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‘Hygge’: in our pursuit for happiness, should we take lessons from the Danes?

'Hygge' culture is more than just a Danish lifestyle and cultural self-identity, but a vehicle for social good and wellbeing.

"To seek a ‘hyggelig’ feeling, means to seek refuge from the external elements acting as pressure valves in our everyday lives"

Winter is upon us, and we all know what that means – cozying up in front of the fire, lighting our overpriced candles, drinking a hot cuppa joe, after a long winter walk wrapped up in your favourite winter woollies. With your blanket spread across your entire sofa as you feast on some homemade carrot cake, all of your attention is simply focussed on your annual screening of Love Actually which you’ve already watched a hundred times. This feeling of warmth, togetherness, familiarity and coziness has been encapsulated through one simple Danish word: ‘hygge’, pronounced ‘hoo-gah’. With no English equivalent of the word, this trend is particularly popular during the October to December period (Christmas being the optimal phase for our obsession with ‘hygge’), and originates from a Norwegian word that means ‘wellbeing’. But it is so much more than that for the Danish. In The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living, author Meik Wiking writes, “Hygge is about an atmosphere and an experience, rather than about things. It’s about being with the people we love. A feeling of home. A feeling that we are safe, that we are shielded from the world and allowed to let our guard down.” So, while objects and interiors form part of the equation to achieving ‘hygge’, the other elements go beyond what you see, but more on how one feels. To seek a ‘hyggelig’ feeling, means to seek refuge from the external elements acting as pressure valves in our everyday lives, through the comfort of close friends, family and maybe even work colleagues. It is considered a safe space where you do as you wish, say what you want, free of all the external pressures and opinions which don’t quite fit the mould of your own reality. Things being ‘homemade’ is also an important ingredient to the 'hygge' recipe. The authentic feeling of bringing people together through 'homemade' goods largely happens behind closed doors.

hygge fireplace socks blanket

According to the countless international surveys, Danes repeatedly report the highest levels of wellbeing and hold the gold medal for being the most contented individuals on the whole planet. When I jetted off to visit one of my best friends who was living in Copenhagen, there’s no denying of the cool, calm, collected demeanour of the Danes (they even look cool). Despite being in the midst of Denmark’s capital city, there was still a huge sense of calm and ease, even on the tube. Getting a tube from Nørreport to Amagerbo was nothing like hopping on London’s central line from Tottenham Court Road to Shepherd’s Bush as you get bashed around by the two people standing either side of you and awkwardly watch an eager individual get their bag stuck in the sliding doors in their ambitious pursuit to make this very tube (despite a new one being funnelled through in approximately two minutes time). Compared to the Danes, we are running wild like animals in a zoo – we run around the city getting from one meeting to the next as we frantically look down at our watches, whilst shifting our eyes further down and left to scan over our work inbox. I didn’t quite observe this same franticness in Copenhagen. Instead, people enter the tube with ease and politely take their seat, pop their headphones in and switch off from the westernised pressures as if they float around the city with ease. Hats off to the Danes.

This visual comparison of the Danes vs Englishmen on the tube, translates neatly into the facts. According to the World Economic Forum, Danes report the highest levels of happiness, despite paying some of the most extortionate tax rates. Meanwhile Britons and Americans report rank lower down numerous happiness scales. Danes enjoy the luxury of having a stable government, more time off work for holidays, work shorter days, experience low levels of crime, all whilst having free and universal access to education and health care. Harnessing a more collaborative view to their countries operating model, they simply see paying higher taxes as reeping the benefits for everyone, not just “me”. Egalitarianism, social community and social trust form important elements of the Danes’ pursuit for happiness and the facts undeniably reveal that it works. Yet, whilst welfare and economic factors play an important role, the World Economic Forum do continue to put a huge emphasis on the ‘hygge’ culture, arguing that in order for Americans to be a little happier, they could benefit from sprinkling a few ounces of ‘hygge’ into their personal lives.

