Small countries are eager to know what the world thinks about them, and Denmark is no exception. But Danes have been surprised these past few years to find that the world thinks about their country rather a lot, with an admiration bordering on fawning. First came word that Danes consistently rank at the top in international surveys of happiness. More recently, Denmark has captured the English-speaking world’s attention with no fewer than nine new books on the Danish concept of hygge – supposedly the key to all this Danish contentment, a kind of deep, existential happiness that Danes possess a unique formula for. What’s going right in the state of Denmark?
It is not all hygge, of course. When I first met my Danish wife in 2005, she told me that if I wanted to get to know Denmark I should watch “Festen”, a film from 1998. “It’s funny.” So I sat down for two hours in which a family’s façade crumbles as secrets, lies and tragedies come to light. “Funny?” I asked her on the phone the next day. Well, yes, she said. “The way the family struggles to keep up appearances as things fall apart.” Hilarious, Denmark.
Yet this dark side is also part of the international fascination with this small Scandinavian land. Just think of all those gritty television shows like “The Bridge” and “The Killing”. Which is the real Denmark? “Festen” takes place at the patriarch’s 70th birthday party, and as it happens, I’ve just returned from my mother-in-law’s 70th in Copenhagen. Is this where all the horror lurking just behind the hygge is revealed? It was literally a dark and stormy night, pitch black by 4:30 with a howling wind outside.
Alas, no: it really was hyggelig, but not for the reasons touted in all the books. Yes, a dinner party on a cold night offers prime hygge conditions, but not because of the food or the wine or even the cosy house. It was because of the shared goal of the host and guests to get to hygge. My mother-in-law put exquisite care into the seating arrangement, fretting until the last minute about who knew whom, who shared conversation topics, whose Danish was not so good. The guests offered funny speeches roasting and praising her in turn. Spouses were split up, as is usual, and everyone worked hard to make it a delight for those around them. It was nine hours of hygge central.
When I asked my table-mates what they thought of Britain’s hygge craze, they were quick to laugh off the idea of finding its secrets on shop shelves. Hygge is in situations, not in things, no matter how cosy they are, and there was almost a principled indignation at the idea that it could be taught. It can be woolen socks and mulled wine. But it can also be a tin of Tuborg and dirty jokes in a bus shelter.
What matters is a sense of ease, fun and, most of all, good company. After more than a decade of visiting regularly, I can still be surprised at the situations calling for a declaration of hygge. This past summer, after a small surgery for which I remained awake, I heard the surgeon tell her assistant, “det var hyggelig” – “that was hyggelig”. This after an hour or so of cutting and sewing my flesh.
Are Danes really grisly types after all? No: the hygge had nothing to do with me. It was in the pair’s longtime camaraderie. This was when hygge finally clicked for me. It can almost be experienced alone – there’s a reflexive verb, hygge sig, which means to sit around enjoying oneself. But deep down, hygge is better understood in terms of friendship.
During my 36-hour trip I counted 16 mentions of hygge and its derivatives (not including the conversation I started about it). My wife pointed out what’s going on: Danes continually monitor hygge levels, before, during and after a potential hygge event. “It’s going to be so hyggelig!” “Oh, isn’t this hyggelig…” “Thanks for last night. It was so hyggelig.”
Denmark has no dramatic landscapes, and it has dull grey weather to match Britain’s. Copenhagen is charming, but hardly overwhelming. The genius of Danes is found indoors: all that good TV, fine furniture, mulled wine, cake, tasteful lighting and bawdy humour. They’re a means to an end. Everyone’s mix to reach that end will differ, but the goal is never in any doubt. Bhutan has developed a measure of Gross National Happiness. Danish economists need to get to work on measuring what Danes treasure most: Gross National Hygge.