“Ask about the word ‘hygee,’” said Sarah Hoffman, the photographer featured here, when asked why Denmark was once again named the happiest country in the world. “It has no translation, but means the feeling of being among friends and family cozy and in dim light.”
Danes point to their unique social fabric when discussing the nation’s ubiquitous happiness, praising their social security and the bike-friendly streets of Copenhagen as much as they praise the indefinable essence of hygge.
Government spending on children and elderly is the highest in the world per capita, and Danes enjoy universal health care and an education system that is free from grade school through graduate school.
The U.N. commissioned the first-ever World Happiness Report in 2012, and named Denmark the happiest nation in the world, based on data collected measuring real GDP per capita, generosity, freedom from corruption, having someone to count on, healthy life expectancy and perceived freedom to make life choices. Denmark held onto the title this year in the 2013 World Happiness Report.
What Denmark has in a societal safety net, though, it lacks in temperate weather.
So how does a nation with long, cold, dark winters, occasionally only seeing sun for six hours a day, stay on top of the United Nations World Happiness Report?
“Only in Denmark do we have the word hygge, which means creating a cozy atmosphere, turning down the lights, eating some good food and having a good time,” Livia Prescha Jørgensen, a 22-year-old student in Copenhagen Business School, wrote in an email. “When talking about the cold winter that is coming, hygge is a vital word we use to remember that when it’s cold outside, we hygge inside, we create a cozy atmosphere. Hygge keeps us through the winter.”
Morten Rasmussen, who grew up north of Copenhagen, calls hygge a “tangible phenomenon,“ and continues, ”hygge is when we put down our guards and just ‘be,’” he explained. “It’s basically the opposite of feeling awkward.”
It can be very loud or very quiet, but either way it’s the tradition of not saying why you’re enjoying the situation and each other’s company—because it’s not necessary, as the atmosphere creates a weird, mental tether between everyone present.
The power of hygge stems from simplicity, stepping back to a time before gadgets interrupted virtually every daily social interaction. Perhaps Danes’ happiness, and hygge, derives from a large hot toddy among friends as much as it does from simple, undisturbed human connection.
This hygge may also derive from the strong sense of security in Danish culture. The World Happiness Report found that social factors, strength of social support being one of them, are more important for happiness than personal income.
“I’m twenty-two, and I’ve never been in debt,” Jørgensen said. “And that, of course, gives me security. Money doesn’t make you happy, but it gives you a security.”
This sense of security goes beyond government support. Danish culture is extraordinarily trustworthy, and the trust in peers is so strong that Danes are known to leave carriages outside while they do errands. That would not happen in the United States. Ever.
While replicating the social fabric of Denmark may not be feasible in one holiday season, Danes do have some tips for re-creating the magic of hygge. First and foremost, do not put hygge on a to-do list, Malte Kristiansen of Copenhagen said.
“Hygge is most likely to happen in an unplanned, reflective, calm setting, among friends you feel connected and relaxed around.
“It’s hard to define, but easy to identify when [it’s] there.”
Talya Minsberg is the social media and community news assistant at the New York Times.