Since 2012, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) has undertaken an annual comparative study of happiness within nations. The study measures a host of variables factored into measuring happiness then publishes its results in something titled the World Happiness Report. Now, for anyone who may be about to raise their eyebrows and question whether the study is nothing more than a hippie dippy tie dyed waste of taxpayers money, check your impulse and have a look at some of the study’s purposes:
- Mobilize global scientific and technological expertise to promote practical solutions for sustainable development, including implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement.
- Accelerate joint learning and promote integrated approaches that address the interconnected economic, social, and environmental challenges confronting the world.
- Enable a large number of leaders from all regions and diverse backgrounds to participate in the development of the network.
Seemingly laudable goals? Sure seems so. And all the better for putting forth ideals recognizing that we live in an inter-connected world, a world where the force of an Australian sneeze may reverberate in Chile; a Chinese smile may ricochet in Iceland.
Building Social Trust, Not Walls
Still, what do these stated goals have to do with Happiness?
To answer this question, I’ll pass the megaphone over to Jeff Sachs, co-editor of the study and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.
Jeff says that world leaders need to understand what matters most to people if they are to have any hope of creating sound policy. He goes on to say that,
“Happiness is a result of creating strong social foundations. It’s time to build social trust and healthy lives, not [arm our self with] guns or [build] walls.”
What Sachs is getting at is the idea that trusting each other, our elected leaders, and institutions, is essential for an individual and a society to establish a firmly anchored sense of well being. And the bonus about feeling groovy, about feeling in soulful harmony with our self? Aside from the genuinely positive vibrations we share with fellow humans and other creatures, we’re more productive, more peaceful, more compassionate, earn more, and live longer.
And this is how happiness connects to the study’s purposes: governments that truly wish to build an inclusive society, one that fosters social cohesion and sustainable economic development, first need a baseline assessment of their people’s current state of well being. Then comes the task of figuring out what’s working, what’s not working , and implementing change to make us better.
Is Denmark Utopia?
Each year since the first World Happiness Report was issued, Denmark has ranked at or near the top. Why? What does a country that is home to less than six million people know that others don’t? A country where people prefer to stay inside for much of November through March owing to the cold, and pop umbrellas open for near 180 days of the year because of rain.
Ya, well, weather is a state of mind as far as Danes are concerned. I mean, we’re talking about a country that entertains a steady flow of foreign government representatives who are on a mission to find out what the heck it is that makes Danes so damn happy.
There’s no such rush to the USA, a country sitting at #14 on the happiness scale. Some argue that this relatively poor showing is a result of misguided political leaders who espouse misguided policies emphasizing economic growth above all else. The thinking among these leaders being that more money translates to a better, happier life. Really? Will they never learn?
Living in a monster house does not bring happiness. Driving a Mercedes does not nurture one’s soul. Having more money than one’s neighbour does not elevate self-worth or contribute to one’s value as a human being. Because here’s the thing: happiness is not driven by the bottom line. And this is where America (and some other countries) falls down; with an overriding emphasis on money, the economy, taxes.
Back to Jeff Sachs, he says,
“America’s crisis is, in short, a social crisis. Not an economic crisis.”
So what may the USA, and other countries (I’m not trying to pick here; every country has their pluses and minuses) learn from Denmark? First off, this Nordic country knows neither economic nor social crisis. Along with the other top 5 countries, they rank high for caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance. All reflective of a strong sense of community and understanding in the common good.
But you know what’s even better? You know what puts the Danes over the top? A little something known as HYGGE (pronounced ‘hoo-gah’ – see youtube video link here).
HYGGE Is the Secret
‘Hygge’ is a Danish word. Though there’s no precise translation into English, here’s a few close approximations:
- Cosiness of the soul
- The art of creating intimacy
- Cocoa by candlelight
Whichever definition you hang your hat on, Hygge is about an atmosphere, an experience. It’s about being with people we care for, people we love. It’s a feeling that we’re safe; that we may let our guard down; that we may engage in conversation about “big important” issues or silly nonsense; or that we may be silent in the company of others.
Of course, you could say that while Hygge sounds pleasant, the Danes have other reasons to be happy. Such as free health care, free education (from pre-school through university), subsidized childcare, job training and re-training, generous unemployment insurance (about $1900 USD/month after taxes), fuel subsidies and rent allowance for the elderly.
Yes, these social programs cost money. And to fund these programs, Denmark has the highest tax rates among European countries. Agh! Oh no! Taxes are evil! Or … are they? Is it not possible to find a compromise, a balance beneficial to both citizens and society at large, to the common good? Danish folks would say yes.
They say yes to a social system that has a burgeoning middle class, high taxes are acknowledged as a drag on economic growth but the welcome trade-off is a peaceful, caring society where no one, including vulnerable members of society, is left behind.
And this choice in favor of an expansive social system is made with awareness that collective wealth results in collective well being. In this regard, taxes are far from evil; rather, they’re perceived as an investment in society. They’re a purchase of quality of life. Because sharing and spreading wealth reduces risk, uncertainty and anxiety among citizens. And doing so nurtures happiness. And spreads the joy of Hygge!
The Humility of Hygge
Oh, there’s so much more to say about Hygge, this word, this concept, this value, embraced by so many Danes, and contributing to one of the most successful societies we know.
Hygge is humble. Hygge is not rushing. Hygge is moderation. Hygge is watching leaves fall, baking cookies, sharing stories and laughter. Hygge is playing board games, swimming in the lake, dining on home cooked food. Hygge is saving money, making do with less, savoring simple pleasures, being grateful for what you have. Hygge is listening to birds sing, watching a child ride a bike or, better yet, riding a bike with the child. Hygge is the right atmosphere, degree of comfort and warmth, wanting to be engaged with people, caring for whom you are with. Hygge is real, balanced, down to earth.
In effect, Hygge is anti-bling, anti-consumption, anti-prestige not for ideological reasons but because it is not possible for money and entitlement to buy Hygge. In fact, if money is used in an attempt to improve Hygge, well, this act in itself is so anti-Hygge that the Hygge factor will be reduced or eliminated altogether!
Hygge is Candles. The Danes burn more candles by far than any other country. Candles, you see, create the right atmosphere.
Hygge is Presence. In this sense, Hygge is Buddha-like in emphasizing that we Be Here Now; welcome each and every moment.
Hygge is Simple Pleasures. Coffee, cake, cookies, chocolate. Whatever relaxes your mind and warms your heart.
Hygge is Equality. ‘WE’ takes priority over ‘ME’.
Hygge is Gratitude. Enjoy what you have; do not envy others.
Hygge is Harmony. Life is not a competition. We like you for you, not because of your achievements.
Hygge is Comfort. Get cozy. Relax. Take a break. Sip tea.
Hygge is Compromise and Truce. No drama. Let’s be kind and get along.
Hygge is Togetherness. Building relationships.
Hygge is Shelter. Your home, your country, this world, is your tribe. A place of peace and security.
If nothing else, my hope is that by reading the word ‘Hygge’ so many times that you now feel somewhat comfortable enunciating the word out loud (H00-gah). May you embrace Hygge!
ps. thanks to Meik Wiking, chief executive officer of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, for writing The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way To Live Well. A warm, inviting read that inspired this post, inspired me to continue learning more about Danish society, and to welcome more Hygge into my life.