As a British expat in her 21st year as a resident of Denmark, with all this Brexit lark, I'm thinking of getting dual citizenship. That got me thinking about what it's like to be a Dane and about all this hygge and 'happy Denmark' hype going around at the moment.
What is it about Denmark that sends the Danes so high up on the Happy Scale? I mean, Denmark has one of the highest rates of alcohol and anti-depressant consumption in the world, no wonder they're so jolly. But for those of us not prone to drinking copious amounts of alcohol, here are a few hints from the Danish lifestyle that may account for them being consistently rated the 'happiest nation on earth'.
One of them is definitely the concept of hygge (pronounce the 'y' as in 'pure, cure'), a way of life that pervades the Danish way of thinking, representing a comforting sense of wellbeing. It could be a walk out in nature, a cup of tea in the soft hue of candlelight, the flicker of a log fire, a good film with friends, a chat over a beer…you name it, any chance to create this sense of wellbeing, the Danes grab it. In fact, I strongly believe the Danes use hygge to make the best out of potentially dismal situations.
Like the months of January and February.
Dark, cold, windy, wet. Did I mention dark? A problem for the Danes? Naaah…they just put the kettle on, light a candle, eat a cake and let a whoosh of warm fuzzy hygginess chase their winter blues away. I kid you not.
Hygge: 'The Three Cs'
I often call hygge ‘The Three Cs’ – Cake, Candles and Cocoa. There you have it. The perfect recipe for any situation you may happen upon. Whether at a kid's birthday, a date with friends, a meeting at work, or just your average 'I survived the elements and got home in one piece' afternoon break, one or all of the three Cs will ensure the restoration of harmony (sanity) and wellbeing to all. Seriously, you cannot have any gathering without at least one component present. Cake is good. And candles. Lots of them. And hot steaming cocoa, preferably laden with whipped cream. Who needs alcohol?
Talking about the elements…we're talking all four seasons in half an hour in Denmark. You can don a light jacket in early summer, take it off after 5 minutes in the baking sun, get soaked in a sudden shower the next 15 minutes and wish you brought gloves and a scarf after a gale force wind decides to rip through you.
Upon moving to Denmark, I had one jacket. One. Hahahahaha. What was I thinking (hand slaps forehead). At least I had an umbrella.
But was I in for a surprise. In the space of six months, I had acquired a winter jacket of arctic proportions, a down-to-your-knees rain coat designed to shield off the slightest drop; rain trousers (yes, they actually make those, not attractive), knee-high wellies with industrial strength soles; snow boots with insulated core and water-repellent outer layer (Gore-tex becomes a regular part of one's vocabulary after a while in Denmark), a snow suit, a plethora of hats, scarves, gloves, and thermal underwear. I could go on.
Looking back, I can see I did what the Danes always do. They don't run away and hide from the elements, (you can't eat cake all day), they embrace the elements. They dress for the occasion.
Two feet of snow? No problem, don your snow suit with fluorescent strips down the sides (it gets dark at 3pm in winter, ok?), on your bike and wade through it. Freezing cold but sunny? Grab your skates and find your nearest open door skating rink, so you can work up an appetite for cake and cocoa.
Embrace whatever may come
The point is Danes always seem to find a way to embrace whatever comes their way so that satisfied sense of wellbeing is maintained. And it's all done with their seemingly effortless sense of style and cool. I mean, imagine drinking your cocoa out of a Royal Copenhagen mug, surrounded by Danish design in a minimalistic Scandi interior that looks remarkably uncontrived or planned. Forget coordinated drapes, cushion covers and wallpaper, the Danes make it look like they've just thrown it all together in one casual fit of Scandi inspiration. Grab a piece of driftwood and a cool rug, and you're almost there. Pull out your designer candle holder and hygge will be your middle name.
And it's not only their interior adeptness that might enhance their happy demeanours, the Danes actually look cool in a 'I-just-put-this-together' kind of way. Again, uncontrived and effortless. Girls, scrunch your hair in a top-knot and wrap a really long scarf multiple times around your neck and you'll look the epitome of Scandi -cool. Guys, pull your hair in a top knot and grow a beard and look like you don't give a …
And of course you have in Denmark the general feeling of social security (not forgetting the unbelievably high taxes fuelling it), that basically, your general welfare is going to get taken care of and generally speaking, you are free to shape your life as you wish. Throw in a cake and a candle, and you're one happy Dane!
See also: Enough with the hygge already!
A British version of hygge?
The question is, is it possible for us lowly Brits to reach these Scandi heights of hygginess? Will we feel our happy barometer rising in the afterglow of a candlelit mug of frothing cocoa and an unashamed bite of our favourite cake?
Could we don our mac and wellies with a smile at the mere hint of a rain shower? To be honest with you, you don't need to write a book showing how to adopt (copy) Danish hygge, because it's not really a measurable entity that can be reproduced. You can paint all your walls white and buy all the Danish candelabra you want and still not feel hyggelig or happy. It has more to do with one's approach to life and appreciating even simple things as meaningful and life enhancing. We don't need to look beyond what's already there in the English tradition. A roaring fire at the pub, a pint at the bar, eating chips out of newspaper, a windy walk after Sunday lunch, you name it.
What gives us a sense of wellbeing with (hardly) no demands? Even on a bad day. Why do we always boil a cuppa, whether we've just come home, got something to celebrate or just heard bad news? Because that is for some of us our way of dealing with a potentially miserable situation.
Maybe we don’t need to go all in on the Danes’ love of candles but it wouldn't hurt to turn off the one fluorescent bulb in the middle of the ceiling and create some hygge lighting.
What do you enjoy doing? So do it, enjoying it in that moment, rather than bashing yourself up about eating that cake or walking around in your pyjamas all Sunday. Do you have to face a crappy, unavoidable life situation (like walking to work in sheet rain because the car won't start)? Then embrace it and get on with it the best way you can.
You think Danes wander around in a permanent haze of calm and wellbeing? Of course not. You wouldn't want to meet a disconcerted Dane being jumped in the queue for beer/sausages/the till, even after they've had cake and cocoa. You think all Danes inhabit über cool domiciles dripping in Danish design? Think again! Life in Denmark is not always hygge and happiness, or coolness and cake. But the Danes have given a name to an approach to life that I believe any culture can practise and enhance. So Brits, appreciate the little things, embrace the things you can't change and start enjoying what you enjoy!
Alexia Kühn is from England and moved to Denmark 22 years ago to marry a Dane. She is trained in theology, teaching and counselling, and currently lives in Copenhagen with her husband and two children.