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Exploring Denmark’s Secret to Happiness in 'Finding Hygge'

A man stands beside a vast lake. | From "Link Voices: Finding Hygge"
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Denmark consistently triumphs as one of the happiest countries in the world — at the top of the World Happiness Report nearly every year — and one key factor may be a little word called “hygge.” In Link Voices’ “Finding Hygge,” 20 production crew members embark on a journey to explore the meaning of Denmark’s secret to happiness, hygge, pronounced “hoo-ga.”

A unique Danish word describing a quality of coziness, comfort and security, hygge gained heightened attention in 2016 after happiness researcher Meik Wiking published his soon-to-be New York Times bestseller “The Little Book of Hygge” to an international audience. It was enough for hygge to find a home in the Oxford English Dictionary the year after. Though it may be a facet of Danish culture with no exact English equivalent, its meaning transcends cultural barriers — with articles and books saturating the market to explain the phenomenon, it emerged as a sort of lifestyle trend to countries overseas.

However, the essence of hygge is far from a lifestyle trend.

Though a layered and complex word, hygge had been often reduced to being synonymous with blankets, fuzzy socks and hot chocolate, leading to a pool of misconceptions about what it really is. With capitalism transforming it into a money-making device, the true spirit of hygge tends to get lost in the mountains of $60 blankets, $20 candles and $13 string lights that claim to “give you hygge.” And the romanticization of hygge further blinds people of its darker side, the isolating consequences of becoming too comfortable with comfort.

Trailer for "<a data-cke-saved-href="" href="" target="_blank">Link Voices: Finding Hygge</a>"
Link Voices: Finding Hygge Preview

So, what is hygge?

If you’ve ever gotten the warm fuzzies from reading a book at home, cooking a warm meal, or spending a laid-back evening with friends and family, chances are, you’ve experienced hygge.

Hygge is the feeling of comfort, security and togetherness often elicited from those kinds of activities. Physically, it feels the same to everyone — that warm, fuzzy little feeling in your heart — but what makes you feel it varies widely from person to person. Preparing Thanksgiving dinner with family? Board game night with your friends? Making yourself a steaming cup of tea after a long day at work? Taking a walk in nature? Any of that, and much more, can evoke hygge.

The key is not the material objects involved, which some may misconstrue; hygge is not something that can be bought, so there's no need to freak out about not having the perfect cinnamon-scented candle. Instead, being with the people you care most about, and enjoying what fills you with genuine happiness and comfort — that’s the heart of hygge.

An explosive movement

When Wiking introduced hygge through “The Little Book of Hygge,” he presented to the world a name to a previously nameless feeling. And that was hygge’s appeal — you didn’t have to be Danish to understand what it was or how it felt.

By December of 2016, just three months after the book’s publication, Google searches of hygge had surged worldwide. A total of nine books about hygge were published by the end of 2016, articles covering hygge — ranging from exalting to sarcastic — populated the interwebs, and even a song titled “Hygge” wiggled into the tracklist of Disney’s Broadway musical “Frozen” from 2017 to 2018. Companies like the Colorado-based Hygge Life began selling products like blankets, candleholders and loungewear to help people achieve hygge. The #hygge Instagram hashtag today has more than 5.7 million posts, flooded with pictures of cozy living rooms, cups of coffee, crackling fireplaces and chunky wool blankets. Hygge became a movement rippling across the globe, with countries like Norway, Sweden, and Germany assigning words in their own languages (“koselig,” “mysig,” and “gezellig” respectively) to describe it.

But as what happens to many other things with booming popularity, its essence had gotten lost in translation somewhere along the way of its dissemination. With that, it became a target of criticism of an idealized life, one British writer describing hygge as “fictionalized Scandinavian idyll.”

A “balancing force” to a fast-paced society

Were the critics on to something, though? Because at face value, the explosive popularity of hygge may seem a bit… much. This sense of humble contentment — why have people taken so well to it, some to even obsessive levels? Nic Marks, founder of Friday Pulse, a London-based human resources tool for improving happiness at the workplace, thinks our solidary appreciation for hygge suggests an imbalance in our own personal lives.

In the grand scheme of things, hygge represents much more than just a fuzzy feeling — it’s a much-needed reminder for people to rein things back in their busy lives. In the U.S., which ranked 19th in the 2019 World Happiness Report, a quarter of the labor force in 2019 worked more than 40 hour weeks with 10 million folks clocking in more than 60 hours. Married with the prevailing idea of “hustle culture,” which describes the glorification of overexertion to succeed at work, it’s easy for people to get swept up by the fast pace of their lives. And the cost? Work-life balance. Stress. Even our happiness.

Hygge is embracing the need to slow down, reflect on ourselves, and stop and smell the roses. It raises a noble point: the importance of keeping ourselves in check with other matters besides making money, and the importance of human connection that is wavering in a digital world.

Koen and Alexandra, founders of Hygge Life, gaze at each other. | From "Link Voices: Finding Hygge"
Koen and Alexandra, founders of Hygge Life, gaze at each other. | From "Link Voices: Finding Hygge"

But… there is a dark side

There’s a pretty valid reason why comfort zones exist: security. Being around people we know instills a sense of safety, which is what hygge is about, so it’s only natural to want to pursue that over and over, staying within the lines that we draw for ourselves. But that’s also one of hygge’s faults lurking in the dark.

Hygge is a conservative word, not very open or inviting for strangers and unfamiliar settings. A crucial part of hygge is involving only people whom you are close to, and the Danes don’t take friendship lightly — to them, it’s a long-term commitment. It’s why tight social circles are prevalent in Danish society, almost like a bubble or an exclusive club, and it may take many years of effort just to receive an invitation. In Expat Insider’s 2019 Ease of Settling In Index that compares expats’ levels of comfort across different countries, Denmark ranked in the bottom 12 out of 64 countries across all four categories that include “Finding Friends” and “Feeling At Home.”

But hygge’s less glamorous effects extend even beyond tight social circles. The documentary suggests the affinity to exclusivity bred from hygge may be feeding a growing xenophobia in Denmark. It’s not to say hygge is the sole cause of that prejudice, but with it being so deeply embedded in Danish culture, it may play a part in it.

In 2015, Denmark sparked media attention from denying asylum to Syrian refugees traveling through the country on the way to Sweden. Denmark at that point didn’t have a glowing reputation as a refugee-friendly country, as the government promised to hunker down on stricter immigration laws and rights to residency. And in 2016, the Danish parliament passed a controversial bill to seize money and valuables from refugees, part of an effort to make the country less attractive than other European nations for Syrian asylum-seekers. Refugee advocates were worried the new law would set a precedent for other countries in how they treat refugees.

Why should we engage in hygge?

Despite the negative implications, though, hygge in moderation is still beneficial to our physical and mental well-being. As hygge helps calm and relax our bodies, it can improve sleep, induce fewer spikes in our cortisol levels (our stress hormone), and guide us to find a healthy balance between our work and personal lives, helping us stay engaged with the world under our feet. And, not to mention, hygge promotes more intimacy in our relationships with our friends and family, something that is easy to neglect.

Maybe we shouldn’t take hygge too far, in the case of limiting ourselves exclusively to those we’re close to, but from time to time, having a snug “hyggelig” night in — with a mug of hot cocoa in hand and surrounded by the ones we love — definitely wouldn’t hurt.

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