The One Word You Don’t Know That May Hold the Secret to Your Happiness

One of the first things I noticed was the deep “cra-a-ar” of the Mediterranean tree frogs—just over two inches in length but sonorous when breeding. The sound was not annoying but rather in keeping with the lighthearted and free-spirited conversation. My wife, Nita, and I were dining on a third-floor balcony that overlooked a 19th-century park in Montpellier, France. Our hosts were Elizabeth and Benoit, she an artist, he a university biology professor. The warm summer air caressed us like a crackling fire at wintertime.

I turned to Nita and said, “This is one of those unforgettable magical moments.”

The Danes have a word for the sensation. They call it hygge (pronounced “hugh-guh”). We do not have an English equivalent, but you can think of it as a feeling of intimacy, hominess, coziness, and, as expressed in The Little Book of Hygge by the Danish author Meik Wiking, “taking pleasure from the presence of soothing things.”

The Danes are masters of hygee, which may be the reason why Denmark is almost always rated the happiest nation in the world. Their manifesto is to bring out the candles, turn off the cell phones, bring on the hot drinks and cake, and get comfy. Their conversation is characterized by equal sharing, the expression of togetherness, and the absence of competition. In a phrase, security and peace.

You have to hand it to the Danes. They have figured out the key to happiness is not riches but relationships. They understand the crushing meaning of Rabbi Harold Kushner’s observation: “Nobody on their deathbed has ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’”

To prove my point, the minimum state-mandated vacation time in Denmark is thirty-six days. In contrast, the United States has no minimum federal requirement. It is up to the discretion of the employer. Some offer no vacation. Seventy-seven percent of private employers offer their full-time employees eighteen days of paid vacation and holidays after one year of service. As such, the Danes spend twice as many days as Americans gathered around the fireplace (or campfire) with their loved ones.

Here’s the upshot of all this. We are the architects of our own happiness (companies have other priorities). It is our job to take charge of our well-being by creating our own warm moments of hygge and to be grateful when they arrive.

I will never forget the warm glow of friendship on the balcony in Montpellier with an orchestra of croaking frogs providing the soundtrack. That moment will remain in my brain as long as I am lucid. To this day, just the remembrance of those precious hours makes me happy.

Treasure your hygge moments, and if you are not getting enough—brooding, restlessness, and loneliness are the warning signs—get off your duff, buy (or, better yet, bake) a dozen Danishes, light up the candles, and invite family and friends over for a cozy conversation among souls.

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