From The Little Book of Hygge – The Danish Way to Live Well
by Meik Wiking
Hooga? Hhyooguh? Heurgh?
It’s not important how you choose to pronounce or even spell ‘hygge’. To paraphrase one of the greatest philosophers of our time, Winnie the Pooh, when asked how to spell a certain emotion: ‘You don’t spell it, you feel it.’
However, spelling and pronouncing ‘hygge’ is the easy part. Explaining exactly what it is, that’s the tricky part. Hygge has been called everything from ‘the art of creating intimacy’, ‘cosiness of the soul’ and ‘the absence of annoyance’ to ‘taking pleasure from the presence of soothing things’, ‘cosy togetherness’ and – my personal favourite – ‘cocoa by candlelight’.
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’re safe, that we are shielded from the world and allow ourselves to let our guard down. You may be having an endless conversation about the small or big things in life – or just being comfortable in each other’s silent company – or simply just being by yourself enjoying a cup of tea.
One December, just before Christmas, I was spending the weekend with some friends at an old cabin. The shortest day of the year was brightened by the blanket of snow covering the surrounding landscape. When the sun set, around four in the afternoon, we would not see it again for seventeen hours, and we headed inside to get the fire going. We were all tired after hiking and were half asleep, sitting in a semicircle around the fireplace in the cabin, wearing big jumpers and woollen socks. The only sounds you could hear were the stew boiling, the sparks from the fireplace, and someone having a sip of their mulled wine. Then one of my friends broke the silence.
‘Could this be any more hygge?’ he asked rhetorically.
‘Yes,’ one of the girls said after a moment. ‘If there was a storm raging outside.’
We all nodded.
I have the best job in the world. I study what makes people happy. At the Happiness Research Institute, which is an independent think-tank focusing on well-being, happiness, and quality of life, we explore the causes and effects of human happiness, and work towards improving the quality of life of citizens across the world.
We are based in Denmark and, yes, we do have lit candles at the office Monday to Friday – and, yes, our office was partly chosen because of the hygge-factor. No fireplace, though. Yet. But we were also founded, and are based, in Denmark because the country consistently ranks among the happiest nations in the world. Denmark is by no means a perfect utopia, and the country faces challenges and issues like any other country, but I do believe that Denmark can be a source of inspiration for how countries can increase the quality of life of their citizens.
Denmark’s position as one of the happiest countries in the world has created a lot of media interest. On a weekly basis, I am asked questions like ‘Why are the Danes so happy?’ and ‘What can we learn from the Danes when it comes to happiness?’ from journalists from The New York Times, the BBC, the Guardian, the China Daily and the Washington Post, among others. In addition, delegations of mayors, researchers and policy-makers from all corners of the earth frequently visit the Happiness Research Institute in pursuit of … well … happiness – or at least in pursuit of the reasons for the high levels of happiness, well-being and quality of life people enjoy in Denmark. To many, it’s quite the mystery, as – besides the horrific weather – Danes are also subject to some of the highest tax rates in the world.
Interestingly, there is wide support for the welfare state. This support stems from an awareness of the fact that the welfare model turns our collective wealth into well-being. We’re not so much paying taxes as we are investing in our society. We are purchasing quality of life. The key to understanding the high levels of well-being in Denmark is the welfare model’s ability to reduce risk, uncertainty and anxiety among its citizens and to prevent extreme unhappiness.
However, recently, I have also come to realise that there might be an overlooked ingredient in the Danish recipe for happiness – hygge. The word ‘hygge’ originates from a Norwegian word meaning ‘well-being’. For almost five hundred years, Denmark and Norway were one kingdom, until Denmark lost Norway in 1814. ‘Hygge’ appeared in written Danish for the first time in the early 1800s, and the link between hygge and well-being or happiness may be no coincidence.
Danes are the happiest people in Europe, according to the European Social Survey, but they are also the ones who meet most often with their friends and family, and feel the calmest and the most peaceful. Therefore, it is with good reason that we see a growing interest in hygge. Journalists are touring Denmark searching for hygge; in the UK, a college is now teaching Danish hygge; and around the world, hygge bakeries, shops and cafés are popping up. But how do you create hygge? How are hygge and happiness linked? And what is hygge exactly? Those are some of the questions this book seeks to answer.
No recipe for hygge is complete without candles. When Danes are asked what they most associate with hygge, an overwhelming 85 per cent will mention candles.
The word for ‘spoilsport’ in Danish is lyseslukker, which literally means ‘the one who puts out the candles’, and this is no coincidence. There is no faster way to get hygge than to light a few candles or, as they are called in Danish, levende lys, or ‘living lights’.
More than half of Danes light candles almost every day during autumn and winter, and only four per cent say they never light candles, according to a survey by one of the major newspapers in Denmark. During December, the candle consumption soars to thrice as many, and this is also the time to witness the special candle that is only to be burnt in the days leading up to Christmas, namely the kalenderlys – the advent candle. This candle is marked with twenty-four lines, one for each day in December before Christmas, turning it into the slowest countdown clock in the world.
Another special candle occasion is 4 May, also known as lysfest, or light party. On this evening in 1945, the BBC broadcast that the German forces, who had occupied Denmark since 1940, had surrendered. Like many countries during the Second World War, Denmark was subject to blackouts to prevent enemy aircraft from navigating by city lights. Today, Danes still celebrate the return of the light on this evening by putting candles in their windows.