Happiness and the “Little Book of Hygge” by Meik Wiking

Folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be.

Abraham Lincoln

A trip to the mall uncovers small wonders

I was Christmas shopping at the mall in December 2019 when I came across what turned out to be my favorite gift idea of the year.  It was the four books pictured here about mindfulness, gratitude, and self-awareness.  I sat engrossed in Barnes & Noble bookstore for over an hour paging through them while deciding which one to buy, and in the end I just bought them all! 

These little books are packed with many of the same ideas that drive me on a personal level, so it was easy to relate to them.  They’ve since found a permanent place on our fireplace mantle.

Everyone grows during their lifetime.  Our learning and experiences drive our change, and we become more of who we want to be as a person as our viewpoints mature over time.  In the past few years, I’ve changed in many ways that other people might not even notice, but for sure my thinking about people, things, places, and life in general have shifted.  I’m striving to have more simplicity and goodness around me, and less complexity and negative outside influence.  These books directly relate to my goals.    

I’m on a path to eliminate anything in my life that doesn’t take me in the direction I want to go. Interpersonal drama, chaotic people, constantly negative news, etc. All…gone! Realizing that they add no value to my life and then moving on from them helps get me to my desired state of “goodness”. Anything that helps me move in the direction I want is something that I make a part of my life, and I want to share those things with others when I discover them.

If you read and really think about what these books are saying, you’ll be surprised that they can change the way you look at your life, and maybe even how you look at life in a broader sense as well.

The focus of this post today is one of these four books, The Little Book of Hygge – Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking.   

Hygge concepts, plus some additional perspective

The Danish have been ranked as the happiest people on Earth several times.  Why?  They say it’s partially because of their hygge mindset.

Hygge (pronounced hoo-ga) is generally defined as “a Danish word for a mood of coziness and comfortable conviviality with feelings of wellness and contentment”.  The Little Book of Hygge mentions that hygge is a feeling.  It is comfort.  It comes from within.  It exists only in the absence of stress and nuisance and feeds off feelings of happiness and relaxation.  

This link is to a related CNN article about how some of these concepts tie into the “World’s Happiest Country” that’s selected each year by the United Nations.

Additionally, this is the link to the 2019 World Happiness Report, which contains the underlying concepts and data that drive the selection of the “Most Happy Country” each year.

The book, and Danes themselves, often mention candles and other items that will help you achieve hygge.  In my opinion though, anything that makes you comfortable, happy, and peaceful can lead you to what hygge is ultimately about.  If sitting in the woods gives you feelings of comfort and contentment, then maybe that can be your “chair” or your “candle” in relation to the book, so don’t focus entirely on the products mentioned and expect miracles from them. Know yourself, and use whatever works for you.  

Interestingly,  I’ve read several articles that examine hygge from the Danish perspective and how they react to the worldwide phenomenon of people trying to adopt a more “hygge lifestyle”, and they somewhat recoil about it. They view what happens around the global hygge phenomenon as general “marketing exploitation” of their lifestyle.  

In a way, they’re right.  There are always people and companies that will try to make quick money any way they can, and if they can do it from selling so-called “hygge lifestyle products”, then they will.  So the point of the Danish reaction is:  You don’t buy candles, warm blankets, light a fire, get a hot drink….and then automatically have “hygge moments”.  Hygge is much more than that.  

I agree completely.  It’s a mindset, not a product.

These are links to two articles from New Yorker magazine and Mashable.com that speak about what I mentioned above, and both are worth reading to get different insight into the topic of hygge.

There are typically multiple viewpoints about all lifestyle topics, and you have to pull out the things that you see value in to adopt them for yourself. 

So let’s get to the book… 

The Little Book of Hygge

The Little Book of Hygge was exactly what I expected after browsing it in the bookstore.  It’s a light-hearted, concise, clear, and interesting book that can easily be read in one sitting (although it certainly justifies much more “thinking time” after that to fully absorb it).

Meik Wiking is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Its mission is to “…inform and enable better decisions for human wellbeing through data-driven research”.  I encourage you to review their website, which is filled with interesting information about their mission. To me, having facts behind the somewhat nebulous and highly personal topic of happiness is valuable so that it receives the proper level of seriousness and respect.

Meik did a good job laying out his book in way that builds upon itself nicely as you progress through it. At the broadest level, the book contains thoughts about Danish culture in general to put the book into context.  There are also thoughts that are a bit deeper and make you pause and think about Danish culture versus your own culture, and the pros and cons of each.  Finally, at the lowest level there are many “gold nugget” thoughts that resonate with you on a personal level which you can take away and use for yourself in an actionable way.

The book contains anecdotes and easy to understand charts and graphics that help explain the concept of hygge and present the underlying statistics about what Danes say about their country and lifestyle.   

