Book Review: Wiking’s “The Little Book of Hygge”
December 23, 2017
In this modern world of hurry and stress, and especially in this season of hustle and bustle, it is valuable to reassess life's goals, and to recalibrate toward what allows for true happiness. Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark, is perhaps the ideal guide for rediscovering the essence of what has made Danes some of the happiest people in the world, year after year.
Wiking's charming read, "The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living," is the perfect reminder that the richest experiences are those that leave a lasting feeling of contentment and a "coziness of the soul," — or hygge (pronounced Hoo-ga), a word which, according to Wiking, is best felt rather than spelled.
It has long been understood that financial wealth does not bring real joy, and there is growing evidence that a perverse pursuit of rampant riches only leads to a deepening internal emptiness. Wiking shares the findings of the U.N.'s World Happiness Report, saying that "while basic living standards are essential for happiness, after the baseline has been met, happiness varies more with quality of human relationships than income."
Gratitude, Wiking says, is at the heart of hygge. Cultivating mindfulness and gratitude diminishes selfishness and greed, which in turn diminishes the cyclical desire for material gratification to fill the ever deepening void. For Danes, integrating hygge into as much of their daily lives as possible is part of their country's successful "social glue."
There is a universal yearning for cozy comfort that manifests itself uniquely in different cultures based on traditions and customs, as well as on climate and geography. For some parts of the world, it is togetherness that is most important, for others it is the warmth, for some it is the quiet. Wiking focuses on those aspects of hygge that have originated in Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries, and which the Danes have turned into their own national cultural phenomenon.
In laying out the basics of hygge-living, Wiking begins with the most important components, the first of which is light. Denmark knows darkness all too well, as the northern country spends many long months of winter cloaked in a bleak tepid light. Those days, he says, are the prime time for hygge experiences. Danes love their candles, especially in the deepest days of winter. But, even lamplight is carefully considered. Wiking admits he will walk farther to a cafe with bad coffee because the lighting is more "hyggelig."
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The best lighting is soft and warm, from carefully placed lamps and candles, with nooks and cozy corners that are bathed in soothing and relaxing tones. Wiking jokes that "the closest you will ever come to seeing vampires burned by daylight is inviting a group of Danes for a hygge dinner and then placing them under a 5,000 K fluorescent light tube." He also emphasizes that the hygge provided by the proper lighting is "the antidote to the cold winter, the rainy days, and the duvet of darkness."
Hygge is also all about home and hearth, but that does not mean that it is also about being bored or wallowing in loneliness. Wiking describes hygge as the perfect kind of socializing for introverts, and a healthy kind of socializing for everyone. "The best predictor of whether we are happy or not is our social relationships." He is quick to point out that groups of three to four are ideal, allowing for deep and long-lasting bonds to form. Food is at the center of most hygge-gatherings of friends, but Wiking insists that it is not about food in the sense experienced by many Americans — the bolting of a donut at the fast-food line on the way to work — rather it is all about the slow preparation of something sweet or rich and savory, or the languorous enjoyment of a flaky morsel at a local (properly lit) cafe that encourages loitering.
Food and hygge are as much about the process as they are about the end result. The preparation of a hygge meal is done collectively, with many cooks in the kitchen, and mulled wine or hot cocoa simmering out sweet smells. The key is to "come as you are and be as you are." Masks and daily worries are left at the door, and the focus shifts to the process of cooking and the lingering tasks of togetherness that are a part of the meal experience. "Hygge is humble and slow. It is choosing rustic over new, simple over posh and ambiance over excitement," — think foraging for mushrooms, knitting by the fireside, picking berries, making soup or baking bread.
The season of the worst weather in Denmark is also the time of the most hygge, a time of year that coincides with the most hygge-laden holiday of them all — Christmas. A hygge Christmas is most certainly not centered in the shopping aisle; instead, it encompasses card games by the fire, baked goods on a snowy day, or reading a favorite book by candlelight. Casual is key and comfort is paramount.
The best part about hygge, Wiking says, is no one has a monopoly on it. The more people who embrace it within their own cultural and religious frameworks, the more the whole world benefits. Like cultivating a garden, when you cultivate hygge, beautiful things can blossom.
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