Hygge is a key ingredient missing in many people’s lives. It may account for why Denmark consistently ranks in the top 3 for happiness worldwide. Today I speak with happiness researcher Meik Wiking. We discuss what Hygge is and how you can cultivate more Hygge in your life.
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Hygge – A Key Missing Ingredient to Happiness, with Meik Wiking
Dr. Michael Ruscio: Hey, everyone. Just want to give you a quick intro on this episode. Today, I spoke with Meik Wiking, who is a Dane, of course out of Denmark, and is a researcher at the Happiness Research Institute; also wrote a very enlightening, I guess you could say, book called The Little book of Hygge. And if you haven’t heard, and the focus of the interview today was Hygge. Hygge is essentially a Danish philosophy of happiness, coziness, and togetherness.
To put it really simply, it’s something that’s missing from many people’s lives, especially in American and other similar westernized countries, which is, you can maybe encapsulate it simply as time with friends or family in a cozy, oftentimes preferably dim-lit or candlelit environment where you have good conversation and enjoy just the simple pleasure of each other. Maybe some nice music, nice food, again in a dim-lit room. And you just have that time to connect with people. Not on your phone. Not watching TV. Not being stressed. Not travelling all over the place and doing a bunch of stuff. Just in a cozy, dim-lit room enjoying each other’s company.
And I found this conversation to be very insightful and important for a number of reasons. But again, one, because I think this is a missing ingredient in many people’s lives. And the Danes, consistently rank in the top 3 in the world in terms of their happiness, their perceived happiness. And so, I wanted to have Meik on to talk about some of his research, some of his findings. We get a little bit into kind of health care economics for a minute, because there is a social piece to this. I guess the socio-economic and societal setup piece, you know. That can either work with or against cultivating Hygge. So, we do take a little bit of a tangent there. I think people might find it interesting. I personally find the topic very interesting myself.
And we also provide some simple tips and tricks for how to cultivate this Hygge in your life. And hopefully, this could be a good reminder for you. Or if you’re a health care provider, for your clients or patients that you work with in terms of how important it is to take time for simple activities where you connect with other people. Because it has been shown that once you cover your baseline living expenses, the key factor that indicates or predicts happiness is social-connectedness and not more income.
And so, with that, we’ll get into the show today with Meik Wiking from the Happiness Research Institute and also the author of the book The Little Book of Hygge.
All right, here we go.
DrMR: Hey, everyone! Welcome to Dr. Ruscio Radio! This is Dr. Ruscio. Today I’m here with a guy who I’ve been curious to pick his brain for quite some time after reading his book, Meik Wiking, who wrote a great book called The Little Book of Hygge. And I hope that I’m pronouncing that correctly. And I think Hygge is something that’s missing in many of our lives in America and in many westernized countries. So, I’m very excited to have this conversation. And Meik, welcome to the show!
Meik Wiking: Thanks Michael, good to be here.
DrMR: Can you tell people a little bit about your background before we kind of jump into what is Hygge and how people might be able to cultivate that in their lives?
MW: Sure, so my background is in Political Science, Economics, Sociology. And I’ve been working in the Think Tank industry for about 12, 15 years now, at first focusing on sustainable economy, but in the last five years, my main focus has been, well, basically happiness research.
And I work at the Happiness Research Institute, where we essentially try to answer three basic questions. One, how do we measure happiness? Secondly, why are some people happier than others? And ultimately, we hope to answer the question, how do we improve the quality of life?
The Danish Concept of “Hygge”
DrMR: And you also, of course, wrote the book that I read, which is how I became aware of your work. I’ve heard about Hygge, then I went searching for a book. And your book came up, which I thought was excellent. So, can you tell people a little bit about Hygge? And correct my pronunciation if I’m butchering that.
MW: Well, you’re doing well. You’re doing well. Hygge is a sort of cornerstone of the Danish cultural DNA. It’s basically an atmosphere. It’s a feeling that includes ingredients like togetherness, relaxation, savoring simple pleasures. I mean, it’s something that happens everywhere. I think Hygge happens in the US just as much as it happens in Denmark. But I think, one of the main differences is that we have a word that describes that feeling and describes that situation.
And also, I think a key difference between the US and the Danish culture is the value we give that experience. So, I think that, perhaps Danes see Hygge the same way you Americans see freedom as something inherently American. Danes see Hygge as something inherently Danish.
But perhaps the best sort of way to explain what Hygge is is by telling you a story of when I had a really Hygge-ly time. And this was in Sweden a few years ago when I was with a group of friends. And it was the winter times. It was a December month and we had been out hiking, but came back in the afternoon when the sun was setting. We were just kicking back, relaxing. And we lit the fire.
