The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living Meik Wiking (2017)
Unless you’ve been trekking in the Himalayas for several months, you’ve probably heard about “hygge,” the Danish approach to living that at least partially explains why Danes emerge in almost every international survey as the happiest people on the planet.
According to author Meik Wiking, hygge is pronounced something like “hoo-ga,” though Danish speakers I’ve consulted say it’s more like “HUE-guh.” As for a translation, well, Wiking admits that’s also difficult: “Hygge has been called everything from ‘the art of creating intimacy,’ ‘coziness of the soul,’ and ‘the absence of annoyance,’ to ‘taking pleasure from the presence of soothing things,’ ‘cozy togetherness,’ and my personal favorite, ‘cocoa by candlelight.’” Wiking credits the development of hygge mainly to the Danish climate. Copenhagen is at about 56 degrees N latitude, which is like being in Hudson Bay in Canada, where there’s minimal sunlight for half of the year. And with Denmark’s location on the North Sea, the inhabitants have to deal with harsh winds and frequent cold rain.
To survive in this climate, Danes have developed ways to make themselves comfortable, especially in winter. Wiking includes chapters on hygge as it relates to light, to food and drink, to clothing, and to friendship. To promote hygge in your home, Wiking recommends that you have candles, a nook to snuggle up in, a fireplace, objects made of wood, sheepskins, vintage objects, books to read, Danish ceramics, and blankets. The candle part is especially important. Surveys have shown that Danes light a lot of candles and are very fond of the dim, flickering glow that candles create.
Physical environment aside, togetherness with friends and family is essential to hygge. You can snuggle up by the fireplace alone for your hygge fix, but sharing your sheepskin is even better. Wiking explains that Danes think workaholics are crazy. They eschew overtime, preferring to leave the office or factory promptly, in order to light candles with their besties.
According to Wiking, you can achieve hygge in the summer, with picnics, barbecues, and biking. But the all-around best time of the year for hygge is the Christmas season, over which the Danes apparently go nuts. They have a special word for Christmastide hygge, “julehygge,” which has distinctive traditions. Wiking includes a recipe for aebleskiver, a treat that’s like a cross between a pancake and a doughnut, and detailed directions for crafting the woven paper hearts with which Danes decorate their Christmas trees.
Since Wiking is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, his Little Book ventures beyond an exploration of hygge to a broader analysis of why the people of Denmark are so darn happy. Danes enjoy universal free health care, free education through college, and generous unemployment benefits. Although they pay high taxes, they don’t seem to mind this, since the services they receive greatly reduce the stresses of life. They don’t have to worry about paying off crippling student loans or about going bankrupt because of medical bills. Other Nordic countries—Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland—have similar services and also high levels of happiness, but Wiking argues that the practice of hygge boosts the happiness in Denmark to the top.
The Little Book of Hygge is profusely illustrated with muted graphics in a rustic Scandinavian style that I liked. (Sadly, the illustrator is not credited.) This is a lightweight, fun book that you can buzz through in an hour or so. You may find some ideas for bringing more happiness into your life. Or at least you can learn how to make woven paper hearts.