From Scandinavia with Love: Hygge, health and happiness

All photos courtesy of Samantha Gary 

All photos courtesy of Samantha Gary 

I’m standing in front of the iconic home furnishings store, Illums Bolighus, in Copenhagen, transfixed by the window display. I know little about Danish design so it’s not that which holds me but instead the slice-of-life scenario playing out behind the glass. Two faceless, wigless mannequins, clad in slippers and pajamas, seem to be gazing out and into the rainy street from their elegantly understated bedroom. Candles, knickknacks and books stacked askew clutter nearby end tables, and minimalist lamps cast a golden hue suggesting it is mid-morning. From the unmade bed behind them, with its randomly scattered pillows and crumpled sheets and duvet, it appears the couple has just got up and is pondering whether they should stay up or go back to bed. So inviting is the scene that I find myself hoping they’ll choose the latter so that I can crawl beneath the covers with them.

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This is hygge at its finest, I realize, its pull so strong a middle-aged woman can find herself fanaticizing about a non-conjugal ménage a trois with a pair of synthetic molds.

In case you’ve just crawled out of a cave (which is perfectly fine so long as it was candlelit) hygge, pronounced "hoo-gah" or “hue-gah”, is the latest lifestyle craze, the subject of myriad articles and more than two dozen books, all of which have hit the shelves during the past year. And there are more to come. This fall, for example, Penguin Random House will release The Hygge Life: Embracing the Nordic Art of Coziness Through Recipes, Entertaining, Decorating, Simple Rituals, and Family Traditions.

Its usage was so high in Britain in 2016 that the word hygge was admitted to the Collins Dictionary along with Brexit and Trumpism. Collins describes it as the practice of creating cozy, congenial environments that promote emotional wellbeing. It’s hot beverages and knitted things, cozy nooks and comfort food, candles lit with wooden matches, never batteries. It’s about bicycles with woven baskets, cushions, blankets and books. It’s about a small group gathering at someone’s home enjoying the pleasure of each other’s company huddled around a hearth.

And it’s about to hit Canada hygge style – not so much like a tsunami, but more like a warm wave washing over us and sweeping us up and into a state of euro-phoria.

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When I first heard about hygge, I didn’t have to rush out and purchase the props. I’m Canadian after all and already possess mugs, sweaters, candles and most of the other trappings. So why then, when I surround myself with such belongings don’t I experience overwhelming joy? Because although certain things promote hygge, it is a state of wellbeing achieved when you feel comfortable being yourself in the presence of people you love.

Hmph, I thought. Well I love my daughter, Samantha, and she’s working in Europe right now so that’s why I’m over here to meet up with her to experience hygge, and a few other Scandi trends, firsthand.

According to Meik Wiking, the author of the best-selling The Little Book of Hygge: the Danish Way to Live Well, hygge comes from a Norwegian word meaning well-being and first appeared in written Danish in the early 1800s. So the concept isn’t new, just the attention surrounding it is. In part, the hoopla stems from the fact that Danes consistently place first or second in the UN World Happiness Report, a survey that ranks happiness levels in more than 150 countries. So, as Wiking says, since the report was first released in 2012 everyone from journalists to researchers to policymakers are studying the Danes to see what makes them so happy.

As a scientist and the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, an independent think-tank that focuses on happiness and quality of life, Wiking often wondered if hygge might be the secret of happiness. After all, it’s practically founded in a Dane’s DNA and practiced by every Dane almost daily. And so he put hygge under a microscope, dissected it, and then wrote about his findings.

Hoo-gah poo-gah, say the skeptics. Denmark and the rest of the Scandinavian countries do well on happiness surveys because they live in welfare states with good wages, free university and cradle-to-grave healthcare.  Indeed health and income are among the six factors measured in the World report, so certainly, financial stability and access to affordable healthcare weigh in.

“Our research shows that income and happiness are only related as long as you need money to make ends meet. After that, money isn’t as important,” Wiking states.

What is? Spending time with people you care about. In fact, says Wiking, a study that followed the same people for 75 years shows that the key to happiness is not fame and fortune but one’s social relations, especially as we age and no longer have connections at work. “We need to have relations with our family and with friends. And not just relations, but deep and good relations.”