So with that introduction, here are some of the gold nuggets that I took away from The Little Book of Hygge that are worth mentioning here:  

  • Experience and savor the moment. If you take one thing away from the book, make it this! The whole book centers on this key point. 
  • Hygge is about atmosphere, experience, and relaxed thoughtfulness.  Feeling happy, calm and safe.
  • Togetherness is a key aspect of hygge, and the feeling of hygge can exist even in total silence with other people.  It’s “like a hug, without touching”.
  • Equality is an important element of hygge.  Noone is trying to be better than the other.  
  • Hygge is about the process, not the end product.  There were several humorous examples in the book about people cooking together, and even though what they cooked turned out terrible, enjoying the process of doing it together was what made it a hygge experience. 
  • Your home is your “hygge headquarters”.  Create a nook for yourself there.  Everyone needs “their spot” in their home.
  • Treat yourself with cakes, hot drinks, etc.  It seems funny for the book to mention this multiple times, but it’s important to remember that hygge is all about feeling, surroundings, calmness, and peace.  The idea is that things like treats, hot drinks, etc impart a traditional feeling of comfort and therefore contribute to hygge.  My extra point to add here is that whatever the “treats” are, there are no rules.  It’s whatever makes you comfortable, cozy, relaxed, and peaceful.
  • The items on the “Hygge Wish List” in the book are all about comfort, sensation, and texture.  These typically represent comfort in most people’s minds.
  • Enjoying nature is key.  For me personally, something like walking on a treadmill is nowhere near the same experience as walking outside in the fresh air for the same distance.  I think people lose sight of this sometimes, and it does make a big difference in the experience.
  • The more a hygge item or event separates the “here and now” from the tough realities of the outside world, the more valuable it eventually becomes to you.
  • Hygge is dimmed, rustic, and slow.   I agree, which is why I’ve always thought that lighting is so important, especially warm lighting.  It’s also why I didn’t like walking around our house when I was little and always finding the rooms darkened unless someone was actually in them.  Mom and Dad were always insistent about “turning off the lights when you leave a room”, and I understand why, but still…

Make hygge yours

The ideas and sentiments around hygge are good to consider adopting because they can genuinely improve your life on many levels.  So how do you bring hygge into your own life and make it yours?  

Try these tips:

  • The obvious first step would be to read the book, but I would also suggest writing down the key thoughts that resonate with you while you’re reading like I did above.  It helps to grab those key thoughts in the moment rather than trying to remember them later.  
  • Review your key takeaways as soon as you’re done reading, think about what the statements mean to you. Think about how you can make them actionable.
  • Think about what brings you peace.   When do you feel your most relaxed, and why is that?  Get a firm understanding of this because these things will help you create your hygge “nook”, and these are your hygge “products”.
  • Since hygge is partially about sharing and togetherness, think about the people you’re closest to and why spending time with them is valuable to you.  But…I also think it’s important not to stress out about the “togetherness” aspect of this.  Hygge feelings can most definitely be felt during time on your own, so if that’s what works for you, then that’s perfectly fine. Do what works for you. 
  • Be present.  Outside distractions of any type are the enemy of hygge.  
  • Start simple.  Don’t rush to buy supposed “hygge products” and then sit in your house and wait for hygge to magically occur. Instead, work your way into it.  If you’re a reader, try something basic like making yourself comfortable and grabbing a block of time when you’re completely undisturbed…and read.  Think about how it feels to enjoy something you like in your nook in your home without any interruptions whatsoever. As you experience and value those times by yourself or with others, you’ll begin to better understand what hygge is all about.

In closing, reading this small book is time well spent. The ideas represented by hygge are certainly not new, but having it wrapped up and presented in the framework of “the Danish mindset” makes it easy to understand and think about further. Enjoy the process of moving yourself toward a hygge mindset, but go easy on the heavy treats. 🙂

Natsukashii – Gain value from your moments of nostalgia

Be grateful for all of the experiences you’ve had, because they make you who you are.

Question: Can you get value from nostalgia?

Me, age 6, with Sapporo souvenir hat
that I still have today!

What feelings come to mind when you think of nostalgia?  

For me, it’s typically a mix of both happiness and sadness.  I’ll often remember something nostalgic that makes me smile, laugh, or reminisce with someone, but then as the moment fades I’m sometimes left feeling a bit sad until the thought eventually passes from my mind. 

Aside from the emotions above, would I typically associate “value” with nostalgia? I didn’t…until today.

The thing that changed my mind was this article called “A uniquely Japanese take on nostalgia” by Erika Hobart on BBC.com, and it immediately resonated with me for a variety of reasons.  

The article is about natsukashii, which generally speaking is “a Japanese word used when something evokes a fond memory from your past”.  Erika mentions that it comes from a verb meaning “to keep close and become fond of”.  

The thing that specifically caught my attention throughout the article is how the Japanese emotionally frame nostalgia so that it ends up being a more positive experience rather than a sad one, and they regularly seek out natsukashii experiences to enrich their lives. Why? Because doing so adds great emotional value for them and their society as a whole.

