24 November 2020

What makes you happy? Falling asleep with rain falling softly on the roof? Having a joyful dog race towards you, treating you like their best friend? Baking cookies, just to eat the dough? Curling up with a book and a homemade blanket? Candles? Tea? For me, it’s all these things. These are things which provide comfort, warmth and security. Cosiness.

This is the essence of hygge.

Pronounced ‘hoo-gah’, this Danish concept dates back to the sixteenth century when Denmark and Norway were united. The term derives from the Norwegian word hugge, which means ‘to embrace’ or ‘to hug’. In a region where the winters are long and bleak, people tend to spend their lives indoors. Hygge is all about being protected from the elements outside and fostering togetherness.

Denmark is consistently ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world by the Copenhagen Institute of Happiness. In his 2016 book, The Little Book of Hygge, Meik Wiking attributes this ranking to hygge. When you get that warm, fuzzy feeling of contentment, then you know you’re in the presence of hygge, and it is this feeling which Wiking describes as essential to Danish life.

“In many ways [hygge] is like a good hug — but without the physical contact”, he says.

I read Wiking’s book earlier this year in a state of unease. Around the world, COVID-19 has consumed our media, taken over our social media feeds and our living room broadcasts. Our jobs are disappearing along with our social lives. We are being kept indoors while the sun is shining, and the beaches are calling. With hundreds of thousands of Australians suddenly unemployed and confined to their homes, there have been spikes in depression, anxiety, suicide, homelessness, and drug and alcohol abuse. Australia’s focus on the economy has come at a human cost. Following our black summer and years of drought, Australians need comfort now more than ever.

“The best predictor of whether we are happy or not is our social relationships … The question is then how to shape our societies and our lives to allow our social relationships to flourish”.

This is one of the few times in human history when the world has had to deal with a crisis that doesn’t revolve around conflict between people, religions or political beliefs. For once we are fighting together in what is possibly the most millennial of all methods: staying at home. We are not being shipped off in itchy camouflage to wade through unfamiliar trenches with guns. We are just being asked to stay home while our leaders play blame games as families plan funerals they can’t attend.

I feel helpless as I sit at home reading about the ten things that will make your home more hyggelig and the importance of candles. It feels trivial. Hygge can’t rejuvenate Australia’s economy or bring back jobs.

In March, The Happiness Research Institute released their 2020 report:

“People in high trust communities are much more resilient in the face of hard times … Being able to count on those around us and on our institutions seems to make hardships easier to bear. …Where the social fabric is not strong enough to support co-operative action, then fear, disappointment and anger can add to the costs of a disaster.”

“Equality is an important element in hygge”.

Denmark has one of the lowest unemployment rates pre–COVID-19, one of the highest tax rates, and one of the most secure welfare models in the developed world which helps reduce stigma around unemployment and financial assistance. Wiking puts this down to attitude: we are not paying taxes, we are investing in our society. The Danes are happy perhaps because they feel less stress and uncertainty about their financial security. They can depend on their state and fellow citizens in times of need. Here in Australia, our pollies call taxes a ‘burden’. We seem to let the poor get poorer while allowing the rich to get richer. We’ve become increasingly detached from each other, with our separate schools for privileged children, private sports clubs, private hospitals, private energy providers competing for our money when the same electricity is coming through the same cables. Our politicians call on expert advice and subsequently ignore it, or even openly refute it. We are a wealthy country, but we lack the attitude and trust which keeps Denmark united. Our ranking on the happiness scale is dependent on our collective wellbeing. So, when things get back to normal, which parts of normal do we want to get back to?

“Hygge is about giving your responsible, stressed-out achiever adult a break. Relax. Just for a little while. It is about experiencing happiness in simple pleasures and knowing that everything is going to be ok”.

So I’ll ask again.

What makes you happy?

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