And we have prepared a stew, which we started to reboil. And those were the only sounds that you could hear, the stew boiling in the fire and the fireplace. And we were all just sitting back and relaxing in silence. And then one of my friends said, “Could this be anymore Hygge-ly?” And then one of the girls replied, “Yes, if there was a storm outside,” because the thing Hygge is also this feeling where we feel protected, and shielded from something threatening.
The Relationship Between Money and Happiness
DrMR: And I love that story. And I want to work our way to the level of happiness in Denmark compared to other areas of the world. Because as I understand it, you guys are consistently ranked, I think, it’s in top 3 in terms of happiness. And there are a few things in your book that really struck me, which where after you covered your baseline living expenses, the key fact that indicates someone’s happiness is social connectedness and not more money, or power, or things, or what have you, which kind of leads you back to this philosophy of placing such a large value on simple things. A dim-lit, maybe candlelit room, conversation with friends. Maybe enjoying a simple flavorful piece of food and having good conversation, but just really having that feeling of quiet, cozy, connectedness. And I think it was something along lines of £80,000 was what the equivalent of having good friendships was equal to, in one of the papers that you cited.
Can you talk a little bit more, I guess, about that aspect of how important this is, really, for happiness?
MW: The relationship between money and happiness is, to say, the least complicated. But you are touching upon some of the important points here. And that is, that, yes, money does matter for happiness, but only up to a certain point. Once we reach a certain threshold, additional income is not going to improve how we feel on a daily basis, or what kind of emotions we experience.
The takeaway in terms of money and happiness is that money matters if you don’t have them. Being without money is a cause of unhappiness. But once, as you say, those basic needs are met, we don’t get additional well-being or happiness from additional income. It’s what economists call diminishing marginal returns. And so, the more we have of something, the less pleasure we derive from it.
For a simple example: the first burger, wonderful; burger number five, not so good. And the same goes with money, right? So, once we’re sort of secured a basic income, there are other factors that are far more important.
And one of the factors that always seem to come up whether we look at global data, or national data, or local data, is our relationships. So our satisfaction with our social relationships: friends, family, sense of belonging, sense of community, and so on.
How Work-Life Balance in Nordic Countries Affects Happiness
And I think that’s also why we see the Nordic countries do consistently well. You’re right that Denmark is usually on the top 3 in the World Happiness Report. But I think it’s fair to say that all the Nordic countries, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, and Norway, are consistently in the top 10. And that is because those countries provide relatively good conditions for good lives.
And one of the things they do is that they provide a decent work-life balance. And that is especially something I hear expats from the UK or the US notice when they, for example, move to Copenhagen and work. They might say that, “Back home in London, (or back home in New York) we might have made more money, but we are happier here.” And that is mainly due to a better work-life balance. A lot of people would say that suddenly they are able to pursue an interesting career while having a fulfilling family life. That suddenly you are able to have dinner together as a family on a daily basis. Looking at the northern countries, I think that is one of the areas, the policies that work well, the family-friendly policies.
We can also see it when we look at the impact of having kids on life satisfaction. Kids are wonderful. They bring tremendous sense of purpose, which is sort of one dimension of the good life. But we’ve seen mixed results in the effect kids have on people’s life satisfaction. And if you take the US, on average parents, people who have kids, are 12% less happy than non-parents. And if you take Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, Denmark parents are 2% less happy than non-parents.
But in Norway and Sweden, parents are happier than non-parents. And it’s not because our kids are nicer than the US kids. It’s just because there are better infrastructure for families. There’s more affordable child care. There is maternity and paternity leave. And the ability to be together as a family. And so I think it’s interesting that we can actually see that in their happiness state, the effect of family-friendly policies in that sense. Sorry, that was a very long answer!
DrMR: No, that’s great! That’s great.
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3 Factors for Health and Happiness: Genetics, Policies, and Lifestyle
DrMR: So, we certainly see that the ability to create this Hygge, this time with friends and family, and have conversation, and just enjoy the togetherness in the conversation, and what have you, has a large or at least a partial dependency upon the society that you live in.
So I’m assuming that it creates a little bit of an uphill trek for people living in America, for example, where we don’t necessarily always have that same leisure time. But how do you help people? Because I’m sure this comes up a lot. How do you help people who are maybe in a society that doesn’t have, embedded into the lifestyle, as many opportunities to cultivate this in their own life?
MW: I think we need to approach and see happiness the same way. Now, your main interest is health and I think that’s a good analogy. And I think when we look at health, we can sort of divide the factors that impact our health or longevity into a set of three broad categories.
And first of all, we know we are born more or less healthy. I mean, we’re predisposed to some diseases and so genetics or biology matter and definitely cannot change.
Secondly, the countries we live in, the policies we live under, the cities we live in, they matter for our health and longevity as well. The level of air pollution in a country. The affordability and availability of healthcare matters. That is going to impact how long we are going to live as well.
