Why the Danish are happier than we are, even in their winters

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The sun sets before four in the afternoon and the temperatures rarely surge above freezing, and yet winter is Denmark’s favorite season thanks to the Danes’ belief in the culture of hygge.

What is hygge?

Pronounced “hyOO-guh,” the word loosely translates to the mental state of coziness, according to Denmark’s government, which first used the word in official documents in the 18th century. Hygge can be used as a verb, noun or adjective. Danes even say “hyggeligt” which means “it’s cozy to meet you.”

Danes say the word is used in various ways to refer to one’s well-being, especially when buffering against the solitude and cold of its dark winters. Hygge is also the idea that winter is not to be survived, but savored.

“Coziness relates to physical surroundings—a jersey can be cozy, or a warm bed—whereas hygge has more to do with people’s behavior toward each other,” Helen Dyrbye writes in the Xenophobe’s Guide to the Danes, adding “It is the art of creating intimacy: a sense of comradeship, conviviality and contentment rolled into one.”

Some Danish scholars write that hygge promotes feelings of thankfulness and gratitude—not totally unlike America’s Thanksgiving. But considering that Denmark ranks as the happiest nation on Columbia University’s World Happiness Report, the United States could learn a thing or two from Hamlet’s people.

Get your hygge on

Although hygge is a mental state, Danes use certain props to help cultivate hygge in their homes.

Lighting. Low, warm lighting is especially key to making the dark days of winter feel magical, Danes say. Throughout the cold season, Danes use candles in their homes, cafes, bars, even offices to promote a feeling of warmth and togetherness. A fireplace or antique stove is even better in promoting the “hyggelige glow.”

Dining. A Danish family will linger for hours around a warm meal and often warm, alcoholic drinks in celebrating hygge. (See my hot toddy recipe).

Comfort. Younger Danes have added snuggling under blankets on the sofa and watching movies to hygge traditions—something many Americans already excel in. Younger Danes also preserve hygge by simply eschewing social media and iPhones to connect with friends and family in intimate conversation.

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There are California girls and there are Bakersfield girls. I am the latter.

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