Have the Danes found the key to happiness?

By Kate Le Gallez

Have the Danes found the key to happiness?
Just like mindfulness, being present in the hygge sense requires conscious effort.

Happiness and hygge

When you think of the contributions the Danes have made to the world, there’s the furniture, LEGO and pastries, obviously. There’s also the fact they’re so happy. The UN-backed World Happiness Report ranked Denmark number one in 2016, and number two in 2017. (Norway pipped Denmark by a mere 0.015 points, while New Zealand ranked eighth and Australia ninth).

Lately, it’s the happiness thing that’s grabbed the world’s attention, although we haven’t had a lot of insight into exactly why the Danes are so happy. It’s certainly not the weather. Their design-filled interiors, renowned food and Sarah Lund-style jumpers don’t quite explain it either – though they play a role. One possible explanation? Hygge.

Pronounced “hoo-ga”, this distinctly Danish word defies direct translation into English. Dr Jeppe Trolle Linnet, a Danish anthropologist specialising in consumer culture, describes hygge as a way of being – alone or with others – that brings comfort and a sense of physical and mental wellbeing. “You’re allowed to be there in the way you are,” he says, “there is not much demanded from you.”

Despite having long been part of Danish culture, hygge really came to the wider world’s attention in 2016 – a year that was, for many people, distinctly un-hyggelig. This timing, and the Danes’ position atop the world happiness rankings, perhaps explain why hygge and happiness are so often mentioned in the same breath.

Exploring this idea in The Little Book of Hygge, Meik Wiking, who is also CEO of Copenhagen’s Happiness Research Institute, observes that relationships and experiencing positive emotions have been closely linked to increased happiness. This is where he sees hygge’s role, writing “hygge gives us the language, the objective and the methods for planning and preserving happiness – and for getting a little bit of it every day.”

Naming and not shaming
The language of hygge may well explain some of its power in Danish culture. Hygge is both noun and verb, while hyggelig/hyggeligt is an adjective. These different forms mean hygge weaves it way easily through Danish conversation. Experiences can be hyggelig. But you can also hygge yourself. It’s a way of thinking about things not replicated in our language and perhaps not our mindset either.

English journalist Charlotte Abrahams found this aspect of hygge revealing. Self-described as “driven”, Abrahams tried out a more hyggelig approach to life, writing about her experiment in Hygge: A Celebration of Simple Pleasures. On one occasion, after ditching her morning run for a sleep-in, she consciously embraces a day of self-hygge-ing. “I do think that naming it is important. It really did change my perception of that day,” she says. “I think maybe that’s why people have responded to it, because actually it’s something we’re all familiar with. We do all take time out but we might feel a bit guilty about it, and perhaps deciding that we’re hygge-ing ourselves makes us feel a bit less guilty, which is a good thing.”

The hyggelig experience is as likely to be found at a backyard barbeque as it huddled around a fireplace. In fact, barbeque and hygge go well together in many ways, says Dr Linnet. Your average backyard get together, with its laidback vibe and shared approach to catering, is the kind of egalitarian and convivial version of togetherness that hygge prizes. And just like at a barbeque, nothing kills a hyggelig mood more quickly than assumptions of prestige or ego-driven conversation.

Purposeful and present
As hygge migrated beyond Denmark’s borders, the concept was often tied to the trappings of the imagined hyggelig life – things like woolly socks and handwoven blankets. But the consumerist approach missed the point. True hygge is about being engaged with the people you are with and the experience you are sharing. It requires presence in a way that can parallel mindfulness. Dr Linnet succinctly sums up the similarities: hygge offers in a social setting what mindfulness offers individuals through meditation.

Just like mindfulness, being present in the hygge sense requires conscious effort. For Abrahams, that meant making small efforts – like leaving her phone at home when she went out for a walk – and bigger efforts that challenged some of her established thought patterns. She styles these bigger efforts as acts of self-kindness, “so many of the philosophies that become popular,” she says “are about self-improvement which is kind of rooted in this idea that we’re not really good enough as we are.”

In contrast, she explains “there’s something very kind about hygge and something very forgiving. We’re all allowed to just take a bit of a break from all of that pressure of trying to improve ourselves all the time.”

We don’t really know if hygge is the Danish secret to happiness. But that may be moot. What hygge does for the Danes is name a universal need, explains Dr Linnet. “If there is something good that the concept can do for the world” he adds, “it is to point attention to the benefits of being present with each other and giving ourselves time.” The world finally seems to be catching on.

7 ways to include a little more hygge in your life
1. Put your phone away – even better, leave it at home when you go out.
2. Light candles – often. Each and every Dane burn six kilos of candle wax per year.
3. View Friday nights on the couch differently – the Danes call it fredagshygge.
4. Avoid multitasking – it’s hard to be present when concentrating on three different things.
5. Create cherished family traditions – big or small, they help to bring family members together in the moment.
6. Make rather than buy when you can.


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