A few years ago, our young Danish journalist intern Emma-Rose Haas didn’t so much teach the Gulf News team the meaning of hygge as gently slide us towards the concept. She wrangled a disparate bunch of hard-pressed journalists to the nearest early evening venue most weeks and for all birthdays. The evening light playing on the Firth of Thames and the Coromandel, a cheerful hum, even the quintessential candles of true hygge winking on glasses at the end of a busy day as the sun went down. She wasn’t a party girl, rather the soul of any party. Playful, funny, uncomplicated and unselfconscious, keeping everyone included and the staidest of us in stitches.
Eventually, before she returned to Denmark and close family there, she introduced us to hygge, pronounced however you like (to the outsider, Danish is apparently describable only in terms of coughing seals or eating over-hot potatoes) but hooga, heurgh or hhyooguh are options to capture the essential foundation of Denmark’s enviable and consistent position as the happiest nation in Europe.
Until recently, and at the other end of the world, we also had a reputation as a remarkably happy population, now rather tattered by the mantras of political austerity and erosion of our once legendary welfare state so when The Little Book of Hygge – the Danish way to live well caught the eye of one of us on the discount table at the Red Cross a few weeks ago, it was snatched up with nostalgia.
Its cover proclaims it a ‘Times Top Ten Bestseller’ and author Meik Wiking (of the Happiness Research Institute of Copenhagen) describes hygge as everything from ‘the art of creating intimacy’ to ‘cosiness of the soul’, ‘cosy togetherness’ and, maybe, ‘cocoa by candlelight’.
“Hygge is about an atmosphere and an experience, rather than about things. It is being with the people we love. A feeling of home. A feeling that we are safe, that we are shielded from the world and allow ourselves to let our guard down,” says Wiking. He talks about a wintery afternoon in a country where the sun goes down at 4pm and won’t come up again for another 17 hours. He and friends were in a tramping hut, a blanket of snow outside, tired and relaxed in big jumpers and woollen socks. “Could this be any more hygge?” asks one rhetorically. “Yes,” one of the girls says after a moment. “If there was a storm raging outside.” Everyone nodded.
Despite horrific weather and some of the highest tax rates in the world, Danes have – for centuries – had wide support for the welfare state, aware that the model turns collective wealth into well-being. “We are not paying taxes, we are investing in our society. We are purchasing quality of life.
“The key to understanding the high levels of wellbeing in Denmark is the welfare model’s ability to reduce risk, uncertainty and anxiety among citizens and to prevent extreme unhappiness,” says Wiking.
It’s an all-encompassing equation. Lighting is an artform, science and obsession nurtured from the golden age of Danish design. Incandescent and fluorescent lights are a furnishing solecism. Sunsets, wood and candle flames are the model for crafted light shades that cast soothing pools of light and a student flat on a shoestring budget might still have a Verner Panton lamp worth thousands of euro in the corner.
Hygge is also a key performance indicator for most Danish social gatherings and a not-so-unique selling point for cafés and restaurants. If Google gets you 9600 hits for a ‘quality restaurant’ search, ‘hyggelig’ gives you 88,900 hits. Its heart-warming connotations extend from parenting to a cosy nook in the kitchen, a pair of ugly-but-comfortable trousers (hyggebukser) or a moment of peace (hyggestund). Its opposite is Uhyggeligt, which translates to ‘creepy’ or ‘scary’ which, as Wiking says, underlines the feeling of safety embodied in hygge.
As we go into another sustained period of social and global turmoil, Wiking’s Hygge manifesto seems relevant, especially gratitude which I discovered in meditation and has been transformational in creating a more harmonious relationship with fate:
1. Atmosphere – turn down the lights; 2. Presence – Be here now. Turn off the phone; 3. Pleasure – Gimme! Gimme! 4. Equality – ‘We’ over ‘me’, share the tasks and the airtime; 5. Gratitude – Take it in. This might be as good as it gets; 6. Harmony – It’s not a competition. We already like you. There is no need to brag about your achievements; 7. Comfort – Get comfy. Take a break. It’s all about relaxation; 8. Truce – No drama. Let’s discuss politics another day; 9. Togetherness – Build relationships and narratives. ‘Do you remember the time we….?’ 10. Shelter – This is our tribe, a place of peace and security.
Simple enough? • Liz Waters