Secrets of happiness discovered (at last!)

Hygge: Means roughly ‘making ordinary, everyday things more meaningful, beautiful or special’.

It has taken a mere 200,000 years and should solve all our problems: no fewer than nine books are to be published this autumn on the key to happiness. The answer is ‘hygge’ and it is Danish.

Horrific acts of terrorism; furious political debates; the terrifying spread of the Zika virus; a string of celebrity deaths; the omnipresent threat of climate change...no wonder that some have declared 2016 the worst year ever.

But luckily, the publishing industry has the answer: a Danish attitude to life known as hygge (pronounced hoo-gah). This autumn nine books about it are coming out.

The word comes from the Danish for ‘wellbeing’, and is etymologically related to the English ‘hug’. Exact translation is not possible but it describes a cosy atmosphere and the enjoyment of indulging yourself.

Some define it as ‘the absence of anything annoying or emotionally overwhelming; taking pleasure from the presence of gentle, soothing things’. Candlelight is hygge. Bakeries are hygge. Dinner with friends is hygge. The opposite is what most of us do most of the time: get impatient and check our phones.

Faced with a winter day of minus 30°C many might moan. But a hygge person will get the log fire blazing and curl up with a good book and a pair of woolly socks.

‘We are hygge fundamentalists,’ explains Meik Wiking, who is the head of Denmark’s Happiness Research Institute and author of The Little Book of Hygge. ‘We talk about hygge things coming up that we’re looking forward to; we point out when something hygge is happening right now; then we like to talk about what a great ‘hyggelit’ (hygge-like) time we’ve had.’

This, he says, could be why Denmark routinely tops the World Happiness Report. It could even explain Denmark’s ‘utopian’ politics; the generous welfare, free universities and caring prisons could all be linked to a hyggelit culture of community spirit.

And best of all, it is cheap! There is no need to buy special equipment or sign up to lengthy training courses.

Pulling the wool?

How awful! say disbelievers. Have pampered Westerners become so useless that we need to have a new ‘craze’ and a cool Danish word and a publishing/marketing blitz to tell us that being cosy makes us happy? Every year the industry of the obvious comes up with a new way to flog us some basic common sense. Camping under the stars, swimming in rivers, cooking over an open fire ... of course they are nice but it’s hardly ‘the ultimate secret of life’.

The cynic doth protest too much, comes the reply. You’re angry because you are guilty. You have indeed forgotten the simple pleasures. We are all like spoilt children in a sweet factory: too many treats and not enough normal pleasures. If these books remind us to enjoy age-old comforts and friends what possible harm can that do? And hygge just might be the secret of the good life after all.

You Decide

  1. Do you wish your life was more hyggelit?
  2. Is there such a thing as a ‘secret’ to happiness?

Activities

  1. Hygge may be the happiness trend for 2016, but what will it be next year? Take it in turns to suggest some possibilities.
  2. Write your own article advising people on how to be happy. Pay particular attention to the headline: how would you summarise your advice in just a few words?

Some People Say...

“Happiness is a choice.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is this trend really so cynical?
The writers of books about hygge are probably not deliberately trying to sell you old advice in a new form; they genuinely believe it is a useful idea that they want to pass on to others. But it is worth thinking about why the ‘happiness industry’ is so big in the first place. Are we too obsessed with our own emotions? Is happiness really something you can learn?
How can I be more hygge?
Asked what they most associate with hygge, 85% of Danes say candles — Denmark burns more per head than anywhere else in Europe. As long as your parents don’t mind, try lighting a few basic tealights. Don’t feel guilty about eating cake or sweets now and then. Wear cosy clothes when it’s cold enough. And make sure you have a ‘hyggekrog’, or a nook where you can snuggle up.

Word Watch

Etymologically
Etymology is the study of the roots of words. No one is sure where ‘hug’ came from, but some think it has Scandinavian origins. The OED says an obsolete meaning is ‘to cherish oneself; to keep or make oneself snug’, which sounds a lot like hygge.
Happiness Research Institute
Based in Copenhagen, the think tank tries to understand what makes some countries happier than others. Wiking (pronounced Viking) says ‘social relationships’ are some of the most important factors.
World Happiness Report
Launched in 2012, Denmark has topped the list three times, including in 2016. Britain was ranked 23rd out of 157, and the US came 13th.
Welfare
Wages in Denmark are taxed at around 56%, meaning the country can afford generous healthcare and unemployment benefits. British income taxes range from 20-45%.
Prisons
Denmark is famed for its ‘open prisons’ which allow many freedoms and luxuries for inmates. They have much lower re-offending rates than in the much harsher system in the USA.

Subjects