Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Q&A - By AN­GELA MOL­LARD

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


FIND­ING ZEN Meg­gan Brum­mer teach­ing yoga in Syd­ney.

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