On the snowy shore of the northern Swedish city of Luleå, where, despite it being -10C, bathers are lowering themselves into a rectangular hole in the frozen seawater. The sun is already disappearing, and it is barely 2pm. Soon, in a month’s time, there will be just three hours of daylight every day.
“It’s like a happiness rush afterwards,” says Katariina Yliperttula, 44, who is taking a dip before work. She hardly ever swims in the summer, but started doing so frequently in the winter a couple of years ago.
While many have their own hobbies that keep them going through the cold dark winter months here – ice swimming, cross-country skiing, walking on the “ice road” out into the archipelago – one thing remains a problem: loneliness. In an attempt to counter that, authorities in Luleå have launched a campaign to ease that social isolation, ever so slightly, by encouraging people to say hello to one another.
“It’s a really good thing that people say hi to each other. It means people who meet each other, don’t know each other, become a little happier,” says Pontus Wikström, 61, the chair of the winter bathing group Kallis Luleå.
The Säg hej! (say hello!) campaign says it aims to create a friendlier city by nudging people towards small but significant social interactions. Adverts are running on buses, and workshops are being held in schools.
Recent research found that among 16- to 29-year-olds, 45% of people in Luleå were experiencing problems as a result of loneliness. Among those aged 85 and over the figure was much lower – 39% among women and 26% among men.
Micael Dahlen, a professor in wellbeing, welfare and happiness at Stockholm School of Economics, says that while loneliness – especially among the young – is a global problem, perhaps Sweden, with its dark, cold winters, is more aware of it.
“Loneliness and isolation are huge problems any time of the year almost anywhere in the world right now,” he says. “It comes with the time we live in, the lifestyles we have, where we don’t necessarily come across each other to the same extent as we used to. This accelerates in winter time when we’re outdoors less, social less.”
Åsa Koski, who works for Luleå municipality, came up with the idea for the campaign. She wants the city, which is undergoing a period of rapid growth as it tries to attract tens of thousands of new people to work in “green” industry and other services, to not grow more atomised as a result.
“We don’t just want that Luleå is going to grow as a city; we want Luleå to be a pleasant and safe and friendly city as well where there’s culture, leisure activities, sport,” says Koski.
Being greeted by strangers makes people feel “more seen and a bit more like you belong”, she adds. “Research shows that it has an effect on health and often an effect on wanting to help each other. If you say hi to your neighbours you are more likely to help them.”
In Luleå city centre, while most agree that saying hello is to be encouraged, many say that the more international the city becomes, the friendlier and more open its society.
Mee Young Yim, 62, who moved to Luleå from the US 23 years ago, says people in the city are “mostly friendly” but often not at first. “Everyone’s a bit reserved, but if you ask then people will help you.”
When she first moved to Luleå, she found it a culture shock because she was used to everyone saying hi in the US. “But here, especially the old, you say hi, and they just looked at me at first. But it has changed a lot as well, because we have more people from abroad.”
During the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic commentators joked that social distancing was nothing new for many Swedes, who, as the journalist and author Lisa Bjurwald put it, “like to keep a remarkably wide so-called interpersonal distance … This rule has long applied to all aspects of everyday Swedish life, from navigating the supermarket aisles to waiting at the bus stop. Yes, even when it rains.”
According to Seyed Mohsen Hashemi, 25, a student living in the nearby village of Kallax, the situation is even worse now. “Before Covid it was 50-50: some people said hi to each other. But after Covid people have become more scared to have contact with strangers,” he says.
When people greet each other less, they become “more isolated”, says Hashemi, they make less contact with people and become vulnerable to depression. “One hej can change a day for somebody.”
Hashemi, who was born in Iran and whose parents are from Afghanistan, came to Luleå nine years ago as a refugee. “I come from the Middle East and people used to say hi to each other. It’s rude not to say hi to each other. But here if you say hi to strangers they will say: ‘He’s drunk’,” he says, laughing.
Swedish people, Hashemi, has found, take longer to warm up: “They tend to know somebody for a long time and then become more friendly and open to that person.”
Personally, Hashemi has found that vitamin D, gaming, work and study help him get through the winter months – as well as installing a few white lights in his home.
Ronja Melin, 33, illustrator, who moved to Luleå from Skåne, in southern Sweden, in 2020, says she has always been a strong advocate of saying hi since she was a child.
But the campaign is a positive step. “You live in your own bubble quite a lot,” she says. “To notice people is always important.”