along one of British Columbia’s marine trails should boost happiness if done with the right mindset. A second implication is that by helping paddlers connect with nature, BC Marine Trails plays an important role boosting well-being in British Columbia.

Take A Nature Pill: 10 Tips

Drawing upon an extensive body of evidence, medical doctors in many jurisdictions around the world (i.e., British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario in Canada) can now officially prescribe a ‘nature pill’ instead of pharmaceuticals to manage anxiety, and improve mental and physical health. After a week in Copenhagen, what mental health prescription will I be taking back to British Columbia? A very simple one. Medication and psychotherapy if advised by a medical team. Beyond that, for better mental health we should put away our phones; lace up our walking shoes, hop on a bike, or grab a paddle; and move, outside, in nature. To boost mental health, we should immerse ourselves in the greens and blues of the natural world and strive to live an open-air life. During the dark days of winter, we should also dial up the hygge with candles, drinks, and gatherings with friends. Here are 10 tips on how to do it:

  1. Start where you are. The first rule of friluftsliv is to start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can. Nature is all around. Right outside your door there are birds to watch, flowers to smell, and trees to hug. Don’t put up barriers by making it a big project. Just go.

  2. Move. Human beings evolved on their feet. For hundreds of thousands of years, we walked everywhere, all day, every day. Our bodies were designed to move. And yet today we sit for hours at a time, walking only to get another cup of coffee, or to pee the last cup of coffee out. The result—obesity, diabetes, heart disease, a crisis in mental health, and a host of other problems that shorten our lifespan and reduce our quality of life. Walking in nature reduces stress hormones, improves mood, and has been linked to lower levels of rumination, anxiety, and depression. One study found that walking or jogging two to three times a week (and presumably also paddling, cycling, etc.) improves depression symptoms more than SSRI antidepressant drugs. The study found that “the benefits from exercise tended to be proportional to the intensity,” meaning the more intense the better. Aim for 20-30 minutes or more.

    Long-term immersion has even more benefits. Try spending one day, three days, seven days—or more—in nature, and see how your experience of yourself and the world shifts. Try to structure your everyday life to build more movement into it. Studies of ‘Blue Zones’ where seniors live to an unusually old age show people in these areas move a lot more than people elsewhere—not at the gym, but just going about their everyday life. So build more movement into your daily life. Take the stairs. Walk or bike instead of using a car.

  3. Forgo the tech. If you’re focusing on your watch or phone, or wearing headphones, you aren’t engaging with your environment. If you’re checking emails, answering texts, comparing yourself to others on social media, doom scrolling through the news, or letting Donald Trump hijack your attention yet again, you’re poisoning your brain. So put away the tech or leave it at home. Try a digital detox and see how much better you feel.
Try a Digital Detox and Leave the Tech at Home
  1. Practice mindfulness. Pause and take a deep breath. Look around. Listen to the birds. Run your hands across a paddle or a tree. Use all your senses to soak up the landscape around you with every molecule of your being. Take the time to appreciate tiny, insignificant details like ‘sunlight leaking through trees’ (komorebi in Japanese). Although it might sound a bit ‘woo-woo’, forest bathing (shinrenouque in Japanese) is backed by scientific research. The smell of forest aerosols immediately puts our brains in a different place and helps lower blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels. Phytoncide aerosols given off by certain trees have been shown to boost the immune system for 7 days after a forest walk.
Use All Your Senses to Soak up the Landscape Around You
  1. Connect with others. Any outdoor activity that brings you into contact with both nature and your community is better than another day sitting on your sofa staring at screens. So don’t be shy. Invite a friend outside today! Join a paddling club. Visit one of BC’s many physical hubs that bring the paddling community together. Volunteer with BC Marine Trails. Anything that moves you in the direction of connecting with a broader community is worthwhile. Several local paddling clubs and hubs are listed with their links below, and in addition, here are links to BC Marine Trails webpages for the most up-to-date listing of paddling clubs and business partners.
Boost Happiness by Connecting with Nature and Your Community
  1. Create a positive quest. Try to formulate a positive quest to give structure and meaning to your time in nature. Years ago, my paddling quest was to explore every sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island, working my way from Barclay Sound north to Quatsino Sound. In 2022, I needed a heroic quest to provide structure to a trip to Europe. I was inspired by the Netflix documentary 14 Peaks about summiting the world’s 14 tallest mountains, but I’m a water person and not really into mountains. After days thinking about it, I knew I hit pay dirt when I landed on this exciting quest: dining at 14 different waterfront patios. Yum!! It doesn’t really matter what your quest is, just find something, anything, that energizes you and adds zest, structure and meaning to your wanderings.

