Got a hyggestund? I’m in a serious state of hyggehjørnet, so let’s hyggesnak about our favourite topic: that’s right, it’s hygge! And if you’re wondering what these fabulous terms mean, you’d better get your hands on a copy of The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well by Meik Wiking. I’m the luckiest girl in the world, because the lovely people at Penguin invited me along to their offices to talk to Meik about all things cosy, and I’m very excited to be able to share everything we talked about with you!
Meik is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute based in Copenhagen, so if there’s anyone who’s going to know all about what makes Denmark the world’s happiest country, it’s him. Incidentally… what an amazing job! Meik started working with the Happiness Research Institute after losing motivation in his many years working for a sustainability think tank. “It was a leap of faith,” said Meik, “and many people were very supportive, but lots were just confused.”
Hygge’s role in Danish happiness
“Hygge is absolutely ingrained into life in Denmark. It’s a massive part of the culture, conversation, furniture, food, advertising…” I was particularly interested in the idea of hygge being an important element of Danish advertising. It’s not something tangible, and not something you can sell as such, but you can sell people on the idea. Everyone in Denmark wants more and more hygge, and in fact, describing an evening as ‘hyggelige’ is the greatest possible compliment you can give a Danish host.
“Not only is Denmark the happiest country, but it’s also the least unhappy, and I believe that hygge is a big reason for that. Our focus on hygge helps us attain more every day happiness and drives us to focus on equality and comfort, which accumulates over time.” Hygge really is an intrinsic part of the Danish DNA, and it’s something the Danes love to think and talk about.
Danes think of hygge in the way Americans think of freedom. It’s part of our national identity.
Exploring the book
Something that struck me as very interesting, and something I asked Meik about, was that the very first chapter of the whole book is about light. This chapter, focusing on candles, lamps and photography, comes even before ‘We need to talk about hygge’, which has been relegated to chapter 2. But why? “Danes are obsessed with lighting! Even students in Denmark have expensive lamps to get the lighting in their rooms right.” Meik paused for a moment, then laughed, and said, “There was actually a campsite in Italy that burnt down because a Danish family was having too much fun with their candles. It wasn’t funny at the time but we can laugh at it now.”
Indulge me for a moment while I do some obscene fangirling: this book is BRILLIANT. I can’t express this enough. My favourite thing about it is that it’s a very witty take on a subject that some people outside Denmark think is a bit twee or cutesy. Meik’s humour shines through, and I found myself shaking with laughter on the train to our meeting as I was reading it. There’s one snippet that particularly tickled me. Meik writes about the Kähler Vase Scandal, where more than 16,000 Danes clamoured to buy a limited edition Danish vase. Most were unsuccessful, and the company was hit by a public backlash. This is the part that got me in fits of giggles:
Was this a little too much hysteria over a twenty-centimetre-high vase with copper stripes, even though it would complement most Danish homes nicely? Perhaps, but Danes have relatively short working weeks, get free health care and a university education on top of five weeks of paid holiday per year – not getting that vase was the worst thing that had happened to them in years.
As you might expect with a book about hygge, we’re treated to all sorts of beautiful cosy photos throughout. But, pleasingly, despite how pretty all the pictures are, it’s so refreshing to find a hygge book where the writing is more enticing. Meik’s research background helps the book come alive with statistics and interesting facts – for instance, did you know that Danes consume twice as many sweets as the European average? – that means you’re guaranteed to find out some new things about hygge, Denmark and humans in general.
Something Meik and I discussed is the fact that there’s an entire chapter dedicated to ‘Hygge on the cheap’. I mentioned that I often see comments on articles about hygge asserting that it’s only for the middle classes, and Meik wholeheartedly disagrees, saying that hygge is for absolutely everyone. Hygge doesn’t need to cost anything, and even outside this chapter, there are plenty of ideas (and ‘Hygge tips’) to inspire anyone to hygge more in their own lives. As Meik puts it:
Hygge is more about emotions and socialising and feelings and togetherness than things you can buy.
