“Hygge is humble and slow. It is choosing rustic over new, simple over posh, and ambience over excitement.” There are numerous books with a distinctly Nordic flavour this autumn, as publishers jump on the Scandi-wagon and try to emulate the success of The Bookseller’s non-fiction Book of the Year, Norwegian Wood. And amid this log roll of titles, which encompasses lifestyle, cookery, craft and more, one word dominates: hygge. A Danish word of Norwegian origin; pronounced roughly “hoogah”, and hard to translate directly, it is variously defined as: “the art of creating intimacy”; “cosiness of the soul”; “taking pleasure from the presence of soothing things”; “cosy togetherness”; and, perhaps most evocatively of all, “cocoa by candlelight”. To name but a few titles we have How to Hygge: The Secrets of Nordic Living by Signe Johansen (Bluebird), Hygge: A Celebration of Simple Pleasures by Charlotte Abrahams (Trapeze), The Art of Hygge: How to Bring Danish Cosiness Into Your Life by Jonny Jackson & Elias Larson (Summersdale), and 26 Grains by Alex Hely-Hutchinson (Square Peg) which extols the joys of hygge bowl food, such as porridge.
Meik Wiking, author of The Little Book of Hygge (Penguin) arguably has the most interesting qualification to write a book on the concept, however. He is chief exectuive of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, a think tank he founded in 2013 after noticing the increasing global attention being paid to happiness. In 2011, the UN published a resolution which stated that “the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal”, and in 2012 it released its first World Happiness Report. Taking into account a number of factors including health, family and job security as well as social factors such as political freedom and government corruption, the report has been published every year since, and Denmark has topped the list four out of five times.
“It occurred to me that somebody in Denmark should be trying to gather some intelligence because we’re doing so well in the happiness rankings,” Wiking tells me when we meet at Penguin HQ in London. He is an engaging, merry presence in his trademark tailored jacket with leather patches on the elbows (“for the hygge and for the professor look”). “And then I thought: maybe I should do that. In a matter of two months, I had quit my job, and I established the Happiness Research Institute shortly after that.” With the exception of his supportive father, Wiking’s friends thought he was crazy. “They said: ‘So you’re going to quit your well-paying steady job to study happiness?’ But honestly I can say now that it is the best career decision I have ever made. I perhaps work more than I used to and I earn less but I’m having a lot more fun. And I’ve found something I want to do for the next 40 or 50 years”.
Three years on, The Happiness Research Institute works for foundations, unions, patient groups and various ministries in Denmark. Wiking also travels widely, talking to governments and organisations all over the world. Recently he met the newly appointed female minister of state for happiness in the United Arab Emirates.“Currently ranked 28th, they have a mission of becoming one of the five happiest countries by 2021.” South Korea—which has the second highest rate of suicide in the world—has been another country of focus. All the institute’s work boils down to the attempt to answer two questions: Why are some people happier than others? And how do we measure happiness? Wiking encounters plenty of scepticism about this work. “A lot of journalists say to me: how can you possibly measure a subjective thing like happiness? And I say: if I were studying depression would you ask me the same question? I am yet to hear a convincing argument why happiness should be the one thing in the world we cannot study in a scientific manner. Why should we not try to understand the thing that perhaps matters the most?”
Initially, hygge—with its signature themes of good coffee, delicious cake, congenial company, red wine poured into hearty stews, and books read curled up by the fire while the rain hammers down outside—hardly sounds like a scientific concept. But Wiking believes it could be the missing link: the reason why Danes consistently top the world happiness rankings. While other countries have words with similar overtones— gemütlichkeit in Germany, koselig in Norway, hominess in Canada, gezellig in the Netherlands, for example— the concept of hygge is uniquely Danish, argues Wiking. “It’s an integral part of our cultural DNA: we talk about it tremendously often. Since I began researching the book, I’ve noticed just how much hygge comes up in everyday conversation. It’s like a mild form of Tourette’s”.
Wiking had initially been at a loss to explain why Denmark consistently outperformed even its high-performing Nordic neighbours in the happiness rankings before he considered hygge as the missing piece of the puzzle. “I talk a lot about the Nordic welfare model and how our policies to encourage a good work-life balance and our traditional focus on the welfare state teach us the value of security and equality and community. Yes, we do pay some of the highest taxes in the world, but it’s interesting that there is so much public support for high taxation. We recognise the value in terms of happiness and security and quality of life that we get out of paying into the common pool. I think people in the Nordic countries now realise that an additional 1,000 kroner a month won’t matter in terms of quality of life. In many countries, the perception is that increased wealth means increased wellbeing, and in a poor country this is of course true for a while. But once you reach a certain point, the relationship between the two starts to decouple. “
“I think it’s very important to underline that Denmark is by no means a utopia. We have a lot of issues, we have a lot of challenges. But what we have got right is the extent to which we have managed to mentally decouple wealth and wellbeing. And we also have this word, hygge…our language reflects our world. We shape our words, and thereafter they shape us, to paraphrase Churchill. Just having that word changes our behaviour and gives us something we can strive to achieve.”
Wiking’s own happiness is enhanced he says, by “relationships and having a meaningful occupation. But also just by everyday activities. The more I go abroad, I more I appreciate being able to cycle to work in Copenhagen. It takes me five or six minutes, or the time it takes to listen to “Back in Black” by AC/DC on my headphones. And, well, I know it’s not glamorous but I like riding my bike down to the nearest park and lying under a tree and reading a book.”
Wiking was contacted by Penguin and invited to write the book (in his almost flawless English without the need for a translator) at the beginning of this year. The Little Book of Hygge is as cosy as its competitors, with chapters on how to dress hygge, how to create a hygge Christmas; and recipes for such classic hygge dishes as “Braised Pork Cheeks in Dark Beer” and a lethal sounding mulled wine. Its slow living tenets are hardly earth-shattering. But after an hour talking to Wiking, I begin to realise that so many of our early 21st century publishing trends— baking books, colouring books, the homecraft boom, the Scandi-wagon—add up to a yearning for more cosiness; for an elusive quality which modern life often feels deficient in. For hygge perhaps?
Rights: sold in the US, Germany, Spain, Japan, Poland, Russia and Korea
Editor: Emily Robertson, Penguin Life
This article was originally published in The Bookseller magazine on 17th June 2016.