The trick then is to create a life that fosters meaningful relationships and here’s where hygge shines. Togetherness is a huge hygge deal. Although you can experience hygge alone – reading a book by candlelight beneath a cozy quilt, say – the most hyggelig times involve a small group of people, three or four being ideal. After that, the hygge manifesto includes turning the lights down and the cellphones off, breaking out the cookies and cakes, allowing equal time for everyone to speak within a conversation that ideally is void of high drama.

And then, there’s gratitude. Take it in. This might be as good as it gets, Wiking writes.

Home is where the hygge is…

Another significant hygge factor? Shelter, that is, the home. Trine Hahnemann, 52, the author of several Scandinavian cookbooks including Scandinavian Comfort Food: Embracing the Art of Hygge, explains that the cold, wet weather coupled with the lack of daylight throughout the winter forces folks to spend a great deal of time indoors.

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Your home then is a sanctuary, a place that is warm, relaxing and safe. And while Nordic design is all the rage with its neutral palette, blend of style and function, and materials sourced from nature, hygge is not so much about furnishings and décor as it is atmosphere. Hahnemann cites a big dining room table that invites post-dinner lingering, or a comfy nook within the kitchen as fine hygge examples.

The most important thing, she stresses, is having a home that makes folks who just happen to drop in feel welcome.

“In Denmark, when someone comes by we don’t say “Hello, how are you?”

Hahnemann laughs. “If you ask a Dane that they’ll think you mean it and start telling you! No, we say, ‘Hello, would you like a cup of coffee?’ Then you offer them something to eat.”

Although the world went crazy over Nordic cuisine after Noma was named the best restaurant in the world back in 2010, and the new Nordic cuisine is trending today, eating out isn’t a big part of the traditional Danish culture. Hyggelig times at the beach or in a café or at a ski chalet are plentiful, but Danes are homebodies or someone-else’s-homebodies. Most, at least the over 50 crowd, prefer to get together a few times a week in each other’s kitchens.

“The young people go out, yes, but evenings are more hyggelig when you entertain at home,” says Hahnemann. “Part of this is because the noise in some restaurants prevents good conversation. The other thing is that if you go to a restaurant you only get two hours and Danes don’t do two hours. We like to hang out and talk for maybe five hours!”

Danes love comfort food so get-togethers are not fancy -- bread, salad, and a roasted chicken will do. “Anything cooked low and slow like osso buco is extra hygge.”

This being Scandinavia, parties are timed around the light. In parts of the summer when it doesn’t get dark until 11 pm events start later, but in the spring, people are invited earlier so they can have a glass of wine or champagne outside with a few canapés before having to head in.

“We love the outdoors,” says Hahnemann, “And we are outside as much as possible.”

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Certainly that’s what struck my daughter and me as we strolled through Copenhagen’s busy Amagertorv Square. Even though it was -3 degrees out and a wet snow was falling, people wined and dined on the canopied patios sitting around tables next to heaters, wrapped in the blankets the restaurants provide. 

But, our ultimate hygge moment came on our final night in Copenhagen when a friend of Samantha’s from Canada who lives in Denmark invited us to join him and yet another Canadian who was in town at his apartment to just hang out. The evening was straight out of the hygge playbook. Gather just the right number of people around the table, light a few candles, set out snacks and wine. Oh, and when we’re not exchanging interesting ideas, it’s okay to just sit back and listen to the sound of sleet pelting against the windowpane.

Wait a minute. I’ve experienced this sense of wellbeing back home. Of course I have! As Canadians, we already have all the hygge trappings so maybe all we need to do is make time for more hyggelit moments. Then, we might rise from our current place as 7th happiest nation in the world to, well, who knows how high?

Fika, lagom … and the guy on the train

Here in Canada you’ll often see folks walking to their place of work carrying a take-out cup of coffee, no doubt to sip it at their desk. In Sweden, coffee is more of a verb than a noun, and fika is akin to us saying “Let’s do coffee.”  At least twice a day, Swedes fika, meaning they get together with a few friends, and enjoy a hot beverage accompanied by a treat.

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In Stockholm, cafés abound then with astonishing selections of little cakes and cookies, pastries and the like. So significant is fika to the culture, that most workplaces have fika rooms, a place you can settle in with co-workers to relax and chat. Cakes, brought from home and shared, are commonplace.