  2. You don’t have to be a hero (but be a hero if you want to). Don’t be too snobby about what counts as nature. Let go of that heroic vision where the only thing that counts is a big expedition to a distant shore or mountaintop. City nature counts. Try a micro-adventure. Explore your neighborhood and find little bits of nature close to home. Everything outdoors counts and will give you the benefits of movement, natural light, and fresh air. If you want to dial it up, go ahead.

    There are two types of fun. Type 1 fun is fun while you’re doing it. It’s a pleasant walk along a beach on a sunny day. Type 2 fun sucks while you’re doing it, but rocks in retrospect. It’s the kayak trip where you almost killed yourself and your girlfriend, zig-zagging through breaking seas, before finally reaching the 5-star beach you (shouldn’t have) set out for. But afterwards, you realize that it was because of that bad day you picked up new skills and feelings of competence, achievement, and autonomy. It was because of that bad day you reached a new power balance in your relationship with your girlfriend, ended up marrying her, and decades later still have a great story to tell.

    The Happiness Research Institute found 22% of people’s happiest memories involved reaching a peak after a difficult struggle, and 36% of happy memories involved turning a setback into a good story. People who see themselves as the hero overcoming obstacles in a positive personal story have higher levels of mental health and well-being.

  3. Practice gratitude. Pausing to feel grateful about things you appreciate can create a sense of contentment and fulfillment, without changing anything about your actual life situation. Many studies have confirmed that gratitude lowers stress levels and boosts happiness.

  4. Don’t let the weather ruin your day. In Nordic countries, parents often say, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” They encourage children to go outside every day, regardless of the weather. From childhood, Nordics develop what Stanford University Psychologist Kari Leibowitz calls a ‘positive wintertime mindset’. Learning to dress the part is key. For paddlers, this might mean a drysuit, quality boots, and neoprene gloves or paddling pogies to protect hands—and field-testing everything to make sure your gear works in the conditions you intend to paddle. When you finish, end on a high note with a hot bath, some tea, and a helping of hygge.

  5. Have fun! The golden rule of friluftsliv is to make it fun! Life shouldn’t be a slog. Give yourself permission to play and belly laugh like you did when you were a kid. Jump off that cliff and make a big splash!

The Golden Rule of Friluftsliv: Make it Fun!
Practicing Friluftsliv’s Golden Rule


Can we boost happiness by paddling in nature and embracing Nordic friluftsliv? Of course we can! British Columbia is one of the best places on earth for outdoor fun. We have it all—an ocean, lakes, rivers, forests, hiking, cycling, skiing, camping, fishing, paddling clubs, a great network of marine trails, you name it. Our coastal climate is like Copenhagen’s: long summer days, snow in winter, nearly identical August highs and January lows. The only difference is that Vancouver gets twice the rain. So buy a good paddling jacket or raincoat and get outside!

Once you take a ‘nature pill’ and start spending more time outdoors doing things you love, your inner joy will radiate out into your broader life and touch everyone around you. To boost happiness, be the spark that sends joy out into the universe.

More About Nature and Mental Health:

The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative by Florence Williams.

The Nature Cure: How Time Outdoors Transforms Our Memory, Imagination and Logic by Sam Pyrah.

Blue Spaces: Why Time Spent Near the Water Is The Secret To Happiness by Elle Hunt.

The Norwegian Secret:  How Friluftsliv Boosts Health and Happiness by Rachael Dixon.

Friluftsliv: The Nordic Concept of Getting Outdoors by Maddy Savage.

Nurtured by nature: Psychological research is advancing our understanding of how time in nature can improve our mental health and sharpen our cognition by Kirsten Weir.

Economic Assessment of the Mental Health and Wellbeing Benefits of Walking The South West Coast Path (2022) by Dr. Carolyn Peterson, University of Exeter


Why Spending Time in Nature Makes Us Happier and Healthier With Florence Williams.

Why Does Spending Time in Nature Make Us Happier? of Form

Jerry Kaye

Jerry Kaye’s personal happiness journey began with a degree in psychology covering both the hard science of neurophysiology and the softer clinical side of things. After serious medical issues pushed his happiness dial to a worrisome low, he spent years working with his medical team and diving into the scientific literature for tools that might help. He lives in Vancouver and, together with his wife Julee, has been exploring the coast of British Columbia by kayak and sailboat for 40 years.