The Pursuit of Hygge-ness: A Danish Lesson on Happiness

“Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof! Because I’m happy…” Though it was released 5 years ago, this song by the musician Pharrell still gets stuck in our heads! But do our lifestyles really allow us to feel this way? March 20th – the fifth International Day of Happiness – gives us an opportunity to reflect on this question. In what follows, I will present a few lessons from behavioral science that you can use to help you make yourself and others happy today.

According to the 2017 World Happiness Report, America is one of the most economically successful countries in the world. However, as our GDP and average income per person continues to rise, our happiness has actually been falling. Could it be that The Beatles were right? Is it true that money really can’t buy you love (or, um, happiness)?

What Exactly Does “Hygge” Mean, Anyway?

 Danish Lesson on Happiness

Scandinavian countries like Norway and Denmark, on the other hand, regularly top the rankings for happiest countries. Some have suggested that Denmark in particular remains consistently happy partly due to their emphasis on the concept of “hygge” (pronounced “hoo-ga”). Hygge is both a noun and a verb: it is a Danish word for the feeling of down-to-earth coziness that can be accomplished through small gatherings with friends (and away from technology) to foster a sense of relaxation and closeness.

In contrast, America as a whole seems to believe that if we just earned more money, we would be happy. However, one study of adults living in the US and UK suggests that, when given the choice, people would actually rather be healthy and happy than wealthy. We are unhappy perhaps because we unknowingly emphasize the wrong goals: we believe that economic success will bring us happiness. In reality, our relationships with others may actually make us happier.

affective forecasting

Illustration by M. R. Trower

There is a reason for this disconnect. The process of predicting how we will feel after we experience some event is called affective forecasting, and research shows that we humans are notoriously bad at it. We often overestimate how happy we will feel after an event like our favorite sports team winning a game, and how unhappy we will feel after a negative experience, such as ending a romantic relationship.

Here are some things you can do today that might make you happy (although admittedly, some are easier said than done):

Donate your time or funds to a cause you care about. It’s no secret that doing good feels good. So sign up to volunteer at your local soup kitchen, animal shelter, or another organization close to your heart. Donate to help those less fortunate than yourself. Chances are, you’ll make at least one other person smile, and your day will feel more meaningful.

Spend time with people you care about. Try borrowing a page out of Denmark’s playbook (literally) and host a cozy gathering with close friends, away from the pressures and stress of the outside world. Be sure to put your phones away! Spending time with your loved ones face-to-face will ultimately feel much better than trying to stay updated on what all of your other friends are doing.

Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness can be achieved by focusing on what is happening right now. This means accepting our thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations as they are, rather than trying to change them. By trying to live in the present moment, we can avoid phrases like “I’ll be happy when…” Winning the lottery will not make you permanently happy. It may make you happy in the short term and perhaps open some doors for you, but it will not make you happy forever. Humans are simply not built to feel happy at all times.

Exercise! While we may not want to admit it, exercising is a good way to boost your mood. As Elle Woods (played by Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde) once said, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy.” Some insights as to how you can maximize your enjoyment of exercise can be found here.

Whether you are reading this on March 20th or not, I hope you are able to achieve the happiness you are looking for. If you put the above recommendations into practice, you may be able to not just sing along to Pharrell’s song, but actually feel what you are singing about.

 

Ciara Lutz is a researcher at the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University, an applied behavioral science research lab that helps people be happier, healthier, and wealthier. You can reach her at ciara.lutz@duke.edu.