And then, thirdly, the choices we make in our personal lives, the behavior we have. Do we choose to smoke? How much alcohol do we consume? What kind of diet do we have? Do we choose to exercise?
And so on. That matters, that, we have a control over.
And I think those three broad categories also apply when it comes to happiness. We can see from twin studies, genetics matter when it comes to happiness. We are born, more or less, happy. Secondly, we all know that the policies matter, the countries where we live in matter. There is a political reason why some countries consistently do well. And then thirdly, there’s also choices we can make that have an impact on our well-being and happiness levels.
So, that’s where we need to come from when we look at happiness levels, understanding that there are some things we cannot change. Some things are in our genes. And secondly, there are some things that are focus for belonging, trying to change the policies under which we live. Trying to influence our politicians towards a more well-being-focused political framework. And thirdly, there are also choices we make in terms of our behavior and what we pursue in our daily lives.
Socialized Medicine’s Effect on Happiness
DrMR: Some of this definitely comes from the top down, it sounds like. Certainly, that would make sense. And so, are you an advocate of socialized medicine and other similar programs? And is there a trend that we see on the data where societies that have this type of setup tend to report higher happiness? And it might be more complicated than that, but just wondering if there are any trends that stick out.
MW: As a representative from Scandinavian and Nordic countries, especially also as a representative for happiness research, when we look at the US and the lack of universal health care, it is, to say mildly, disturbing and a big wonder why that is not in place. Why you are the one country, sort of developed country in the world that doesn’t provide universal health care.
From a Danish perspective, from a happiness researcher perspective, when we listen to a politician like Bernie Sanders who, I think in a US context, is considered progressive, we don’t see that as progressive. We just see his views as common sense.
And in terms of having single-pay system in terms of health care, that universal health care should be provided for all. It should not be something that is down to the individual to choose an insurance, and so on.
We definitely see a trend there, that if you have universal health care, of course it reduces worries, of course it reduces stress, and of course that improves quality of life for all.
DrMR: I know one of the common arguments that are made against universal health care is lack of either availability or lack of quality. I can’t say I’ve fully vetted either position to know where the best supports lie. But if someone were to pose that question, what would your answer be in terms of how does quality and availability look when you look at more universal coverage countries?
MW: I think there is a misunderstanding that universal health care and equality only benefits the poor. Also if you look at unemployment benefits. I think everybody is better off if everybody is safe and secure. We can see that more equal societies have lower mortality rates, lower crime rates, lower murder rates, and lower obesity rates. Basically inequality is bad for everyone, not just for the poor part of the population. When it comes to health care, I think one of the great benefits for all in Denmark is that there is no worry. There is no concern about losing health care. Quality of health care is high.
Yes, the tax rate is also quite high. So, we pay around 50% of our income in tax. And that is a pattern we also see in other Nordic countries. They have high levels of taxation. But I think the interesting part here and the interesting takeaway is that the majority of Danes—and I assume the same is the case for the other Nordic countries—the majority of people say that they are happily paying their taxes even though they are paying some of the highest taxes in the world. Because they don’t see them as taxes, they see them as an investment in quality of life.
We feel we get a lot in return of well-being in terms of happiness and quality of life that we don’t have to spend time worrying about health care. We don’t have to figure out what is the best health care insurance for me. I don’t have to worry about whether I will lose my health insurance if I lose my job. Everybody I know and love is taken care of. That improves my quality of life tremendously, and that goes throughout Denmark. So that is the part of the benefits that comes from high level of taxation that it is funneled back in terms of quality of life.
Dr. Ruscio’s Resources
DrMR: Hey, everyone, in case you’re someone who is in need of help or would like to learn more, I just wanted to take a moment to let you know what resources are available. For those who would like to become a patient, you can find all that information at drruscio.com/gethelp.
For those who are looking for more of a self-help approach and/or to learn more about the gut and the microbiota, you can request to be notified when my print book becomes available at drruscio.com/gutbook. You can also get a copy of my free 25-page gut health eBook there.
And finally, if you’re a healthcare practitioner looking to learn more about my functional medicine approach, you can visit drruscio.com/review. All of these pages are at the drruscio.com URL, which is D-R-R-U-S-C-I-O dot com, then slash either ‘gethelp,’ ‘gutbook,’ or ‘review.’ Okay, back to the show.
Population Size and the Economics of Health Care
This is such a fascinating topic to me. It’s something I really have been thinking a lot about lately. And I agree that from looking at Denmark, it seems absolutely, clearly it is working. And one of the things that I thought about, and bear with me this is a little bit long-winded. But if we look at an African hunter-gatherer society and we see a diet that works for that society, and they’re healthy because of it, we can’t always assume that we can take that diet and put westerners on it that have potentially different metabolism, different guts, that it’ll work well for them.
