Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Norway all rank high in the global happiness index, reporting high feelings of community, social support, safety, and generosity. It seems that in Scandinavia they have figured out the secret to being happy, and everyone wants it.
When I arrived in Copenhagen in the height of summer, it did not surprise me in the slightest that Scandinavian countries ranked so high in terms of contentment. Danish people pay high taxes and are therefore entitled to free healthcare, childcare and university. But more than that, Danish summers consist of long days with hours of sunshine; you can’t help but want to be outside.
Picture this, I lived a ten-minute cycle from the beach, and was enjoying weeks of sunshine that showed no signs of ending. The sun did not set until 10pm and when it did, it left an orange dusk that could be enjoyed for hours. The novelty of riding a bicycle around a new city had not worn off, (I’ll let you know if it does [update: it is 0 degrees]) especially when riding into a soft breeze which had the pleasant effect of cooling you down on a hot day. It seemed obvious to me why the Danes were so happy, anyone would be!
Now it is December, and that picture looks very different. The downside of living near the beach (in fact, living on an island) is that whichever direction you cycle in, the wind is against you. This has made getting places a little trickier. The sun sets at 3pm and does not rise again until 9am, and it is starting to get very, very cold.
So, one day, I asked my Danish professor: “How do the Danes stay happy when it’s cold and dark and rainy?” In my head, the weather dictated everyone’s mood, and I could not understand why everybody still seemed to be getting about their lives like nothing had changed.
The answer was very simple and very Danish, “We just accept it”. Perhaps a little unhelpful, she later explained that accepting it meant a few different things, but mostly centred around this idea of hygge, which means cosiness. For example, candlelit dinner with a few friends could be described as hyggelig. But hygge can also be slowness, simplicity, and comfort. Coming from Simone, the certified Dane in my life, hygge is: “candles, warm sweaters, fireplace and such – I’m always happy to be able to wear my sweaters and coats again and – hyggestrømper (fuzzy socks)!”
Friday, Saturday, and Sunday students come to the most popular spot: Bastards Café to drink cheap beer and play over 5000 different games with each other. To me, board games remind me of arguments at Christmas with my family, however, the Danes can make anything seem cool, and social events taking place in cosy, warm bars playing wholesome board games is very hygge.
Globally, nobody uses as many candles as the Danes. Christmas celebrations start early in Copenhagen. The city at night is illuminated with metres and metres of string lights, and it is a good rule of thumb to never turn on the main light.
Winter bathing is the act of voluntarily going swimming in winter and (if possible) getting in a sauna straight afterwards. In Copenhagen, the harbour is a very popular place to swim all year round, but my favourite place to go is Amager Strandpark Beach. The sandy beach is over a mile long and on a clear day you can see all the way to Sweden.
The idea of hygge is idealised outside of Denmark as this perfect recipe for dealing with the cold and dark. Yet many of the Danes I spoke to accurately described the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder and often sighed and explained that they just wait until Spring when they feel happy again. It is not a one-size fits all.
However, there are a few things I have picked up in Copenhagen as the days have gotten shorter. I have promised myself that this year I will embrace the cold and darkness, wrap up warm in my hyggestromper, and maybe even brave a swim in zero degrees!