I’m gonna take a wild guess and assume you’ve heard of hygge (pronounced hoo-ga, if you’ve been avoiding saying it out loud), the Danish word for a feeling of cozy contentment that totally defines their lifestyle. Imagine being wrapped in a faux fur blanket drinking hot cocoa by a fire with some candles lit and talking to your best friend – that’s hygge af. Incorporating hygge into your life inspires rest, contentment, and all-around ~coziness~.
Turns out the Danes have more to offer than just the cozy factor; the Danish people are some of the happiest in the world, a lifestyle encompassed by a term called lykke (pronounced loo-ka). Meik Wiking, author of The Little Book of Hygge, is back with The Little Book of Lykke, which breaks down the six essential factors of what makes Danish life so darn happy.
We’re recently and overwhelmingly understanding that loneliness is an epidemic in America. There are lots of facets of our culture that contribute to this: we’re individualistic, productivity-oriented, and more likely to pursue our individual good over the common good.
The most foundational building block to happiness, Wiking says, is community. This isn’t a “tribe” in the trendy sense where you intentionally surround yourself with people who contribute to your life; it’s supporting the community you’re literally living in – your neighbors and family.
In Denmark, the taxes are some of the highest in the world, but “almost nine out of ten people living in Denmark happily pay their taxes,” according to a 2014 Gallup poll. They know that they are “purchasing a quality of life. They are investing in their community. Happiness doesn’t come from owning a bigger car but from knowing that everybody you know and love will be supported in their time of need.”
Go on a lil’ tech fast. Technology gives us, “the illusion of connection without the demands of intimacy…we find that people who reduce their consumption of social media are happier and connect more in the real world,” Wiking says. FOMO getting the best of you? Encourage your close pals to do the same and participate in a no-phones hangout together.
Eat together. Candlelight and food play huge roles in hygge and the same is true for lykke. In many places other than just Denmark, meals are rarely eaten alone (it’s an official nutrition recommendation of France to eat with others), and they ramble on for hours. There’s great attention paid to the people you’re with, the details of the meal, and the food itself. You’ll be surprised at what good taking a genuine pause to be with others does for you.
OK, money can’t buy happiness. But, there is a real correlation between the two. But while countries with a higher GDP have higher levels happiness, according to Wikings studies it’s more important to note that lack of wealth is a cause of unhappiness. Once we have enough money to meet our basic needs – vacation and other pleasures included – that’s where the correlation stops. The law of diminishing returns sees to that: unnecessary purchases bring you the same amount of happiness as a fifth slice of cake does (read: not all that much).
In America, we’re driven by wanting to keep up with the Joneses – whatever my neighbor is doing, I need to match or outdo them. We give into “conspicuous consumption,” or buying things just to demonstrate how much wealth we have (Marie Kondo is shuddering somewhere). We’ve closely linked wealth and well-being, and, I’d argue, worth. Decoupling purchasing power and happiness would actually increase our happiness surrounding money itself: it is a means to a contented life, not an end in and of itself.
Buy experiences, not things: Millennials are great at this. Travel, go to a concert, get dinner with someone you love. You’re purchasing memories and personal growth, which you can’t put a real price tag on.
Physical health in Denmark is almost a non-issue when it comes to basic maintenance. They bike everywhere, walk everywhere they can’t bike, and eat what they want to (hygge is like 90 percent cinnamon buns anyway). They aren’t gym rats like we in America are, and they aren’t obsessive about body image. Feeling good – being happy – is built into their lifestyle; it’s less transactional than our calories-to-gym-hours conversion or self-care checklists.
Mental health is just as important to Wiking. In the UK, Wiking says that over half of all adults believe that they’ve experienced a mental health disorder at some point in their lifetime, yet far fewer than that receive a diagnosis or treatment. Especially in our fast-paced American culture, it can be tricky to take stock of our emotional well-being. But next time you’re with some close friends, ask them how they really are.
Move every day: I know the polar vortex is rough rn, but do something every day to get your body moving, whether that’s taking a walk during your lunch break, a 10-minute yoga flow, or chasing your kids around the house.
Ah, something Americans can rally behind! But, we actually might be failing the most in the category. The Danish are talking about a functional work-life balance when they talk about freedom, and boy are we not great at that. We constantly let work fill our devices and our minds – we never really turn off. Not to mention, our long commutes are killing our morale. The Danes’ average workweek clocks in at 37 hours (yes, really) and often has freedom when it comes to start times and working from home, things we consider luxuries here in the U.S.
Guess how many weeks of parental leave is given to partners after they have a child? 52. An entire year between parents to spend dedicated time raising a child. America currently has no federal policy surrounding maternity leave, let alone paternity leave. The freedom to explore fulfillment in both parenthood and career success isn’t really an option here like it is in other countries. In fact, in the U.S. because of the lack of family-friendly policies, there’s a parental happiness penalty socially and economically for couples who choose to become parents, according to a 2016 study in the American Journal of Sociology.
Do Not Disturb: There’s not much we can do about company or federal policies (beyond letting your voice be actively heard through votes and conversations with your bosses!!) but scheduling margin time into your life might do you some good. Pick an hour or two in your workday that is just for you – no meetings, no emails, no “hey, can I pick your brain for a sec?” That time then belongs to you, you have a real sense of freedom over how to use it.
If you spent any time in Denmark, you’d notice something real weird right away: strollers left on the sidewalk outside of restaurants, everywhere. Parents do this all the time there, there’s such a high level of nation-wide trust that’s almost absurd to us here. Now, definitely, don’t test the trustworthiness of your community by leaving your child unattended, but trust stems from something we can all grow in: empathy.
Empathy allows us learn how to think about how our actions affect others in immediate ways (community-focused rather individual-focused, like we talked about earlier). The Danes have empathy on their skills list that’s taught in their education system. The more we learn about others it both makes us more willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and also makes us a more trusting presence for others.
Read Fiction: Through books, we get to live multiple lives; they are windows into experiences we could never participate in otherwise. By reading widely, we develop empathy. Grab a new fiction book, maybe featuring a main character that’s a different gender, race, or religion than you – you can’t help but broaden your worldview this way.
As any Dane will tell you, kindness and friendliness are not the same thing. The Danes value genuine kindness – recognizing that everyone has needs and isn’t perfect, and helping to fill in the gaps – but will likely give generously to a charity without a smile. We might be great at talking about kindness, but the Danes know that actions are so much more important than words.
Wiking talks about making Random Acts of Kindness a regular part of your life – buying coffee for the guy in line behind you, for example – but I think that in our society, picking individuals in your life to show extra kindness to intentionally rather than randomly will carry much more power. Venmo your coworker $5 for a Wednesday pick-me-up, tell your friend how much you value that advice they gave you, clean your mom’s car before she asks you. Anticipating someone’s needs and meeting them is a real kindness.
Don’t Ask Them to Ask You: I do this all the time, but when we ask someone who is hurting “tell me if you need anything,” we’re placing a huge burden on them. So try this – don’t ask them what you can do, just do something. Pay attention to what they need, and then just do it. Your sad friend will love to have you bring them their favorite food, trust me. Your roommate never doesn’t want the dishwasher unloaded.