Danish are consistently ranked among the happiest nations in the world and hygge seems to have something to do with this: is this Danish practice something we can adopt? Let's look into this on the National Hugging Day!
The foundation of Danish happiness
There is a chance that you’ve heard the Danish word “hygge” before. Media talks about the “Danish lifestyle” and the “Danish obsession with cosiness” and there are articles promising to teach you “How to be more Danish” through the practice of hygge. Hygge is being simplified and almost fetishized and has certainly gained international popularity.
Hygge does have a fairly strong material component – there are items which seem inseparable from the experience, and, of course, there is nothing wrong with bringing more physical cosiness into your everyday life – think candles, blankets etc. But there is a chance that some of the core aspects of hygge – the stuff, that really makes it “work” are lost in translation.
Perhaps, the Danish never intended to educate the whole world on this practice and happiness in the first place, but the numbers speak for themselves – Denmark has consistently ranked in the top three happiest countries in the world in the UN’s World Happiness report over the past seven years.
No doubt, to at least a certain extent, happiness is highly subjective and not a one-size-fits-all kind of notion. Our values, goals and priorities (whatever has the potential to make us happy) differ – not just among nations but among every two individuals on a street! That said, we might be more successful in borrowing some useful knowledge and tips if we focus on the similarities - rather than differences – and what the Danes can tell us about happiness.
A central and widely discussed reason why the Danes (along with pretty much all the other Nordic countries) are so happy is that they live in a welfare state – a state that promotes the economic and social wellbeing of its citizens by offering things like universal free healthcare, free university education and fairly generous unemployment benefits. The economic and social security and well-being that such a state offers can be easily linked to the model created by the Russian-American psychologist Abraham Maslow, whose “pyramid” we have all heard of.
The rule of Maslow and why we can’t escape it
At the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid sit the most elementary human needs – for food, water, sleep and security. It is claimed (and probably very obvious to each one of us) that, while these most basic needs are not fulfilled, we cannot even think about pursuing more purposeful goals, such as “love and belonging”, “self-esteem” and “self-actualization”.
So, clearly, physical needs are crucial and, without fulfilling them, happiness and well-being is hardly imaginable. But, at the same time, fulfilling them alone (and even over-doing them) is not enough to bring about happiness and well-being. This has been suggested by the results of many research projects, among which are ones conducted by Meik Wiking, the CEO of the (wait for it!) Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark, as well as the author of the best-selling book “The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living”.
Part of the conclusion they’ve reached is that, except in very poor countries, where meeting the basic needs can be a daily struggle to many, happiness depends more on the quality of our close relationships than on material well-being. It might not seem like ground-breaking news (after all, isn’t this what every inspirational quote of Facebook is telling us?), but, then again, Danes seem to be equally victorious in this department, taking full control also of the “love and belonging” segment in Maslow’s pyramid. How come?
What is “hygge”
Meik Wiking of the Happiness Research Institute claims that the Danish happiness has very much to do with “hygge” – and it’s time we learnt a bit more about what it is! Even Wiking himself admits that it’s not an easy concept to explain and that Winnie the Pooh might have been onto something when he said (about love): “You don’t spell it, you feel it!”. While for the non-Danish “hygge” is also not the easiest word to spell and pronounce, let’s try to get to the core of it.
“Hygge” (pronounced hyoo·guh) has been called anything from “cosy togetherness”, “cosiness of the soul”, “the art of creating intimacy” to (more academically) “a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being (regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture).” It is about atmosphere and experience. “Hygge” is characterised by the deep sense of safety and security, by the strong conviction that you can let your guard down completely. It is about being with the people we love and about feeling at home.
The concept of hygge combines tradition (Christmas time and the Danish Christmas traditions are the very centre-point of it), togetherness and many different “hyggelig” activities and even objects. (Let’s bring some new vocabulary in, shall we? “Hyggelig” is basically hygge-like, possessing the characteristics of hygge. It refers to the feeling, mood, atmosphere and spirit, and contains something pleasant, relaxed, safe, comfortable and recognizable. I’ll use the chance to go full-on grammatical on you and mention that “hyggelig” is the adjective and “hyggeligt” is the adverb.)
How to hygge: objects
In the minds of the Danes hygge is inseparable from various objects and situations when they are used, such as candles. When asked about what they most associate with hygge, candles are mentioned by an overwhelming 85% of Danes. The Danish people set the European record in candle consumption over and over again, each of them burning six kilos of candle wax per year (to put it in perspective, the closest runner up – Austria – is behind by half, burning only 3,16 kilos per person).
Danes are clearly obsessed with light, since candles are not the only hyggelig lighting objects. They select lamps very carefully (it is, of course, also a Scandinavian design “thing”) and, more importantly, place them strategically to create cosy, soothing pools of light, which create the perfect hygge atmosphere. They select restaurants to pay a visit to based on whether hyggelig lighting can be expected or not, and the general rule for artificial lighting is – the lower the hue, the more hygge. Sunsets and candle flames are about 1800 Kelvin, and this is the hue you’re looking for when you want to experience hygge.
Since we’re onto the light subject, I cannot skip mentioning fireplaces. There are around 750,000 fireplaces and wood-fired stoves in Denmark, a country with little more than 2,5 million homes. This is 3 out of 10, while, for example, in the United Kingdom there are 1 million fireplaces to the total of 28 million homes. For Danes fireplace is the ultimate hygge headquarters, around which people can spend time, feeling cosy and warm, and, most importantly, feeling the hyggelig togetherness intensified. Especially if there is a thunderstorm roaring outside…
The list goes on, and close to the top of it is a “hyggekrog” – a nook, a special place in the room (very often this will be the bay window, where the windowsill is turned into a proper hygge den), where you snuggle up with a blanket, book and a cup of tea. And sweets. Hygge is definitely not about dieting and calory-counting, since sweets, cakes and hearty, soulful savoury dishes have a special place reserved on the hygge VIP list.
