WHERE IS THE HAPPINESS? PART II: THE DANISH WAY
In the recent years, Danes have earned the reputation of a pretty happy nation: their country has topped the UN’s World Happiness Report three times since 2013. A combination of high levels of social support, freedom to make life choices, good healthy life expectancy, and a relatively high GDP gives Denmark its advantage overs. On top of that, they enjoy short working weeks, free health care and university education, and annual five weeks of paid holiday. Who wouldn't be happy with all of that, right?
Danes themselves seem to be curious how they have happened to be 'happiness front runners'. The Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen seeks to study the causes and effects well-being, happiness and quality of life beyond the conventional measures of economic growth above other goals. This think tank is frequented by delegations of researchers, mayors, and policy-makers from around the globe to study the reasons for the high levels of happiness. How do Danes keep a strong civil society, a well-functioning democracy, combined with a high degree of security, freedom, trust, and prosperity? How do they maintain good working conditions that allow room for a balanced life while faced with the horrific weather and some of the highest tax rates in the world? The Institute's CEO, Meik Wiking, suggests countries should measure their success as a society, not only from how much the economy grows but also from how much people's lives are improved.
Wiking argues that social relations might be the most important contribution to and predictor of happiness. This perspective is in line with the World Happiness Report: “[…] after the baseline has been met, happiness varies more with quality of human relationships than income”. Denmark clearly agrees and shows general support for the welfare system - it's an awareness that the welfare model turns collective health into well-being. Danes think: "We are not paying taxes, we are investing in our society." Taxes purchase quality of life, whereas welfare reduces uncertainty, worries and stress in the population.
In the case of Denmark, Wiking draws attention to the pursuit of everyday happiness called hygge. This notion, while so integral to Danes' life and culture, is often overlooked when analysing Denmark's success. Wiking's latest work, The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well, aims to fill non-Danes in on this interesting national concept.
Hygge is often said to be untranslatable into English and other languages. It falls somewhere between ’the art of creating intimacy’, ‘cosiness of the soul’, ’taking pleasure from the presence of soothing things’, ‘cosy togetherness’ and, Wiking's favourite, ‘cocoa by candlelight’. So, in order to grasp it, you need to experience hygge first-hand, as the English word 'cosiness' doesn’t have the same connotations. But hold on, the Dutch gezelligheid, the Norwegian koselig, and the German Gemütlichkeit capture more or less the same feelings. Many linguists tend to agree that gezelligheid is the most likely counterpart to hygge. Gezellig, too, is something cosy, quaint or nice. For instance, a proper brown bar that serves regional speciality beers and plays old records is the purest form of gezelligheid. According to the author’s research, it appears that Danes experience hygge the same way as the Dutch do gezelligheid, the only difference between the two is that the latter has a stronger outgoing characteristic than hygge (Danes prefer going to each other’s homes) and that summer is the most gezellig season of the year, whereas Danes prefer autumn.
Since our language reflects the world we live in, people need names for things that make up their physical and mental environment. Even though these words from other languages might denote different activities and settings, they still evoke similar feelings. But unlike words that refer to tangible or visible things (a candle is still a candle wherever in the world it is), intangible or cognitive notions are more difficult to translate. What matters here is how much Danish people talk about the hygge and consider it as a defining feature of their culture and identity, and how integrated into daily life it is. You can also use it to coin compound words: for instance, hyggespreder (someone who spreads the hygge), hyggeonkel (a person who plays with the kids and may be a little too lenient, ’the uncle of hygge’), hyggesokker (cosy wooden socks).
So, what is the hygge lifestyle about? Well, it's about many things. First of all, it is about light. There is no faster way to get to hygge than to light a few candles. According to the European Candle Association (how's that even a thing?), Denmark burns more candles per head than anyone in Europe - each Dane burns around 6 kg of candle wax each year, twice as much as the runners-up, Austrians. A recent study has shown that more than half of Danes light candles almost every day during autumn and winter. There is even a special advent candle, kalenderlys, marked with 24 lines that represent the days before Christmas. It is no wonder then why the Danish word for ‘spoilsport’ is lyseslukker, which literally means ‘the one who puts out the candles’.