Social capital theory might provide a bit of context as to why the Danes are so happy. This social economic theory suggests that cooperative relationships and social structures positively correlate with increasing trust, respect, kindness, and reciprocity. Having high levels of social capital is therefore crucial for modern economies to function efficiently, and the social, economic and political systems would be torn down if trust and cooperation is difficult to detect.

With that in mind, what does the modern trend of ‘hygge’ and this desire for refuge and sense of togetherness, tell us about our pursuit of happiness? It wouldn’t appear obvious, but ‘hygge’ is more deeply political and economic than you think. Pfft, yeah right “how can my desire to snuggle up in front of the fire and enjoy face masks and home cooked food with friends be political?” Well, despite falling within the capitalist, individualistic model, Denmark’s institutional and redistributive models of putting more money into the tax man’s piggy bank, means 55% of their GDP is pumped into the universal welfare machine. With that, they experience the highest levels of economic equality in the world. They have initiated social policies which enable the Danes to work flexibly, easily access unemployment benefits, and tap into workforce laws gives them the luxury of a work-life balance. This admirable balance of work-life, as well as the peace of mind that struggling individuals will not be left hung out to dry when the chips go down, means Danes have enough time and mental clarity carved out to focus on the more individualised and personalised approach to wellbeing - ‘hygge’.

Most of us have equal opportunity to seek out ‘hygge’ through the relative means we have at our disposal to achieve it. But if that’s really the case, then why do Danes continue to report more happiness than the rest of us despite ‘hygge’ culture being so prominent across the rest of the Western world? What’s becoming clear through a quick run-down of the good old Danes, is that ‘hygge’, whilst important to building happiness, only has optimal effects if stood against a backdrop of meaningful, collaborative social democracy. In societies imbued with economic inequality, discrimination and social divisions continue to manifest themselves through Black Lives Matters protests and mass LGBTQ+ demonstrations which act as burning signifiers of a disenfranchised, divided and pretty damn unhappy society.

For most Westerners (minus the Danes), perhaps ‘hygge’ practices like running a hot bubble bath and taking an afternoon stroll through the leafy woods provide a short-term refuge and dose of happiness by momentarily providing a safe haven from the external pressures and injustices we witness when leaving the four walls of our home. Providing a protective shield, we can escape the social ills and anxieties of modern life in quick sharp moments, only to return to the visible economic inequality that becomes clear as we see the homeless man begging for money on our morning commute to work.

So if the Danes can teach us one thing, it is that social democracy sets the groundwork for a long-term sense of happiness achieved through ‘hygge’. Why? Because it instills a sense of security and opens up time to build a ‘hyggelig’ society – a society where people are better connected, trustworthy and at greater ease with the world around them. Universal social programs help people to see that we can walk hand-in-hand with the stranger across the street, in our shared purpose to maintain a healthy happy society. So much more than just a lifestyle trend, Danish ‘hygge’ culture is an opportunity to take our own simple pleasures to turn them into greater good. It astoundingly has profound impacts on whole societies, if balanced with a good sense of social democracy and security. Who knew that a candlelit dinner with a loved one, or a rainy afternoon cozied up on the sofa with a book in your hand could be could have profound socio-economic gains.

So, if embracing positivity and enjoyment in everyday experiences can create a vehicle for social good, we have reached a a pretty neat win-win situation. Now is probably the moment to adopt ‘hygge’, with 2020 being the most unprecedented and disorientating year yet. A global pandemic and renewed lockdown restrictions, a US presidential election and Black Lives Matter protests, people are feeling increasingly uncertain about the future. It is the classic notion of “focus on what you can control, rather than what you can’t”. We can’t control a global pandemic, but we can control ourselves. 'Hygge' is embracing the simple pleasures of what we have in front of us, rather than drowning in the uncertainties that the current world presents us with today. So put your arms on your chest and shout, ‘hoooo-gah’!


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