The Art of Hygge and The Quest For Happiness

Health, happiness & wellbeing

Reading Time: 5 minutes

You are probably familiar with this wonderful concept by now. It has entered the consciousness of the mainstream and has created a platform for a plethora of comforting and cosy Instagram and Facebook posts – picture flickering log fires, wooden cabins, woolly socks and hot chocolate…welcome to the world of hygge.

Although generally credited for having Danish roots, Hygge (pronounced Hoo-gah) comes from the Norwegian word for ‘well-being’. Some claim that it is associated with an Old Norse term, hygga, which means ‘to comfort’, which itself comes from the word hugr, meaning ‘mood’.

In Norway the word hygge is just that, a word and translates to meaning something similar to ‘cosy’, but in recent years, the Danes have adopted this word to represent ‘a concept of creating cosy and convivial atmospheres that promote wellbeing’ (Collins English Dictionary).

If, like me, you are a lover of candles, cushions, warm throws and a mulled wine (or six), then you are probably already living your life according to the concept of hygge – you may not even realise it. For me, there is nothing more comforting than curling up by a warm fire and relaxing in a pair of snuggly Jim-jams. It really does has a positive impact on my own sense of well-being. So it’s not too difficult to understand why hygge has become so popular.

Malene Rydehl’s book, Happy as a Dane: 10 Secrets of the Happiest People in the World, published in March this year, is a best seller and highlights many of the ideas that are embedded in the concept of hygge. The book ‘explores how the values of trust, education and a healthy work-life balance with purpose contribute to a ‘happy” population’. Ok, so education, trust and a healthy work-life balance aren’t exactly screaming log fires and fluffy cushions – so what is the connection? It would seem that by feeling a sense of trust towards others and being trusted and being allowed the opportunity to enjoy time with family in a stress free environment and encouraging an educational system that places value on whatever the young person is interested in (whether that be mathematics or sewing) all contribute to the overriding ‘happiness’ that so many Danes experience. Sat right in the middle of all this is hygge. Well-being!

We’ve all seen the articles and documentaries that tell us that Denmark is one of the happiest places to live in the world (despite paying high taxes and having pretty rubbish weather for most of the year). Many would say that so much of this is down to hygge –  a mental state, embraced by employers and employees, educators, businesses and just about everyone else…

Hygge says to embrace ‘That Which Is’; accept the darkness and leverage it to create a cozy atmosphere. Light candles, slow down, go within, reflect. Celebrate the now. Give yourself what you need – a visit to the sauna, healthy vitamin-rich food, warm meals, a fire in the fireplace, a hot water bottle at night, heat.

– Christine Louise Houlbaum (Psychology Today) –

In 2016 Meik Wiking published his first book, The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well, which is now on ‘The Times Top Ten Bestseller list’. Wiking is the Chief Executive Officer of the The Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen and considered to be a world leading expert in happiness (sounds like the best job in the world to me!). This lovely book, so beautifully bound and pleasing to the eye, has made the idea of hygge accessible to many.

2017 saw the publication of Wiking’s second book, The Little Book of Lykke: The Danish Search for the World’s Happiest People. Lykke, meaning  ‘happiness’, this book is the perfect companion to Wiking’s first and documents the Danish search for the world’s happiest people. I am the proud owner of both of these lovely books (they’d make lovely Christmas gifts by the way) – brimming with lovely images and filled with lots of information that has been empirically deployed by the Happiness Research Institute, and since reading these books I have continued my research of Wiking’s work online.

So, off I skipped in search of what makes people truly happy – which inevitably brought me to that bubble bursting moment when I discovered what is known as ‘the happiness:suicide paradox’!  Wiking has written about this and spoken publicly to explain this (there is a Tedtalk available online that I’ve linked to at the end of this feature).

It would seem that although Danes are often awarded the label of happiest people in the world, they also have a comparatively high suicide rate. At first this doesn’t seem to make sense, but then it becomes very clear. Wiking has explained that when conducting research into happiness, ultimately what is being addressed is well-being. There are three dimensions that Wiking and his colleagues study; life satisfaction, daily emotions and what is known as the eudaimonic dimension (purpose).  As Aristotle said, ‘a good life is a meaningful one’.

What the research found was that on average Danes score highly on many counts of all three of the said dimensions. Crucially what they also found was that one particular factor that had an impact on people’s levels of happiness satisfaction was social comparison. So whilst many Danes are happy (the subjectivity of this concept is acknowledged by the research institute – what they are interested in is how an individual views their own levels of happiness), many others will feel unhappy in comparison.

In other words, being exposed to other people’s happiness (and it makes sense that in Denmark that would happen a lot, seeing as they are such a jolly bunch) can have negative effects. As Wiking puts it, ‘it is more difficult to be happy in an otherwise happy environment’. This brings us back to the high suicide rates amongst Danes – the exposure to and comparison with their shiny happy peers can, ultimately, contribute to an individual deciding to take their own life.

Living in the shadow of those who seem to have it all together, however you decide to judge this (Financial stability? Good relationships? Job status? Perfect home? Perfect children? etc), can have devastating effects on some individuals and although ‘the dark side of happiness’ can be somewhat distressing to acknowledge, what can and should be taken from what we know about happiness (thanks to research conducted by Wiking et al) is that there are often ways and means to improve our perception of life satisfaction.

I would like to think that by embracing the concept of hygge and making it more accessible across the world, in schools, places of employment (to focus on slowing down and adapting some of the little things) could have life changing positive effects for so many. It may sound simplistic, but it’s certainly worth and try.

As an ex- secondary school teacher, I have many friends who are still in the profession. I have discussed this with them and some have tried to introduce hygge into their classrooms; an example being that, particularly in the winter months, my primary school teacher friend would bring lamps, blankets and cushions into her classroom – at the end of the day the children would have a cosy story to the light of the flickering lamps whilst snuggled up in a blanket and enjoying a hot (well, lukewarm – health and safety!) chocolate.

A few simple adaptations (typically they would be sat in a brightly lit classroom either on hard chairs or together seated on the floor) but the children enjoyed their storytime so much more than usual and their parents noticed the difference in their children’s mood when they came out of school; happier, calmer.

Many people smirk at the thought of studying ‘happiness’, but why? Happiness is an emotion and other emotions are studied – perhaps happiness is the most important emotion of all?

It is subjective, but surely if we strive towards our own interpretation of happiness, this will have a positive outcome. I know that hygge is something that I am enjoying researching and implementing in my daily life and it definitely has had a positive impact on the overall well-being of myself and my family.

For me, happiness and hygge go hand in hand, but I am still learning. So, I urge you to take a look too, if you haven’t already. Wiking’s books are a good starting point as are the following…



Images by Annabel Beeforth

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