Danes approach lighting and lamp placement “strategically to create soothing pools of light; it is an art form, a science, and an industry.” As the renowned designer and architect (and a Dane) Poul Henningsen put it, “it doesn’t cost money to light a room correctly - but it does require culture”. Hygge is the antidote to the cold darkness, but not all light is hyggeligt. A general rule of thumb is the lower the temperature of the light, the more hygge. Think sunsets, wood, and candle flames - they are about 1,800K (in contrast, fluorescent tubes are 5,000K).
Interior design is a big hygge factor, too: thanks to the gloomy climate (it rains 179 days a year) and long, dark winters, home is central to social life. Three out of ten homes in Denmark have a fireplace and/or a wood-fired stove. A fireplace is the ultimate HQ of hygge. Like their fellow Scandinavian neighbours, Danes appreciate natural materials, warm functionality, clean lines, and craftsmanship. It is elegant, quiet, and humble. Even scented candles are not welcome because they are artificial, whereas Danes prefer organic products.
Danes praise a healthy work-life balance: a rare person will stay in the office past five o’clock, god forbid working at the weekend. Whereas about 60 percent of Europeans socialise with their friends at least once a week, in Denmark this number is at 78 percent. Although hygge can be experienced when you are your own, “the art of hygge is also the art of expanding your comfort zone to include other people.” Hyggelige activities release oxytocin, the neurohormone that makes one feel loved and safe and reduces stress. Combine it with good food and warmth, and your body will be overflowing with oxytocin.
Wiking admits though, Danes are not ready to greet newcomers with arms wide open. Getting into a social circle requires a lot of time and effort, but once you’re there - you are there for good. In my experience, that’s what many West-Northern Europeans have in common. According to Danes, for example, it ideally takes 3-4 people to hygge. In a way, hygge is more of an introverted notion: being social yet relaxing and nurturing (as opposed to energy-consuming), feeling safe and that you can be yourself with others.
Hearty comfort food plays a central role in the hygge experience. Even though it has nothing to do with the famous restaurant NOMA in Copenhagen (this gastronomic mecca is a two-Michelin-star restaurant rated the best in the world four times since 2010), traditional Danish food includes open sandwiches smørrebrød, baked goods, meat, bacon, and potatoes. A bowl of hot stew makes an ultimate hyggeligt treat. Or - better still - a cup of coffee or hot chocolate with cake. Did you know that Danish the pastry is called wienerbrød (‘Vienna bread’) in the Danish language? (Yeah, me neither.) Danes certainly don’t hold back when it comes to sweets - they consume about twice as much of them as other Europeans. And yes, liquorice does count as a sweet in this case.
The book features many delicious-looking recipes of hygge slow food as well as a Hygge Tour of Copenhagen, including the Library Bar. Now we are talking!
Although hygge is a very homey experience, it can also take place outdoors: cabins, boats, it all can do. What you need is a good company, relaxed atmosphere, and closeness to nature. Wiking explains that there is a hygge thing to do for every month of the year, and offers a list of indoor and outdoor hygge activities and ideas. The month he particularly focuses on is December, when the hygge, combined with Christmas (julehygge), is all Danes want. Danish Christmas is not that different from, say, British or French, as it is also about being with your loved ones, festive decorations, and eating copious amounts of food.
For moments when you could really use some hygge, Wiking recommends making a Hygge Emergency Kit. This way you can experience happiness in simple pleasures whenever you need it. Among the essentials are - you guessed it - candles, fine chocolate, a good book, a pair or proper woollen socks, a notebook, and some dear mementoes (you’ll need to read the book to find out the rest).
Feeling like now is that moment? Check out the new monthly playlist, aptly named Hygge.
This is Part II of the Where Is The Happiness? series. I will continue researching happiness around the world in the near future. In the meantime, check out Part I on the Happy Planet Index.