The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Happiest Country by Helen Russell

Nov 7, 2017

It begins in October. Those gorgeous fall colors that everyone else is raving about are taunting me. A blazing, brilliant disguise, but I know better.

And then in November, it hits: Bleak. Dark. Cold. And the promise of four more months of the same.

It's almost more than I can bear.

But something changed last winter. Or, at least, I discovered something that helped.

That thing is Hygge.

Hygge (pronounced "hoo-guh") was kind of a buzz word last winter. Everyone was talking about it and trying to figure out how to make their homes and environment a little more hygge.

It was a concept I understood and embraced immediately. Hygge is a cozy feeling of comfort, peace, and security. I have long said that if I could just hibernate, winter wouldn't be so bad. And essentially, that's exactly what hygge is.

When I made my goal to "read a book about slow, conscientious living," it was the idea of hygge that I really wanted to learn more about.

I immediately thought of The Year of Living Danishly, which seemed to be one of the sources that really kicked off the whole hygge obsession. Although I was interested in learning about what makes the Danes the happiest people in the world, it was really the promise of hygge that made me pick up this book.

Helen Russell is a journalist living in the UK when her husband is offered a job working for Lego in Denmark. They move to a rural part of the country (Jutland) and arrive in January. Anxious to get to know their new home, they go out, only to discover that the place is a ghost town. Apparently, everyone else is staying in--hunkering down, if you will, to wait out the worst of winter.

But the thing Helen Russell soon realizes is that they're not just gritting their teeth and muscling their way through winter. They're actually enjoying it.

And it's due in large part to hygge.

Early on, Helen Russell talks to cultural integration coach, Pernille Chaggar, about hygge, who says, "It's hard to explain, it's just something that all Danes know about. It's like having a cosy time."

But then she elaborates:
"Staying home and having a cosy, candlelit time is hygge. But really, hygge is more of a concept. Bakeries are hygge, and dinner with friends is hygge. You can have a 'hygge' time . . . Hygge is also linked to the weather and food. When it's bad weather outside you get cosy indoors with good food and good lighting and good drinks. In the UK, you have pubs where you can meet and socialise. In Denmark, we do it at home with friends and family."
Although some would argue that you can experience hygge outside (and I'm not saying you can't--"you," meaning, "someone other than me"), when Helen Russell asks other Danes how to survive winter and mentions some of the things she's already tried, one person responds, "Well that's where you've been going wrong! The secret to getting through winter in Denmark is to stay inside!"

Danish happiness is linked to more than just hygge (The UN World Happiness Report gave many reasons: "a large gross domestic product per capita, high life expectancy, a lack of corruption, a heightened sense of social support, freedom to make life choices, and a culture of generosity"), but I'll be honest that hygge ended up being one of the only things about this book that truly interested me.

In fact, I found myself organizing everything I liked into the hygge category and discounting the rest.

For example, the Danes love great design, and so, consequently, they really invest in making their homes beautiful (Helen Russell cited one study which confirmed that "looking at something beautiful really can make us happier, by stimulating dopamine in our brains"). That definitely seems to be true for me since the one room of our house that really makes me happy is our living room, which happens to be the only room in our home that actually has some sort of design feature (those gorgeous shelves and cabinets Mike built last fall). The rest of our home is undecorated and is really just a random hodge podge of stuff with very little thought about its aesthetic value.

This idea of beautiful design goes right along with hygge since you want the space you're spending the majority of your time in to feel cozy and inviting. (Now I'm trying to figure out how to get the laundry out of my bedroom since a mountain of clean and dirty clothes is definitely cramping my hygge style.)

Other keys to Danish happiness include an emphasis on family at the expense of time at work, hobbies and learning, and good food (make that, good pastries). All of these thing contribute to the feeling of hygge and therefore, I paid attention to them.

But in spite of its high happiness marks, Denmark isn't all sunshine and roses. Apparently, Danes "have the highest levels of antidepressant use in Europe according to the OECD" and Scandinavians "hold the gold standard for SAD [Seasonal Affective Disorder]," which begs the question of whether they're really the happiest people in the world or just the most medicated.

They're also "among the highest drinkers in Europe, according to the World Health Organization," are physically violent, and have no problem with sleeping around and being unfaithful (I'm speaking in general terms, of course). Their taxes are extremely high, but the government then takes care of most of their health, social, and educational needs. And it's very common to send their children to full-time daycare from the time they're babies.

These were the things I refused to acknowledge in my quest to understand what makes the Danes the happiest people in the world. Hygge? Yes. Excessive drinking? No.

But back to the imminent winter, which seems to be looming much closer after this weekend when the temperature dropped and the evenings instantly became dark an hour earlier. When Helen Russell questions meteorologist, John Cappelen, about winter, he enthusiastically says,
"Winter weather in Denmark is special. It brings people together. It forces us to be inside and brings families and friends closer. In southern Europe everyone's still going out and spending time in restaurants and cafes, but in Denmark, we pull together at home and get hygge! In the olden days, you wouldn't have been able to survive winter here without gathering wood and food beforehand, so you had to help out neighbors, your family and friends to survive. Then when the cold weather came, you could hide away inside."
 When she hears that, Helen Russell questions, "Like hibernation?"

And I answer, "Yes, exactly like hibernation." Bring it on, Winter. Hygge and I are ready for you.

What do you think? How do you hygge? And is it essential for your winter survival?


  1. I read this one, too, and I thought some similar things. If it had just been about the hygge aspect and being all cozy, I might have liked it more. As it was, I thought it was too long, and it definitely made me never want to live in Denmark! Ha ha. But I did like some of the takeaways I got from it!

  2. I feel like I've spent my whole life (or at least every winter of my life) seeking hygge but am just now finding a word for it. I love nothing more than a dinner party that stretches for hours with great conversation or a night in with a book and fluffy blankets and hot chocolate.

  3. Yes, and yes! I love the concept of hygge, although again I loved it without having a name for it. I love fireplaces and layered clothing (hats! scarves! mittens!) and cuddling under blankets with books and hot chocolate and soup simmering on the stove and watching the cold weather outside from the warm inside! And I agree that hibernating sounds the best! In fact, I always think that the school-year is backwards, and we should have school all summer long and then a nice long winter break so we can just stay inside all day and never leave! (That probably sounds like a recipe for depression to most people, but it sounds so wonderful to me!)

  4. So, I was interested in about half of this book: the bits about biking, clubs, hygge, schooling, and aesthetic. But the other bits were less than interesting.


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