Wednesdays @ West: Winter, Happiness and Hygge


Fellow readers, today is the first day of winter.  If you are a hardy New Englander who relishes in the joys of winter sports, beautiful snow-covered landscapes and the feeling of superiority that comes from knowing you’re tougher than your friends and compatriots who live in warmer climates, I wish you all the joys of your favorite season.  If you, like me, embrace winter somewhat less enthusiastically, I hope you will take comfort in the fact that the Winter Solstice at least marks the return of the light.  That’s what I try to hang my knit hat and mittens on this time of year.

I am one of those people who grumbles, “why do we live here?” when I scrape two inches of ice off my car and I regularly daydream about moving someplace where the sun shines and (sane) people wear flip flops in January.  I have always assumed that warm weather = happiness.  It has long puzzled me, then, to see the studies that show that the happiest countries on earth also tend to be some of the coldest.  Norway, Finland, Iceland, Switzerland, Denmark?  What do they know that I don’t?

geographyofblissHaving a pretty high standard of living, a strong social safety net, a good education system and a peaceful country certainly aren’t going to hurt people’s chances at finding happiness.  But is there more to it than that? Reading The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner gave me some additional clues.  In traveling to many of these countries Weiner learns that in Switzerland, people appreciate that their country is well regulated, the trains run on time and everyone follows the rules.  Hmm… sounds ok, but I’m not sure that would be my personal recipe for happiness.  In Iceland, people drink a lot, embrace failure, publish
more books per capita than any other country and have a charming tradition of an annual “Christmas book flood.” or Jolabokaflod.   Now, that sounds more like it.


Still discovering the secret sauce to finding happiness when it’s cold yearoflivingdanishlyoutside continues to intrigue me, so I was eager to read The Year of Living Danishly: uncovering the secrets of the world’s happiest country by Helen Russell.  While I can’t give the book an unqualified recommendation because the writing style was not without issues and I honestly found the author a bit self-absorbed and irritating at times, it did give me a few more pastry crumbs to follow in terms of how to find inner warmth during the months of cold, snow and darkness.  Many of us would perhaps rather not experiment with the idea that high taxes, a certain amount of (mild) violence and a rigid insistence on following the rules (there that is again) is the
way to find happiness.  So instead, I’d rather focus on the fact that Denmark, being the home of the Lego company, embraces less work and more play.  Like the author, I’m also willing to test the theory that their famous Danish pastries are a key part of their general feeling of well being.  What intrigued me most, however, was the Danish concept of hygge.

If you’ve never heard of hygge, you’re not alone.  But the word is catching on.  In fact, it was a finalist for the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year.  It ultimately lost to the term post-truth, which is, in my opinion, a very un-hygge concept.  But this week, The New Yorker published an article all about this trending Danish term.  Hygge (hoo-ga) has no direct English translation.  In fact one Danish translator ToveMaren Stakkestad has said, “Hygge was never meant to be translated.  It was meant to be felt.”  Still, this BBC article also does a fairly decent job of explaining the concept to us outsiders.  While obviously difficult to boil down to its essence, hygge appears to embrace the concept of creating coziness and togetherness during an interminable winter.  To me, a distinctly un-Danish person, it seems to involve lots of family and community bonding, candles, warm sweaters and socks, tea in china cups, books and comfort food.  At the risk of sounding like Maria von Trapp, these are a few of my favorite things, so I’m willing to give this hygge thing a shot.

At this point, you may be thinking to yourself, “Ok, Melissa, you don’t like winter.  You want an excuse to eat pastry, drink tea, wear sweaters and read books.  Fine.  But what does this have to do with the library?”  And that would be a perfectly legitimate question, since this, after all, is the library blog.  But I’m convinced that hygge and libraries do go together.  So this post is the first of a series I am going to offer you this winter on how the library can help you find hygge.  Maybe it will help you enjoy winter a bit more.  Maybe not.  But it’s worth a shot.

So more on hygge to come.  But for now I leave you this thought, which was borrowed from another library and seems to me to be the best place to start finding your winter joy:



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