At first, then, in seems incongruous that fika and lagom come from the same land. Chitchats and sweet treats seem decadent and out of sync with lagom, the Swedish ethos that touts moderation and means not too little, not too much, just the right amount.

However, lagom isn’t about deprivation but instead balancing wants with needs. It can be applied to everything from health and fitness to finances, food, environmental issues and even personality traits -- be confidant but not a braggart, for example.

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In his new book, The Nordic Guide to Living 10 Years Longer: 10 Easy Tips for a Happier, Healthier Life, Dr. Bertil Marklund, 71, introduces the concept of lagom as it applies to living healthier.  For example, getting enough sunshine is among the most important things you can do to add years to your life but not too much sunshine, he stresses.

“It is important to get 15 minutes of sunshine every day from April to September,” he says. This boosts the immune system and decreases inflammation, which damages cells in the brain and blood vessels. “From October to March, especially in middle-age and on, it is imperative to take supplements.”

Weighing just the right amount, and sleeping and exercising just the right amount can all increase the length and quality of your life.

“You need to have 30 minutes of exercise every day which is not difficult,” he says. “That will reduce the risk of 30 or 40 different kinds of diseases such as cancers and cardio-related illness.”

Although some of Marklund’s recommendations are easily doable, achieving lagom can be a bit trickier when it comes to not working too much, or stressing out about the things we want but don’t have.

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“The problem with excess is you have to do too much and buy too much to achieve it which creates stress and speeds up the aging process. You can choose to have a high speed life and risk the onset of diseases or you can choose to slow down and be healthier.”  

To this end, lagom involves prioritizing things differently and learning to feel more comfortable with yourself and who you are.

But by mid-life and beyond, is it too late to change? Not in terms of behaviour -- of course we can -- but will our bodies repair?

“It’s never too late to start because the same day you make a change you have an effect on your blood sugar level, your insulin level decreases, and the aging processes slows down too.”

All of this is very good news, of course, but somehow lagom doesn’t seem as much fun as hygge and I tell the good doctor so.

“Lagom isn’t boring,” he laughs. “You’re just choosing to be the best you can be. It’s fun to be healthy, to laugh and smile and enjoy yourself. It will give you seven extra years. Research shows the endorphins produced are very good for you and that one of the best things you can do is sing in a choir!”

Hallelujah, I think. And let’s rejoice that both hygge and lagom encourage wine. Mind you, one or two glasses a day is lagom, and hygge certainly requires that you be mentally present.

Interestingly, on the train ride between Copenhagen and Stockholm, Samantha and I sat across from a man in his late 40’s who was born and raised in southern Denmark but had moved to Sweden a decade earlier. When we told him about how Scandinavian lifestyle trends are huge in North America, he seemed put-off by the notion that folks were buying books about the subjects.

“You can’t learn hygge, and you certainly can’t plan it,” he said. “That would ruin it. Hygge just happens. It’s like sex. If I call my wife and say let’s have sex tonight at 8:05 pm that would wreck it, right?”

He seemed to expect an answer and my daughter shot me a look.

“Okay,” I said moving the conversation along. “What about lagom, what do you –“

“You’re pronouncing it wrong. It’s lar-gom.”

“Lar …gom.”

“No ‘r’.”

“But you –“

“Lahr …gom.”

Eventually, our train companion warmed up to the conversation and offered valuable insights. But, we wondered afterward if his initial reticence came from a sense of disbelief that such an entrenched part of one’s national identity can be exported. Could there be how-to tomes dedicated to being Canadian that teach people how to be innately polite, say? Perhaps not, but surely the world wouldn’t be worse for trying. And surely, there’s no harm in trying to incorporate a few Scandi lessons that involve slowing down and enjoying time with family and friends. In fact, it might be good to create a few more idyllic moments – you know, like window displays only in real life.

Check out Girls Flight Out: Fun and Fika in Stockholm, the latest video in the series Samantha and I do capturing the fun and camaraderie of girls' getaways. GFO also appears on HuffingtonPost.ca 

From Scandinavia with Love appeared in the June 2017 issue of Zoomer Magazine.