Author Mark Richards

Britain languishes in 19th place in the league table of world happiness. Who is at the top? And are there any lessons we can learn from those countries?

Well, what a week that was. The dreadful events in Charlottesville and Barcelona, rapidly followed by the attack in Finland. At home, we had the news that some commuters will now be lucky enough to pay £10,000 a year to travel to and from work and then – at the weekend – half the country’s barbecues washed out by the tail end of Hurricane Gert.

So let us attempt the impossible: the words ‘happy’ and ‘Monday morning’ are not often seen in the same sentence, but let us have a go. Next Monday sees the August Bank Holiday – but after that, it is a long slog until Christmas: 17 weeks when it is getting colder, wetter and darker. Maybe what we need are some strategies for being happy – and for those, we need to look to Scandinavia.

The happiest country in the world

Denmark has long been regarded as the happiest country in the world, consistently coming at the top of the annual World Happiness Report – a measure of happiness published by the UN’s Sustainable Development Network. This year, though, Denmark was knocked off the top spot by Norway – and to answer your obvious question, the UK was 19th, behind the US and Germany, but ahead of France and Spain (so sunshine is not everything…)

What was significant about the report was that the top six countries – Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Finland, Holland – are all relatively small countries. Interestingly, small countries also tend to be richer. According to the Legatum Prosperity Index, New Zeeland is the most prosperous country on Earth, with Norway, Finland and Switzerland also ranking in the top four.

But it is happiness, not money, that we are concerned with this morning. What can we learn from Denmark and Norway – and why are their citizens so happy, as we start Monday morning by paying way over the odds to stand on a crowded train for an hour?

Hygge and friluftsliv

First and foremost, both countries share the concept of ‘hygge.’ It is the latest buzzword and you cannot walk into a bookshop without falling over the latest bestselling book on it. But what does ‘hygge’ – pronounced hue-guh – really mean? And let me confess here – I thought ‘hygge’ simply meant wearing a jumper like Sarah Lund (the detective in The Killing) and drinking a cup of hot chocolate…

No, it goes beyond that. It is – according to the closest definition I can find – a ‘quality of cosiness and conviviality that gives a feeling of well-being.’ According to Danish happiness expert (yes, they really have such things) Meik Wiking, ‘hygge’ can be defined as ‘togetherness, relaxation, indulgence, presence and comfort: the art of creating everyday happiness.’

But clearly ‘hygge’ on its own is not enough – otherwise, Denmark would not have been overtaken by Norway. And sure enough the Norwegians have their own concept, captured in the word, ‘friluftsliv.’ Literally, it translates as ‘free air life:’ like hygge, though, its cultural connotations go well beyond the literal translation.

Norwegians are also fond of their ‘hytta’ – the log cabin they escape to at the weekend, which may well not have electricity and even an inside loo. But they are out in the country and away from the pressures of modern life – and presumably without a mobile phone signal…


5 ways to be happy

So putting ‘hygge’ and ‘friluftsliv’ together, what do we get? Here are my five suggestions for ‘how to be happy’ on a Monday morning – and hopefully these ideas will carry you all the way through to Christmas on a wave of euphoria.

Get out there and take some exercise – and do not worry about what you look like. When I was in Copenhagen last year I noticed two things: nearly everyone cycled, but no-one felt the need to advertise the fact by wearing Lycra. What a welcome contrast to the UK and the legions of MAMILs (middle aged men in Lycra) who really should have looked in the mirror before they left the house…

As the old saying has it, ‘stop and smell the roses.’ Slow down, and take pleasure in the simple things in life. We are constantly urged to ‘seize the day’ and achieve our goals. Maybe it is time to realise that life is a journey, and we are allowed to pause occasionally and enjoy it.

Invite some friends over for dinner. Yes, I know the dining room needs decorating – and the kitchen is a bit of a tip. But everyone’s house needs something doing to it: if you wait until it is perfect you may not have any friends left – and lasting friendships and shared memories are one of the best things in life. It is also good for your health: people with more friends live longer.

Do something for nothing. There is another Norwegian word: ‘dugnad.’ It means everyone contributing their time and skills – whether it is tidying, building or repairing, and then sharing a coffee or a beer afterwards.

Have a coffee and a bacon sandwich. The average Dane eats 3 kilos of bacon a year. They also eat plenty of sweets and have coffee and cake with their friends. “Hygge is about being kind to yourself,” says Meik Wiking. “It is about giving yourself a treat and taking a break from the demands of healthy living.”

You may well have looked through that small list, sniffed and dismissed it as common-sense. But how many of us do those things? Time to hold my hand up again and confess that I only tick three of the five boxes: I cannot remember the last time we had friends over to dinner or when I helped someone build a garden shed or repair a fence.

Hygge and friluftsliv both capture a sense of community, of being good to yourself, of escaping the modern world and taking time out to enjoy simple pleasures. Maybe it is a lesson we could all learn as we angrily check our phones to see why the train is running late…