Much in the same way that hygge could be the key to adapting to a housebound winter, lykke could be the best way to embrace the new year. Unlike hygge, which is more of a lifestyle concept, lykke is simply the Danish word for happiness. The interest in the Danish way of finding and experiencing happiness took off in 2017, a year after Danes ranked highest on the list of the world’s happiest people for the second time. While Finland has held the title for the last three years, Denmark has maintained a firm hold on second place, lending its citizens the reputation of happiness guides.
The World Happiness Report is more than just the measure of the average citizen’s joyfulness; it measures six factors that contribute to their wellbeing—levels of GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom, and corruption—which all determine a person’s comfort and make it easier to reach a good emotional state. It’s the combination of this ranking and Meik Wiking’s The Little Book of Hygge that precipitated an interest in learning the art of happiness from Danish people.
The World Happiness Report’s measure of six factors that contribute to wellbeing and the concept of hygge led to an interest in lykke, the Danish art of happiness.
Wiking states in his second book, The Little Book of Lykke, that he was prompted to write it after letters poured in from readers around the world, who shared how they had embraced hygge, inspiring him to search the world for common denominators of happiness. He also points out that these WHR rankings don’t necessarily indicate a perfect society, since they are based on averages and don’t apply to every single citizen. And so it’s up to us to learn from each other what works best and try to apply that to our lives.
The Happiness Research Institute, of which Wiking is CEO, measures happiness based on three states: affective, cognitive, and eudaimonia. The affective dimension measures everyday emotions such as anxiety or mirth. The cognitive dimension measures the overall evaluation of one’s life, e.g., best possible scenarios and proximity to achievement, while eudaimonia measures happiness according to Aristotle’s philosophy, which is based on how meaningful and purposeful life is. Measuring happiness according to these criteria is a lot more attainable than, say, the level of infrastructure provided by one’s country of residence, which isn’t under the control of the average person.
This is the main reason why I think the journey to finding lykke is perfect for coping with whatever comes with the new year. We can all apply the Happiness Research Institute’s methodologies to find our khushi, felicidad, haengbok, or anwuli, figuring out what we can do to make our days better, what we want most out of life, and how to make those dreams a reality.
To incorporate the spirit of lykke successfully, we must examine the factors that separate the happiest countries from those that rank lowest on the list, and piece them together to create a roadmap towards happiness. No country has a monopoly on joy, so you don’t have to move to a specific geographic location. It can be found right where you are. All you have to do is be willing to learn what these common denominators for happiness are, and how to adapt them to your situation. So let’s break these lykke factors down.
Think about the last time you sat around the table with people you love, basking in the ambiance of a full stomach and pleasant conversation. Or the nostalgia evoked by the memory of sitting around a bonfire chatting with others. How do you feel when you have an adult sleepover with your best mates or attend a monthly brunch outing? What do you remember feeling during any or all of these moments?
A sense of community nourishes our souls and reminds us that we are not alone. Togetherness is vital to our happiness. While physical gatherings might not be doable for a lot of people any time soon, you can modify rituals centered around food to fit your situation. Have dinner with a friend over Zoom or recreate a game night in the Houseparty app. Nurture relationships with the people you have in your life who you can rely on, and who can rely on you in times of need.
To extend this to others around you in the spirit of eudaimonia, perhaps get to know your neighbors and create a community of care. Check in on those who might be struggling, offer to grocery shop for someone who cannot get to the store, leave extras from your meal at the door of someone who has lost their income, and so on. Look around you and find areas where you can be of service.
Create a community of care. Check in on those who might be struggling or give extras from your meal to someone who has lost their income.
There’s an important distinction between the happiness that comes from having money to clothe and feed yourself and the kind that comes from clicking “submit order,” knowing that a package full of things you probably don’t need will arrive on your doorstep in two days. This is a good comparison of the affective versus cognitive dimensions of happiness. One is fleeting and disappears into the ether when the last bit of packaging goes into the recycling bin, while the other is a lasting kind that’s based on the comfort of stability.
While having the disposable income to spend on unending spontaneous Amazon purchases may be a source of oxytocin, having more money isn’t a guarantee of happiness. Occasional retail therapy is fine if you can afford it, but it’s important not to place all of your aspirations for joy on it. Aim for things you can enjoy for a longer time, like a trip full of memories, and put yourself on a no-buy from time to time, only purchasing what is absolutely needed. In other words, buy memories, not things.
