SECRET HA PPINES S? N
What is the to AUSTRALIA IS BLESSED WITH A BOOMING ECONOMY, GREAT WEATHER AND A RELAXED ATTITUDE – SO WHY AREN’T WE AS HAPPY AS THOSE SMILING SCANDINAVIANS?
But for the fact they eat a lot of bacon, it’s hard to fathom why the Danes are the happiest people in the world.
They have punishing taxes, a worrying suicide rate, high levels of private debt, and 42.7 per cent of marriages end in divorce. What’s more, it’s bloody cold, everyone wears black, they regard “foraging” as a fun activity, and they have to live next door to the Swedes who – and, true, this is subjective – are far better looking.
Sure, they can knock together a nice chair, and it must be pleasant to bike to work, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many people scribbling “Denmark” at the top of their bucket lists.
But happy they are, according to the World Happiness Report, which they’ve topped three times since it was first published in 2012. Indeed, so happy is this little nation of scarf-wearers and straight-talkers that they’ve commercialised the concept they say is central to their contentment and jollity. The Danish word hygge – pronounced “hue-gah” – roughly translates to “cosiness” and there have been more books written in the past few months about the subject than there are silver birch candle holders in your average Copenhagen pied-à-terre.
The latest is from Meik Wiking – charmingly pronounced Mike Viking – the chief executive of Denmark’s The Happiness Research Institute, a think tank that explores life satisfaction and what contributes to it.
Wiking’s coffee-table book The Little Book Of Hygge is as aesthetic as he is and elucidates on the concept of hygge, which the Danes hope to export as successfully as their meat products.
As he explains: “Hygge has been called everything from ‘the art of creating intimacy’, ‘cosiness of the soul’, and ‘the absence of annoyance’ to ‘taking pleasure in the presence of soothing things’.”
Basically, it sounds like something you can achieve with sex, cake and candles, with a log fire thrown in for special occasions. But Wiking tells Stellar there’s far more to it than that: “Candles and slow-boiling stews are manifestations of hygge – not the causes of it. Hygge is about an atmosphere. It is about presence, comfort and relaxation.”
So how do you create those concepts and others Wiking champions as the bedrock of happiness: togetherness, equality and community? And why are Australians – blessed with 25 years of economic growth, low unemployment, a terrific climate, good-quality healthcare, striking natural features and a down-to-earth attitude – not as happy as those smiling Scandis?
“Actually, I did live in Australia for one year when I was 16 years old,” says Wiking. “And you’re right, it is a wonderful country which is also reflected in your position in the rankings – ninth out of 157 countries is not bad.
“But if you look at the countries that usually populate the top five
– Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland – they have lower levels of inequality and higher levels of social security. They also have higher levels of taxation and large public support for high levels of taxation. That is because people experience and acknowledge that they get a lot of quality of life in return from investing in the public good.”
While Wiking’s comments may raise Treasurer Scott Morrison’s happiness levels, it’s unlikely we’ll collectively show the necessary enthusiasm for such socialist principles. So are there any other shortcuts to increased joy?
He believes we need to decouple wealth and wellbeing, and points to South Korea as a country that’s had tremendous wealth growth but has not seen a corresponding increase in quality of life. “When it comes to money – as with nearly everything – we see diminishing marginal returns. We are failing to convert wealth into wellbeing if we just make more money to buy stuff we don’t need, to impress people we don’t like.”
Organisations like the OECD are trying to create standards to measure happiness by breaking life satisfaction into three components: overall life satisfaction, day-to-day emotions and a sense of purpose or meaning.
But what is emerging, as evidenced by the explosion of a happiness “industry” promulgated by courses, podcasts, apps, hashtags, colouring books, TED talks, positive psychology and a jaunty little theme song by Pharrell Williams, is that happiness is not fixed but a characteristic that can be nurtured. Yes, genetics plays a part, but so does our behaviour, attitude, lifestyle choices, social relationships and environment.
Sydney-based Meggan Brummer, who teaches happiness courses for The Art of Living, which runs personal development programs in 152 countries, believes people are actively seeking happiness because they’ve become disconnected from themselves.
While no one is immune from unhappiness, she believes that, instead of trying to achieve happiness through external measures like money, status, a gorgeous house, the perfect partner and Instagram-worthy holidays, we can instead cultivate it within ourselves.
“Our courses recognise that people often feel hollow. We teach them to rebuild their energy – or prana – through good sleep, mindful eating, nurturing a positive state of mind and developing a nourishing breathing practice.”
She also asks critical questions: what do you need to be happy? What have you done in your life that has brought you fulfilment? What are your needs and what are your responsibilities? She says it’s a revelation seeing participants transform over the $300 six-day course. “The breathing makes them focus on the ‘now’; people who arrive looking heavy and disconnected suddenly seem open and light. It’s like they’ve taken off a heavy backpack and are travelling with the bare essentials.”
Natasha Girvan, 41, from Melbourne, took part in The Art of Living happiness course in India with her parents seven years ago and has maintained the joy through some significant changes to her life, including moving out of investment banking to start up her own business.
Now pregnant with her first child, she practises the breathing technique and meditates most days, and believes happiness is both a choice and a habit. “The course teaches you that happiness only occurs in the present moment and that stress and anxiety occur when we’re focused on the future or the past. Once you’ve adopted new habits you have the energy to give to others, which in itself is rejuvenating.”
Both Brummer and Girvan, who did a “top-up” course for $50 in Melbourne, concur with Wiking’s belief that community is also at the heart of lasting happiness. Brummer, who also works as a marriage and funeral celebrant, teaches free of charge. While she doesn’t gain financially, she says that she’s endlessly enriched by the program’s worldwide community of people for whom happiness is a priority.
In fact, sitting opposite me in a pale-grey cosy knit, her skin glowing and free of make-up as she sips a hot chocolate, she could, herself, be a poster girl for hygge. “It sounds like a fun concept,” she laughs.
The only pitfall, which I raise with Wiking, is that the manifestations of hygge are largely wintry: soft lighting, beef braises, jumpers, blankets and cuddling up on a reindeer hide. Is it possible for Australians to do hygge right?
“Hygge happens all year round,” he says, concurring that mangoes, surfing and a chilled beer will achieve the same effect. “It is about enjoying the simple pleasures in life with the ones we love. I don’t see any reasons why you couldn’t have that on a sandy beach.” The Little Book Of Hygge
“HAPPINESS IS ABOUT ENJOYING THE SIMPLE PLEASURES IN LIFE WITH THE ONES WE LOVE”