Cambrian: Opinion

The art of hygge: Danish strategies for a happy life

Sunrise over the Santa Lucia Mountains.
Sunrise over the Santa Lucia Mountains.

Stillness and quiet awaken as rays of soft light illuminate heaven and earth. In these Santa Lucia Mountains, dawn is an artful display that’s appreciated daily. After heartfelt expressions of thanks, while we’re immersed in nature’s offerings, we sit back in teak chairs and sip from ceramic mugs filled with steamy coffee.

That early-morning celebration has the makings of what our Danish relatives call hygge (pronounced hoo-ga). Being Oksens, naturally, there’s an attraction to everything Danish. Okay, pickled herring, not so much. Dad’s the only herring fan. But we all agree on coffee. I can still hear my great aunt Irma Oksen (Aldridge Reaves) say, “Danes loves their coffee.”

Did you know that Danes are ranked the happiest people in the world? But how can that be? Compared to Americans, Danes have less-than-optimal living conditions. Denmark seemingly has two seasons — white winter with little to no daylight and green winter with never-ending days.

With a challenging climate and some of the highest taxes in the world, what’s there to be happy about in Denmark? Well, plenty according to Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen and author of International bestseller “The Little Book of Hygge, Danish Secrets to Happy Living” (2017). Wiking details Danes’ short workweeks, five weeks of paid vacation per year, free health care and free university education. He asserts, “Taxes turn our collective wealth into well-being. We are not paying taxes. We are investing in our society. We are purchasing quality of life.”

Wiking goes on to cite the World Happiness Report, commissioned by the United Nations: “While basic living standards are essential for happiness, after the baseline has been met, happiness varies more with quality of human relationships than income.”

Many Danes manage to manifest hygge on a shoestring. What exactly is hygge? It’s a concept and a practice. It’s a safe place to put up our feet and let down our hair. It’s an informal seaside potluck with good-natured friends at sunset. It’s shade under an old oak by a pond full of tadpoles, a stick and a bouncy Labrador. One of Wiking’s favorite descriptions of hygge is “cocoa by candlelight.” He declares, “Cake is definitely hygge.” Yay!

By the way, Wiking mentions hope for introverts in that hygge is a way to enjoy a social life without feeling drained afterward. According to Wiking, the majority of Danes believe the best number of people for hygge is three to four. “It’s about the ‘belonging hypothesis’ — the basic need to feel connected.”

The caveat? Among other things, troublesome people and harsh light sabotage hygge. The art of hygge requires a relaxed atmosphere and a grateful attitude.

Casual attire, modest furnishings, homemade food and soothing lighting all contribute to the kind of uncomplicated pleasures that Danes survive and thrive on.

Artistic or not, when we focus on and engage in the experience and enjoyment of the here and now, we have the beginnings of a hygge masterpiece.

From over the ridge and off the grid, Michele Oksen writes Mountain Musings for The Cambrian. She and Marcia Rhoades alternate in this space the second Thursday of each month. Her column is special to The Cambrian. Contact her at