And I sometimes wonder if that model would work in the US with the population being so large. And with also the number of middle or especially lower-class income persons, if that model would work. Or would we need to slowly convert our way into that, or what have you. Because it may not be an apple to apple comparison. So, do you think that there is any validity to my thought there? And if so, how would you recommend we wade into making that change?
MW: I do hear that concern a lot, that the Nordic countries are smaller countries. The total population of the Nordic countries combined would be less than 30 million I would assume. But you have a country just north of you that has a similar approach to healthcare, and could be a sort of a Nordic equivalent in North America. Canada has a similar, looking globally, similar model to the Nordic countries, and also do quite well in the happiness rankings, usually above the US and usually in the top 10. I think the Canadian population is around 30 million or 40 million, something like that.
So, I don’t know where the threshold is. I’m not convinced that it’s an issue in a bigger population. I don’t see why the social mechanics should work differently in a bigger population. I’m happy to be convinced otherwise, but so far I don’t see any evidence of why that should be the case.
Tips and Strategies for Developing Hygge
DrMR: Sure, okay. That is just a question I have. I certainly can’t say I’ve dug enough data to have some clear consensus on that one way or the other. But that’s just one thing that kind of went through my head. This topic to me is incredibly interesting. I do want to steer us back towards more the Hygge-ly aspect of the conversation, as fascinating as I find this.
MW: Let’s end on a Hygge-ly note, yes.
DrMR: So, one thing I’m wondering for people listening, are there some key tips or strategies that in your conversations, you’ve spoken about this all over the world I know, that seem to really be helpful for people? And for example, one thing I took away from your book was everyone helps in making food and kind of the chores of the evening.
And this takes stress off of the host. And it also cultivates more opportunities for connectedness, that Hygge-liness. So, are there other things like that that are just simple, easy things that you found to be really helpful to people trying to start into cultivating this in their lives?
MW: Yes, I think it’s a good example, the one you mentioned with sort of sharing the tasks and the burden of organizing dinners. And I think it’s also more fun to cook together than just necessarily eat together. But I think it’s also in some sort of concrete little practical thing I’ve been learning that somebody actually took away from Hygge was the importance of the atmosphere in the room, in terms of creating that sense of togetherness.
Another example is a Canadian guy who also read about Hygge and the importance of lighting and, in particular, candles in terms of creating a nice atmosphere in the room. Afterwards, he went out and he bought some chandeliers and started to light candles for dinner at home. And he and his wife have three teenaged sons who started to tease him when he first started to light the candles and thought he wanted to have some romantic time with mom.
But then he says that he noticed that the boys, they started to light the candles for dinner and it became this ritual of food and fire. And most importantly he says that the candles and the atmosphere, they put the boys in a storytelling mood. So instead of shoveling down their food, they now talked about their day. And he says that their family dinners now last 15 to 20 minutes longer because of that. And I think it’s wonderful that with just a little change in how we set the atmosphere in the room can have an effect on how people behave.
Cozy Conditions and Feelings of Well-being
DrMR: Yes, that to me is one of the most important things, is creating that atmosphere. Simple things like lighting candles, in my mind, have always been very powerful in making the other want to stay somewhere or leave. It doesn’t necessarily need to be candlelight but a dim-lit room.
An example I used with my friend, if I’m complaining about a restaurant that we went to is, “Why does this restaurant have the lights just blasted?” Most high end restaurants have dim lighting. What do most places do when they close? They turn the lights up because they want you to leave. And so, if you want to make people to stay the inverse would make sense. Turn the lights down and make it cozy.
MW: It also makes people look better. If there’s dim lighting, you look what we call grotto-fabulous.
DrMR: Yeah, well, I’ll take that. Any help I can get. Oh, man, thank you sir! I know you said you’ve got another meeting coming up, so I won’t keep you any longer. But I really appreciate you taking the time. I love the book. I love the work that you’re doing. And where can people learn more about you, or follow you if they wanted to?
MW: Of course, they’re welcome to visit our website. We are the Happiness Research Institute. We also have a Facebook group. And I think I’m, from time to time, on the social media called Twitter, and Instagram as well. They’re more than welcome to follow us there.
DrMR: All right, my friend. Well, thank you again for taking the time. And keep doing your good work. It’s really great stuff.
MW: Thank you Michael, I enjoyed that conversation.
DrMR: Me too. Take care.
What do you think? I would like to hear your thoughts or experience with this.
Dr. Ruscio is your leading functional and integrative doctor specializing in gut related disorders such as SIBO, leaky gut, Celiac, IBS and in thyroid disorders such as hypothyroid and hyperthyroid. For more information on how to become a patient, please contact our office. Serving the San Francisco bay area and distance patients via phone and Skype.