On being … a recipe for happiness

By Ingrid Sapona

If you’re thinking of buying me an Ancestry DNA kit for Christmas, thanks, but there’s no need. I recently found out I’m Danish. Not 100% Danish – I’ve got a some Greek from Dad’s side and some German from Mom’s side – but deep down, I’m predominantly Danish.

I got my first inkling I might be at least part Dane earlier this year from a BBC series called Coast. The series focuses on countries whose geography is dominated by their coast. It was during an episode on Denmark that I first heard about “hygge” (roughly pronounced: whoog-eh).

Besides being a funny sounding word (especially as pronounced by series host Neil Oliver, who has a heavy Scottish accent) I had a visceral connection to the word. As Oliver described it, to Danes, hygge represents a kind of cozy, contented happiness. It reminded me of the German notion of gemütlich – a term my mother often used – and gezellig, a Dutch word. (Funny that all these hard-to-pronounce words – hygge, gemütlich, and gezellig, feature hard g sounds.) But, the way Danes used the word in sentences, hygge clearly looms larger in the Danish culture than the analogous words to for Germans and Dutch.

After learning the word, I tried introducing it to friends one afternoon as we relaxed with a drink and some nibbles after a great day on the lake. My friends listened politely as I explained how the coziness of the cabin, the sharing of food and drink, the camaraderie of the sail, and the relaxed conversation all made for hygge. Despite my efforts, they didn’t embrace the concept the way I did.

Anyway, after that I started hearing references to hygge here and there in the news. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if you’ve heard it too, as it’s gotten a fair bit of press this year. One of the reasons non-Danes have been talking about hygge is because of the possible (actually, I’d say likely) connection between hygge and the fact that Denmark consistently ranks among the happiest countries in the world.

So, when I read about The Little Book of Hygge – The Danish Way to Live Well, I immediately ordered if from the library. Meik Wiking, the author, is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. (Believe it or not, it’s a think tank.) Anyway, the audio book came in last week and – besides enjoying Wiking’s accent – I came to the inescapable conclusion I’ve got Danish blood flowing through me.

Wiking has been looking at whether hygge is “an overlooked ingredient in the Danish recipe for happiness”. It’s fascinating stuff. He compares the meaning and use of hygge to Germans’ use of gemütlich, Dutch use of gezellig, and even to the way Canadian’s use “homey”. One of the most interesting differences is how hygge can be both a noun and a verb. Here’s an example he gives of it used as a verb: “Why don’t you come over and hygge with us tonight?” (Gemutlich, gezellig, homey, and cozy aren’t used as verbs.)

Another thing that really sets hygge apart from similar words is how much Danes talk about – and focus on – hygge. Indeed, they even rate social events in terms of how hyggelige (pronounced: whoo-ge-ly) they are. Wiking’s conclusion is that hygge is a defining feature of Denmark’s cultural identity, much the way having a stiff upper lip is part of British cultural identity, and the way freedom is central to Americans’ identity.

Wiking distilled down the things Danes do to cultivate hygge and they are all things I’ve always tried to pay attention to. Wiking says it’s about creating intimacy and taking pleasure from soothing things. It’s also about being together with loved ones, shielded from the world and able to let your guard down. And, it can also be about being alone and enjoying some of life’s simple pleasures, like a cup of tea and some sweets.

The good news is that there’s an art of hygge, which means that with a little effort, you can bring hygge into your life. Wiking suggests starting by creating a soothing atmosphere with some candles in a space that’s a comfortable, cozy refuge from the storms of daily life. Then, invite some friends and family over to make memories. Be sure to take in the moment and focus on gratitude and equality. All these things sound simple, straightforward – perhaps even obvious. But, they’re also things we often let slip from our daily lives as we rush about.

So, my dear friends, as someone who is reconnecting with the Dane inside her, my wish for you this holiday season – and all through the coming year – is that you create some hygge for yourself and for those you care about. Happy Holidays!

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona 


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