Niloufar Javadi explores what is behind the Danish concept of hygge.
Besides the welfare state and Vikings, Denmark and the Danish people are becoming increasingly associated with another cultural and social phenomenon in popular culture: hygge. The Danish concept of coziness is gaining more attention in the lifestyle segments of magazines, news, websites and books, and all these seem to arrive to the same conclusion: that there is a direct correlation between hygge and the first or second place that Danes have consistently occupied on global happiness rankings.
As a non-Dane with a surprisingly large number of Danish friends, I have, from their many attempts to explain hygge to me, extracted the following: hygge consists in spending time with family and friends, not to discuss anything or for any specific purpose, but simply to enjoy each other’s company, most of the times in silence. It is usually coupled with comfort food like chocolate, and dimmed lights and blankets during winter. For the members of my small sample group; hygge is essentially about slowing down and making time for oneself and one’s supportive network in the midst of our stressful and fast- paced life.
The first time I heard about hygge, it sounded amazing! I felt like Danish culture had made space for an essential kind of socialising that I had never encountered in other cultures. To me, it seemed like an embracing of slower pace and enjoying the moment which is perhaps more universally seen as unproductive and hence frowned upon.
However, it seems unlikely that a phenomenon as complicated as national happiness could be explained simply through one façade. The question of happiness seems like a vague and subjective concept, so perhaps it should be examined through so-called authoritative sources. The World Happiness Report is a landmark survey conducted in 155 countries, which ranks them based on levels of happiness. It has published 5 reports since 2012 when It was first conducted, and Denmark has consistently been in the top 3 happiest nations in the world. Six key indicators of the Report include freedom, generosity, health, social support, income and trustworthy governance. These criteria can be traced back to a number of scientific studies; they are also quite easy to measure through surveys as public opinions. Using a sample of 2000 to 3000 respondents in each country, the report represents a fairly accurate picture of happiness in each nation- consequently, these reports have been used by governments to develop and alter public policies since their initial publication
As for individual happiness, during my brief research I came across an article from the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health, which seemed to resonate with the underlying benefits of hygge. The article argues that, across decades of research (including the famous Harvard Happiness Study which was conducted over 80 years), the most significant criteria for individual happiness have consistently been shown to be strong human connection and a sense of community and belonging.
Returning to my ever- supportive and helpful circle of Danish friends, I proceeded to rather shamelessly exploit their knowledge to better understand the more nuanced cultural values and social structures that they felt mirrored criteria that linked directly to measurable happiness and created such a cheerful bunch. Our conversation revolved around the interplay between Danish cultural values, state contribution and how they enabled the creation of stronger communities and relationships.
Creating and expanding communities is a deeply embedded cultural value in Denmark, particularly manifested in the high number of people who take gap years or attend a specialised high school to respectively give back to the community, share their passion with like-minded people and expand their social circle. An interesting opinion that emerged from my conversations was that, community bonds are strengthened, counter- intuitively, because there is not much social pressure to be close to and spend time with one’s biological family, since it is normal to “choose one’s own family” from groups of friends. Similarly, the importance of the social and political backdrop, which has enabled the building of communities, cannot be overlooked. A reliable government and highly democratised political system have resulted in general and mutual trust within society. Furthermore, Denmark has little international worries and issues to deal with, which again reduces anxiety and produces a sense of stability in the community.
Denmark is a welfare state, which ensures less social division and more unification. However, this is where a rather uncomfortable truth about Danish society emerges: it is highly homogenous, and there are no significant religious or ethnic disputes within the community, which mean there is little social tension. This general safety means that people have the mental and economic means to invest in their wellbeing. However, since a major reason behind social and cultural soundness in Denmark is its homogeneity, the Danish community can come across as rather closed to immigrants of even second or third generation. Despite this, it is still worth examining Danish society in search of beneficial policies and structures to be tested out elsewhere.
While it is a great way socialise and be more present, it seems to me that hygge is the result of a content community rather than its cause- thus, perhaps a more effective way of sustainably modelling Danish happiness for other countries would be through policy- making. But until then, hygge could prove a great way to practice the Northern philosophy of happiness.