As much as I profess to love autumn, I rarely get to enjoy it. Instead I spend a large part of the season watching the weather like a hawk—waiting in dread for the last leaf to drop, and for winter, in its gray and freezing entirety, to take hold. I’ve often asked myself the question: Who on Earth would be happy in winter? Well, the answer just arrived. Apparently, millions of people….
The World Happiness Report, released this month, revealed that the happiest countries in the world are: Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Canada, and Finland. And it’s not just this year—the countries with the longest and coldest winters consistently rank as the ones with the happiest citizens.
A clue to this happiness may lie in the Danish word “hygge” (pronounced “hyooguh”). It roughly means: a deep sense of place and well-being; a feeling of friendship, warmth, contentment, and peace with your immediate surroundings. It’s an integral part of Danish life, and it mostly happens in colder weather.
It’s not an easy word to translate. As Danish American ToveMaren Stakkestad says on her blog:
“It was never meant to be translated. It was meant to be felt.”
But, roughly speaking, it’s fireplaces, blankets, candles, big socks, scarves, mugs of tea, glasses of red wine, home-cooked meals with good friends and family, epic novels, heartfelt conversations, soft lighting, small homes, tucking children into bed, movies under a duvet, snow-covered mittens, and wooden sleds—it’s that feeling right there….
And the great thing about hygge is that it can happen at any moment. Tea lights, gentle music, a soft blanket, and a restorative posture? You’ve just ‘hygged’ your yoga practice. Some snowshoes, the dog, and a thermos of hot chocolate—and a regular dog walk turns into something much more memorable.
There’s even a course on it. Suzanne Nilson teaches students of Morley College in the UK how to achieve hygge. As stated on its website:
“Once you get the hang of [hygge] your eyes [will] sparkle too and your face will light up in a smile whenever you hear the word.”
It’s interesting that, whereas many in the U.S. will experience seasonal affective disorder in winter, the Scandinavians feel it in spring and summer when the mood is less “hyggelig.”
If that’s the case, then could it be that the winter blues have very little to with the cold and dark, but rather our state of mind? Is the key to keeping our spirits lifted, as the season changes to winter, to cultivate this sense of hygge like our happier Danish friends? And is hygge just about “cozying up” the environment around us, or is it something deeper?
Helen Russell, author of The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country, says in an article with the BBC, that central to the experience of hygge is kindness:
“Hygge seems to me to be about being kind to yourself—indulging, having a nice time, not punishing or denying yourself anything. There isn’t so much enforced deprivation in Denmark. Instead you’re kinder to yourself, and so [to] each other.”
It’s not just about providing those around us with hot tea and overstuffed pillows. This kindness to others plays out as making them feel as comfortable as possible with our actions and words. It’s refraining from talking about oneself too much. It’s letting go of our opinions, or our desire to be better than others.
Jeppe Trolle Linnet, an anthropologist and expert on hygge, explains in an interview with expat magazine, Your Danish Life:
Of course, you can meet up and talk about yourself and your achievements, but unless everyone present shares the same level of success, to Danes that is not real hygge. That is more [suited to] a professional environment….
All of sudden, with hygge in mind, the changing season doesn’t seem to induce quite the same level of dread. Rather, the idea of spending time with good friends, or alone, with kindness, acceptance, a fair amount of soft materials, and a solid dose of twinkling lights, feels like something I could very much get on board with. Which is wonderful, because now there’s a greater chance of enjoying what’s left of autumn.
Helen Avery is a Section Editor at Wanderlust Media, working on the Vitality, Wisdom, and Wellness channels on wanderlust.com and YOGANONYMOUS. She is a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, and full-time dog walker of Millie.