Learning about different cultures

I’ve always had an interest in learning about different countries, traditions and cultures, but it’s only been in recent years that I’ve been actively spending significant time researching them.  It’s been an interesting and enriching experience far beyond the effort that it requires.   

Japan is a land and people filled with history and tradition, and it has kept both firmly in sight over the centuries.  It’s one thing for a country and its people to have historic checkpoints over time that they make reference to one way or another, but it’s a significantly different scenario to have the past and traditions remain ingrained in daily life over time and across generations.  

Between the two scenarios above, the latter offers more value because it helps people build a sense of shared identity about who they are, where they’ve come from, and where they’re collectively going.  If you study countries with a strong sense of identity and community like Japan, inevitably a large part of their overall story is that sense of tradition surviving through generations and remaining in daily life.  Japan has achieved this in part through concepts like natsukashii, which permeates their society. 

The thing that concerns many people about the U.S. is that its sense of identity and history is sometimes getting lost, most notably over the past fifteen years or so.  It seems that values and traditions are eroding, as opposed to becoming further ingrained in daily life. That’s not a good direction for long term well being, so it’s in the interest of U.S. citizens to understand that and change it.  

In a way, perhaps that’s part of what subconsciously drives me to learn more about other cultures.  It’s not only to satisfy my curiosity and interest about the world’s people and places, but also to consider where they’ve come from, what they value, and where that’s taking them so that I can better reflect on myself and my own country. Pursuing this type of knowledge and awareness is a strong path for personal growth, and I place great value in that.

The Japanese connection to Dad…a natsukashii moment   

My Dad, who passed away in August 2019, was a video tape editor for the U.S. NBC television network for most of his career.  During his time there, he worked on many great TV shows and sporting events, and he was once fortunate enough to travel to Japan to work on the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo.

Dad came home from that trip with many stories about Japan and its people, culture, and traditions.  While he was there he took advantage of Japan’s great reputation for photography equipment to buy a new Konica 35mm SLR and 8mm movie camera, so his stories had the added benefit of many photos and movies to go with them. We had many family movie nights where he would project his slides or 8mm movies on the screen in our darkened living room while he happily narrated about the entire trip. I remember it all vividly. I can even still remember the unique scent from the projector and its hot light bulb that eventually filled the room while we were watching. There was something comforting about it…  

Even though I was only six years old at the time he went, I remember that Japan made enough of an impression on Dad for me to notice it when he got home.  To this day when someone mentions Japan and Olympics together, I think back to Dad’s trip there, as well as the topics of tradition and history.  If you asked Dad what his favorite experience was while working at NBC, he would quickly answer “Visiting Japan for the Olympics”.

Perhaps the essence of natsukashii is what Dad experienced when he was in Japan.  He was 47 years old at the time and had a busy career, was raising four kids, traveled for work, and commuted into New York City every day.  Maybe experiencing the way natsukashii runs through Japanese tradition and society gave him pause to reflect, and maybe that’s what made the overall strong impression on him.  Although I can no longer ask him that question, it’s interesting to consider…     

Dad (left) with an NBC colleague at the Sapporo Ice Festival

So the BBC article above made me think about nostalgia, Japan, Dad, and value…and it gave me a natsukashii moment of my own.  After reading the article and doing further research about natsukashii, I better understand the real-life value that nostalgia can offer through gratitude for past experiences both joyous and sad, and I will carry that new mindset forward with me from now on. 

In other words, I didn’t just remember Dad’s trip to Sapporo. In the context of Erika’s article, I felt the emotion of it too.  The emotion of being sad when he left, happy when he returned, the excitement of waiting for his long distance calls to update the family, looking at the souvenirs he brought home, etc.  There is value to be taken from all of that because it’s the deeper aspect of it. Although we were thousands of miles apart while he was there, it was still an experience that we shared together. We each had our own very different perspective about it, and I felt all of that after reading and considering Erika’s article.  

How to make the natsukashii concept yours

So what does this mean to you? How can you make the natsukashii concepts from Erika’s article and my comments here your own?

Ultimately, it seems to me that the value of natsukashii is about “feeling, sharing and valuing”, instead of simply “remembering”. I’ll be writing a lot on this blog about personal mindfulness, but in a nutshell that’s what you have to do. Be more mindful and intentional, and think more deeply about what you’re remembering.

When you want to try digging further into the feelings of a nostalgic moment, try considering the following:

  • How does it make me feel? Which emotions?
  • Is what I’m remembering happy, sad, both, neither?
  • Who were the people I shared it with?
  • What do the people mean to me? Why do I value them?
  • How did that time/experience/event affect me? Why?
  • Be grateful for all of the experiences you’ve had, because they make you who you are.

There’s an endless list of questions that I could list here as prompts, and you can come up with your own too. The goal of all of them is to make you…feel. When you feel is when you move from simply remembering something to a more intentional, mindful and emotional appreciation of that moment. It’s at that point when you’ll find added value to your nostalgic moments, and indeed your life. That’s natsukashii.