A writer from London profiled in The Little Book of Lykke describes a year of strict budgeting, during which her only expenses were on her mortgage, groceries, and essential bills. Not being able to meet up with friends at pubs was brutal, but in the end, those restrictions forced her to embark on a journey to discover her happiness. Using Eventbrite, she found free events like museum exhibitions and film screenings, and she embraced the outdoors as well, going for walks and camping on beaches. She was grateful for the challenge because she might not have had any of those experiences otherwise, encapsulated in her bubble of routine happy hours and movie dates.
Take a page out of her book and examine your relationship to money and the emphasis you place on it. Not only will you learn how to spend more responsibly and break bad habits, you might also discover things about yourself that you didn’t know before.
Aim for things you can enjoy for a longer time, like a trip full of memories, and put yourself on a no-buy from time to time. In other words, buy memories, not things.
The link between health and happiness is obvious—it’s hard to feel cheerful when you’re in pain or uncomfortable. In addition, regular physical activity can boost your mood and make it easier to manage mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and ADHD. While the Danes might not be at the top of the list when longevity is ranked, they are the most active people in the world, thriving in a society where as much care is devoted to making casual fitness accessible as it is to indulging in hygge by way of delicious pastries and warm drinks.
This coming year, set activity goals for yourself every week, and find unique ways to meet them. You might crush it with at-home workouts, walks around the neighborhood, or with short breaks to skip rope throughout the day. Along the way, you just might discover an activity that you really take to.
Health consciousness, of course, also applies to mental health, so if you think you need help, stop putting off the process of seeking it. You deserve to be heard and to feel better.
For many, this is a harder beast to tame as our freedom isn’t always under our control. Stuff like freedom of expression and movement are rights that we are all entitled to but can’t always adjust to our favor (e.g., attitudes towards same-sex relationships and religious beliefs). But there is one aspect of freedom that we can take charge of, and that is the freedom to do what we like with our time. The unhappiness in this case comes from not being able to control our desired life outcomes due to an imbalance that leaves us with less time than we’d like to indulge in the things we prefer.
The fix for this is to become more adept at time management. If cooking takes up your evenings after work, commit to meal-prepping on Sundays. Schedule reminders for important tasks and mentally map out your day in the mornings to prevent unpleasant surprises. Do away with distractions while working to increase your productivity, e.g., tucking your phone away to prevent leisurely scrolling through Instagram when you’re supposed to be writing up a report. It’s also important to set up wind-down times and quiet periods. Stick to a no-emails past 6 p.m. policy and put away the electronic devices by 10 p.m. If you have an especially busy day, make sure to set some time aside to decompress.
This is kind of a hard one, as the individualistic nature of our society makes it difficult for us to trust anyone beyond our immediate circle. Building community trust is something that takes quite some time, but perhaps we can work on it through a “pay it forward” model. Empathize with the people you encounter and try to see life through their eyes.
But of course there’s a limit to this—there’s no room to tolerate intolerance. Trying to meet bigoted people in the middle only erodes empathy and shifts the goalposts towards prejudice, which is exactly how we got to where we currently are. Be a champion for the marginalized, and use your privilege for good. Be the change you want to see in the world, and maybe one day we’ll live in a world built firmly on a foundation of trust and compassion.
One of my favorite quotes from the TV show Pose is “Kindness doesn’t cost you anything,” which is spoken by the character Pray Tell in a scene where another character is being needlessly cruel. Since I saw that scene, those words have stayed with me as a reminder that the smallest actions can make a world of difference.
Do it intentionally with the goal of infusing another person’s day with a bit of sunshine. It could be as simple as shipping your friend a care package, paying for coffee for the person behind you in line, donating to a shelter, complimenting a person’s appearance, or taking time out of your day to help someone out with a task they can’t complete on their own. Doing good will make you feel good and is yet another step down the path towards lykke.
I believe that 2021 can be a year of incredible transformation for us all if we are willing to do a little soul-searching and exist for more than ourselves. I hope you come back and share the many ways you choose to embark on your journey towards lykke.