Gillian McCann, Ph.D., and Gitte Bechsgaard, RP

Return to Stillness

The Problem with Happiness Projects

Here's what the Danes can teach us about well-being.

Posted Sep 02, 2018

Source: PIxabay

      Denmark consistently has placed first in the rankings as compiled by the World Happiness Report. These measurements take into account: income, life expectancy, sense of well-being, social support, trust and generosity.

      Despite the bizarre attacks by a Fox news host accusing Denmark of “ cupcake socialism” the country is recognized internationally as one of the most successful in the world on all counts. In fact, policy makers and researchers from all parts of the world now flock to visit the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen in pursuit of the reasons for the high levels of well-being and quality of life people seem to enjoy in Denmark. Much ink has been spilt and whole cottage industries have grown out from attempting to figure out why this is the case. 

         How can it be that a country in which the weather is gloomy much of the time, and the taxes higher than anywhere else, the Danes seem to be thriving and happy? And is ‘happiness’ really the correct term, or could we benefit from adopting Nordic terms for happiness which include a whole matrix of living and being well? 

         We are currently awash is books and articles that promise to deliver us happiness is series of easy steps. If we clear our closets, exercise more, think positively than we will become happier. What the authors of these books rarely grapple with is what exactly they mean by happiness. Is it a feeling? Is it a constant state of being? Does it mean being in a good mood all the time? Is it getting what we want all the time?

         Principles for living well, including language for being ‘happy’ or well, are passed down through our lineages as part of our ancestral and cultural memory. Growing up in Denmark I (Gitte) learned about hygge early on from both my parents and the Danish culture as a whole. And I also quickly learned that my ‘happiness’, or rather general well-being, depended on learning its multi-facetted art and following its lifestyle guidelines. Actually, when it came to happiness, a whole matrix of principles were set out, and many of these encompassed a rich social and communal element.

         It is interesting to note that this concept of hygge has now gained popularity far beyond Danish borders, and is used to advertise everything from the Danish bicycle culture and Nordic cooking to the atmosphere of togetherness at a hotel stay in the heart of Copenhagen. And perhaps this difficult-to-define-term hygge  is even the reason Denmark is scoring high in the international happiness studies? So what does this Danish ‘happiness-term’ mean, and how does it relate to topics such as psychological well-being, cultivation of meaningful relationships and the art of sanctifying space ?

         I would say that hygge, and the multi-faceted ways of bringing this kind of nourishing life-quality about, has everything to do with the warmth and care that invites us in and hold us together as friends, family or as a community. To ‘hyggefy’ centres around cultivating a wholesome lifestyle, so that we are inspired to spend meaningful time together. To explain hygge to a non-Dane is a bit like trying to explain the feeling you get when you walk into an atmosphere of whole-some togetherness, simplistic natural beauty and sensory calm. When you have the impression that care is taken to make everyone feel well and cared for, and part of a larger whole you know that the magical air of hygge has descended upon you. It is not merely an aesthetic impression causing  a euphoric kind of happiness, but encompasses a rich social and spiritual element.

         Meik Wiking, the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, has spent years researching the magic behind the “good life” of the Danes, zeroing in on qualities such as well-being, togetherness, and sharing time with family and friends in a serene and hyggelig (cosy) atmosphere. In his book  The little book of Hygge : the Danish way to live well  he writes,“ The more satisfied people are with their social relationships, the happier they are in general….the relationship factor is usually the best predictor of whether people are happy or not”(59).

          In attempting to measure happiness Wiking shares that he cannot ask people directly how happy they are but instead asks them how satisfied they are with their social relationships. Wiking also stresses that “ the key to understanding the high levels of well-being in Denmark is the welfare model’s ability to reduce risk, uncertainty and anxiety among its citizens and to prevent extreme unhappiness” (9).

         The recent dust up in the media regarding Danish lifestyle and society reveals a yawning gap in attitudes between cultures. The Danes clearly value the good of the whole and are willing to pay taxes to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to thrive. This emphasis on relationship and community appears to be a vital element in their levels of happiness. If that is “cupcake socialism” we’ll have a dozen please!


Meik Wiking, The Little Book of Hygge. The Danish Way to Live Well.  New York: Harper Collins, 2017.