My Year of Living Danishly
Review by Stephen Morris
60 is the new 40, orange is the new black, and hygge is the new feng shui. Maybe Lykke is the new hygge.
When Londoner and journalist Helen Russell is given the opportunity of a new life in rural Jutland, she sees it as an opportunity to do it for a year, then write a book about it. She is motivated by the fact that several indexes of personal happiness have ranked Denmark, not Disneyland, as the happiest place on earth. Despite high taxes, long, dreary winters, and a cuisine that consists of pickled herring and pastries, Danes are apparently satisfied by their lots in life. Armed by a healthy skepticism and a sense of humor that leans heavily toward urban snark, Russell sets out to find out if Danes are indeed happy, and if so, what is the secret to their success?
The short answer is “yes,” but there is no need for a spoiler alert, because the more complete answer is “yes, but not entirely.” And it’s the journey of the author to reach her conclusion that makes us want to share the experience. Denmark, like New England and Oregon, the two regions where Green Living is published, is a bastion of all things sustainable. It is also, from reading this book and watching episodes of Portlandia, a place where people are smugly and good-naturedly, proud of their chosen lifestyle.
Danish happiness is often explained by their embrace of “hygge,” a concept introduced to readers of Green Living two years ago (see sidebar). Named “word of the year” in the UK. in 2016, hygge translates to the Danish practice of surrounding oneself with various forms of comfort and coziness, ranging from candlelight to hot chocolate. The trickle of information of hygge has now become a raging torrent, much of it repetitive and useless. How many times need we be told that flickering light makes us happy?
And if hygge is not for you, how abut “Lykke” (LOO-ka) which is pursuing and finding the good that exists in the world around us every day. Think of hygge on steroids. Or, from across the North Sea, “Langom” (LAR-gohm) which is described as a deeply held philosophy tied to the Swedish cultural and social ideology of fairness and equality. It is translated as “not too little, not too much,” sort of the perfection of average.
Helen Russell’s story stands out, because she doesn’t portray the Danish lifestyle as right or wrong, black or white, or as the answer to how everyone should live. Many on the progressive side of the political spectrum point to the Danes and other Scandinavian counties as the ideal due to their expansive social safety nets, but there is a flip side. Danes, the author points out, tend to drink and smoke more heavily than we do in the United States and appear to willingly assume inevitable health consequences. Russell theorizes that this complacency, in part, might be a result of their universal health care that creates a myth of invulnerability. People who bear financial responsibility for their health might be more receptive to preventive measures. Well, maybe.
This book is not about health care, but about happiness, and how to achieve it in a more threatening world. Between ISIS and global warming, Brexit and the Middle East, Republicans and Democrats, CNN and Fox, their seems to be an endless supply of negativity. Nor is there any shortage of new words to describe the single path to happiness. Remember “cocooning? That was simply hygge in a prior life. “Staycations?” Yesteryear’s solution to global warming.
A Year of Living Danishly is an enlightening look into one small country’s interesting and praiseworthy worldview and accompanying lifestyle. Would it work everywhere? Probably no more than the attitudes and customs that prevail in Vermont or Oregon would work in Syria or Alabama. Meanwhile, if anyone asks me to nominate a “word of the year,” I’m sticking with … SILVERBACK.
SIDEBAR: Remember Hygge?
US. News & World Reports says no less than six books have been published in English about the increasing popularity of Hygge. (This was way back in 2017.)
(From Wikipedia) Hygge pronounced “hoo-gah,” is a Danish and Norwegian word very similar to the widely known German word Gemütlichkeit. “Hygge” as a noun includes a feeling, a social atmosphere, and an action. The word is also used in compositions as “Julehygge” (Christmas-hygge). “Hygge” is also a verb e.g. “Lets hygge” and as an adjective e.g. “A small, hyggeligt house with grass on the roof”.
The noun “Hygge” includes something nice, cozy, safe and known, referring to a psychological state, where all psychological needs are in balance. The opposite of hygge is uhyggelig, which translates as “scary”.
Collins English Dictionary named hygge the runner-up (after Brexit) as word of the year in UK in 2016. Collins defines the word as “a concept, originating in Denmark, of creating cozy and convivial atmospheres that promote well-being.”
Living in The Jungle is all about Hygge … Hygge in the morning, Hygge in the evening, Hygge at suppertime. We get Hygge in the garden, Hygge when stacking wood, Hygge sitting in the sauna, and Hygge while eating food.