Hygge in the UK
I wanted to know why Meik thought hygge is picking up so much interest in the UK at the moment.
“I think that people in the UK are starting to look for new inspiration in terms of wellbeing. This leads into everything – how to build societies, cities, communities… it’s not just about building wealth, but about getting happier.” There is a lot of research to suggest that there is indeed a threshold when it comes to the effect of wealth on happiness, and after this point money stops making us happier, meaning we need to look elsewhere for our happiness. We’re not really wired to think this way in the UK, with our culture of long working hours (the average Brit worked 1,674 hours in 2015 compared with the average Dane’s 1,457), presenteeism and responding to work emails at 11pm – but that could all be changing, with Brits cottoning onto the fact that money really isn’t the be all and end all, and so we’re looking to the Danes’ famously happy lifestyle to learn how we can have happier lives.
As well as this, Denmark has a stronger culture of improving the standard of living for everyone. Meik explained that more importance is placed on welfare systems, social security, equal opportunities, maintaining a work/life balance and societal trust in Denmark. This high tax/high happiness link is what keeps Denmark so consistently at the top of the happiness ratings, Meik believes. “If I paid lower taxes, I could get a bigger car, but that wouldn’t make me happier because I know not everyone is taken care of,” said Meik. Maybe this is what we’re missing in the UK – that willingness to improve our collective society rather than focusing on our own lifestyles. In the space of a month, Google searches for ‘hygge’ in the UK have increased tenfold, which speaks volumes about the British craving for Danish inspiration.
Hygge, Meik Wiking style
While I had the expert in front of me, I had to ask Meik for his personal idea of hygge.
“There needs to be low lighting, and pockets of light, and dark corners. This, this isn’t hygge,” he said, pointing over our heads at the bright office lights. “I’d be in a cabin with a fire, and lots of slow food. It’s something you do together that takes the focus away from the individual. You don’t have to talk, but there can be music. It’s coming home after skiing all day and relaxing on the balcony, drinking coffee.”
There’s a little part of the book I think it might be easy to overlook in favour of all the typical things we think of when we think of hygge, like food and candles and cosy jumpers. It’s about hygge for introverts, and while it was on my list of things to talk about, Meik got there first and brought it up while we talked about the ideal hygge evening. I’m a textbook introvert (and, as I discovered, so is Meik), and I always felt a natural affinity with hygge. But this section talks about how some introverts struggle with the concept, as hygge is something best done with others.
“Hygge is about expanding your comfort zone to include other people, which can feel scary for some introverts,” said Meik. “But the more people there are, the less hygge it is. In a sense, that’s the dark side of hygge – Danes can be reluctant to include new people in their socialising because it can lessen the hygge. We often feel guilty about spending time alone, but hygge fights this guilt – it’s a get-out-of-jail card. If you don’t want to go out, stay in and hygge.” And then came my favourite thing Meik said: “Here’s a tip: if you don’t want to go out, just tell people you’re staying in with Hygge. They’ll assume it’s a person and they won’t ask any more questions.”
Why you need this book
Look, if you’re not already convinced that you need this book right this second I don’t know what more I can say, but I’m going to try. The Little Book of Hygge is currently available in English, but there are plans to translate it into 13 languages, including Japanese and Korean (as Meik said, “If Denmark can export one thing to the world and that thing is hygge, great!”). Hygge is spreading like wildfire (it’s all the candles, I’m sure of it), and if you have even a passing interest in hygge, happiness or the human condition, I promise you this book won’t disappoint. It’s an absolute pleasure to read, and I can guarantee it’ll be a talking point if you put this on the table the next time you meet your friend at a café for coffee and cake (oh hang on… that’s fika, wrong concept). This is THE book you need to read this autumn – at the time of writing, it’s #1 in Amazon’s bestseller list in the Scientific Psychology & Psychiatry section), and if you’re only going to read one book about hygge in your life, please make it this one. You can buy the book here.
Thank you so much to Meik for taking the time to talk to me and to Penguin for arranging such a fun meeting!
We have more in common than we think when it comes to happiness.