Hygge meets anomie

C Gopinath | Updated on July 10, 2019 Published on July 10, 2019

Raising the happiness quotient, the Danish way

I need to explain two of the three words in the title. Let’s first briefly digress to Facebook. Over time, I seem to have accumulated a set of family and friends who are determined to tell everyone everything that is wrong with the world. The postings are about rivers drying up, trees being cut to make way for roads, and how industry has ruined the environment. There are dogs to be rescued and governments who are ruining the country. All is lost. I’m sure there are several people motivated by these calls to arms who are rushing about fixing things and improving the world. I, on the other hand, mope. So I have developed an ‘anomie meter.’ After I see three postings that upset me and reduce my level of well-being, I switch out of Facebook.

Anomie, a concept in sociology, deals with an individual’s match with social standards and deals with a feeling of well-being. Trust in governments is a critical feature of well-being. The rise of populist parties around the world who argue that governments had favoured the elites, were soft on immigration and have diluted national identity seems to reduce our general level of anomie.

Denmark has found strength in its tradition to counter anomie. That is where ‘hygge’ (pronounced ‘hew-gh’) comes in. It is a Danish term to represent a feeling of cosiness and comfort and is used as a noun, a verb, and an adjective. We could get together for hygge, we could suggest to friends to hygge, or observe how it was a hygge weekend.

Anthropologists suggest that Denmark resorted to hygge when it started suffering from several external challenges. Loss of territories following failed wars with neighbours over the centuries made the Danes turn inwards. They decided to make do with what they have and enjoy it. Hygge makes them avoid controversial subjects in discussion. They strive for the least common denominator — isn’t the food great, and the wine refreshing! Aha, the sun is out today! When the Danes get together to hygge, no one will raise a controversial subject. The idea is now hitting the export markets with books about hygge translated for sale in many languages.

Hygge must be working for them in another way too. For seven consecutive years, the country has been ranked among the top three in the annual World Happiness Report. Happiness is measured with both objective indicators of health, crime, etc., as well as subjective indicators by asking people about their emotional experiences. The Danes have a stable government and low levels of income inequality. Outsiders are aghast at the average of 45 per cent income taxes and 25 per cent VAT. But if you stop to talk to Danes, they don’t seem to mind paying those taxes in return for relatively free education and good healthcare amongst other welfare state benefits.

But there is a fly in the ointment here. If hygge has helped them, then why are the Danes finding increasing levels of anxiety and depression among the children and young people? Suicide rates also seem to be high. The National Museum in Copenhagen has even put on display in its modern section a box of the prescription medication Sertraline Hexal that is used to treat these mental ailments. When I asked the guide how to reconcile these contradictory images of Denmark, she shared my puzzlement.

Perhaps the depression and happiness may just be from different sample sets. The young and the very old may have more problems than the broad middle. While the Danes may not be a perfect society, they certainly have qualities worthy of emulation. Meanwhile, may be they just need to distribute more copies of books about hygge within the country.

The writer is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston.

Published on July 10, 2019
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