Today I attended a workshop where the leader asked us to think about and share special things from the holidays. One woman raised her hand and said “Singing in three separate candlelight ceremonies.” Another mentioned spending time with family and yet another was grateful for being invited to dinner at her neighbor’s, whose home and table setting were “straight out of Southern Living magazine.” Me? I shared that what made this past Christmas so special and memorable was that it was simple and simply quiet, real and really relaxing. All was calm and all was bright. Just the three of us chilling, eating what we don’t normally eat, and binge watching “The Crown.” After the discussion, the leader brilliantly pointed out that not one of us mentioned any gifts we got. Not one. What does this tell us? A whole lot.
It all related beautifully to her word of the workshop: hygge. This Danish concept is all about slowing down and savoring the moments while making the ordinary extraordinary and the normal special. Pronounced “hoo-gah,” it’s a word and philosophy we could all use in our lives and it should come as no surprise that we can thank the Danes for it.
Year after year Denmark ranks as the “happiest country in the world” and according to this year’s World Happiness Report, it is still among the top three although Finland and Norway are now 1 and 2. Still, Danes have held the distinction for seven straight years so these Lego loving Scandinavians must know something about how to be happy, and can’t be all hype or hygge.
But first, how do all those happy experts come up with their happiest results? By measuring objective data on things like crime, income, civic engagement, education, and health as well as subjective indicators like how often someone experiences positive or negative emotions, their sense of freedom, and even levels of generosity. This year’s top five countries are Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland. The U.S. ranked 18th.
Denmark consistently boasts a stable government, low levels of public corruption, high-quality health care and education opportunities, and generous unemployment and child care benefits. But, it also has some of the highest taxes in the world (nearly half of every Dane’s income goes to the government), one of the world’s highest rates for electricity, extremely expensive gasoline, and up to 180 percent of the value of an automobile goes towards a registration tax. Maybe that’s why they ride bikes everywhere!
But, as Meik Wiking of Denmark’s Happiness Research Institute says, “We are not paying taxes. We are investing in our society and we are purchasing quality of life.” Again, great for a country of less than 6 million people but try selling those tax, electric, and gas rates to 325 million Americans; especially considering the lack of trust we have in those who would be handling any socialized programs.
In researching this topic, what struck me as most impressive about the Danes is that they trust each other. They really trust each other. In fact, nearly 80 percent of Danes say they trust most people and most don’t ever lock doors. This fact was discovered by Helen Russell who wrote a book I’m dying to dive into entitled “The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country.” Russell writes that yes, the country’s small population and cultural homogeneity have lots to do with this trust, but so does the fact that the trait is taught in schools and then learned and realized through everyday interactions with trustworthy people and institutions.
Unfortunately in America this is not the case. It’s no secret our overall levels of trust are dramatically declining – whether it be with our neighbors, coworkers, media, or government – Americans for the most part are today living in a fairly distrustful state. We don’t know our neighbors, we don’t trust the media, and as for the government? Yeah, not happening.
But how can this be, aren’t we the richest country in the world? So shouldn’t we be the happiest? Apparently not. In the U.S. we generally align happiness with income but the Danes have learned that having someone you can rely on and trust is way more valuable than more money and more things. Genius, right?
This explains something else I found intriguing about the Danes: they don’t brag or boast. Ask my daughter what her mom cannot stand and she’ll say “someone who is sneaky, phony, or braggy.” Maybe I should move to Denmark, as they live by an unwritten law called “Janteloven” based on a 1930 novel that instills a spirit of “don’t act like you’re better, smarter, or richer than anyone else.” Can I get an Amen?! Don’t be taking your mega-mansions, expensive cars, or Birkins to Denmark as you won’t see them living in them or driving them and Danes in general dress very informal. Now granted, some of this has dwindled in and around Copenhagen, but to the average Dane, your hygge is way more impressive than your Hermes.
Which takes us back to hygge, a word even the Oxford Dictionary added last year and says can be used as a noun, adjective, or verb. Often described as “cozy,” a more accurate translation would be “high-quality social interactions and intentional intimacy.” In Denmark, hygge is fully integrated into all areas and levels of Dutch society and culture and is considered paramount to happiness and an overall sense of well-being. It also counteracts stress, often resulting in a “glass half full” and “can do” attitude. And, the concept is catching on globally.
Although we in America don’t have a linguistic equivalent of hygge, many other countries do and most of them rank high on happiness lists. No surprise there, right? The word and philosophy are also trending on Instagram and Google, and visit any online or retail bookstore and you’ll find hundreds of book titles dealing with it.
At its core, hygge is about building closeness and trust and based upon the idea that if you’re happy you make better choices and vice versa. You could say hygge is a little like a hug and when all is said and done, is basically a “feel good” mood. So when you think about what made your holidays special, what comes to mind? My hope is a whole lot of hygge.