The minimalist and casual, yet stylish approach to clothing might seem characteristic to the whole Nordics and not just Denmark exclusively, but the Danes are definitely no exception – the casual and simple comfort perfectly describes hyggelig dressing style. Scarves, soft fabrics, wool and knits are very Danish, and comfort and cosiness are very much prioritized. It appears that the hygge-inspired focus on positive experiences also applies to the way they select and use clothing – through buying consciously, refusing to follow fleeting fads and weekly changes in fashion, focussing on the sensation and emotion, bonding with the piece of clothing. There is even the term “hyggebukser”, which refers to your favourite hygge pants…
How to hygge: activities
You can certainly hygge by yourself. That’s what the hyggekrog is designed for – you snuggle up with your favourite hot drink, with a good book, a diary or an old photo album, you light a candle or a fireplace and hygge away. But the most hyggelig moments are, nevertheless, the ones which you spend with other people.
Hygge can take place both indoors and outdoors. The perfect image of indoor hygge is of a stormy evening in a small forest cabin, where you’re snuggled up around the fireplace with your closest friends or family, playing board games, drinking mulled wine, having light and cosy conversations (controversial topics, such as politics, religion and such are considered non-hyggelig or “uhyggeligt”) or just enjoying a comfortable silence, while listening to the rain tapping on the roof. As for the conversations – everyone is very much aware that hygge is not the time for bringing up sensitive topics or creating tension; nor is it the time to boast and try to show yourself off.
Indoor hygge has also very much to do with cooking – usually, cooking together. The concept of Slow Food is very alive and well in the Nordic countries, and this is evident also in the food-related practices of hygge. It is very much about the process and not the result – cooking is another fun, cosy and slow bonding experience to have. Hardly ever it is about one person rummaging about in the kitchen to impress others with their cooking – no, it is about the communal experience of spending the evening together creatively and in an egalitarian fashion.
Hygge can take place outdoors too. While autumn and winter with the flames and hot drinks might seem like the obvious hygge seasons, hygge is widely practiced in summer and generally during the warmer, more outdoorsy times. Think hiking and camping, spending nights in tents and sitting around a campfire (surprise, surprise), roasting potatoes, singing and listening to the crackling of logs. It is easy to transport hygge to such circumstances and places, because at the very core of it lies simplicity and laid-back attitude. Hygge is never about fancy and expensive things and experiences, if anything, it is the complete antithesis of that. The simpler, the cosier. And, the cosier, the more hygge.
Is hygge the cause of happiness?
So, what does it have to do with the legendary Danish happiness? Everything, it seems. With their most elementary needs thoroughly fulfilled by their welfare state, they are in a position to confirm that the material security and welfare alone will not make you happy. But we know what the next level on Maslow's pyramid is – and the Danes are fully exploring its potential.
The research carried out by the Happiness Research Institute validates the claim that the base element among those who consider themselves happy is, without exception, their meaningful and positive social relationships. At the same time, when individuals experience social isolation, many of the same brain regions become active that are active during the experience of physical pain. Relationships – rewarding, close, intimate relationships are what makes us happy, safe and fulfilled. Relationships which are consciously developed, attended to and allowed to flourish in a safe and cosy environment is the fabric that holds our whole life together.
I am willing to bet that hygge – when explained with various definitions and examples is not some weird, alien concept to you. I’m actually willing to bet that you’ve experienced it too. You might not call it hygge (or anything at all), but you know it when you feel it (like Winnie the Pooh). We are all capable of hygge, and (I’m betting a lot today) we all enjoy hygge. But the Danes have put a label on it – and, clearly, it has paid off.
Hygge-like (hyggelig) moments are probably ones that constitute our fondest memories, and we would all like to go “there” again. But, to be honest, it seems pretty unpredictable, doesn’t it? Many of us probably haven’t thought about working actively on the environment that could bring such precious moments about – again and again. But the Danes have. With the use of hygge they have discovered a way to consciously cultivate happiness – not just to randomly and occasionally stumble upon it.
Hygge allows to plan for and reserve the time for the little everyday happiness – which, as we all know, is not actually so little. “Everyday” – this is where most of our lives play out and what we have in great abundance. It seems relatively easy to be happy once a year during an exotic beach holiday, sipping cocktails and enjoying the water. Hygge is what motivates and structures the way we make the most of all the other – more mundane, “everyday” times. Benjamin Franklin said: “Happiness consists more in small conveniences or pleasures that occur every day than in great pieces of good fortune that happen but seldom.” Which just goes to show that you don’t have to be Danish to know and achieve this for yourself.
The Hygge you have on Fridays and Sundays
To be in the mood for hygge
The nook in the kitchen or living room, where one can sit and have hyggelig time
A person who plays with the kids and may be a little too lenient
Chit-chat or cosy conversation that doesn’t touch on controversial issues
A moment of hygge
Creepy, scary, contrary to the sense of safety and security that hygge and hyggelig things possess
About the author: I am a reader, a writer and I love hiking in the mountains. If I can avoid going shopping to IKEA - I will. And I enjoy thinking and writing about the things that keep me up at night the most. Especially, if there is even the slightest chance that it might help bring about even the tiniest bit of change.