Denmark boils the correct answer into one word: “hygge” (pronounced “hoo-ga”), a sense of contentment and coziness that Meik Wiking says is hard to explain precisely – but you know it when you find it.
Now the rest of us are trying to emulate the Scandinavian nation, which years ago catapulted to the top of the United Nations’ “world’s happiest nation” rankings and remains a perennial favorite.
Wiking is CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, where scientific and economic research measures and analyzes personal well-being and quality of life. Staff do not provide one-to-one advice or psychotherapy.
The notion of hygge popped up in 19th century Danish literature and evolved into a part of Denmark’s cultural identity. It’s a hot bandwagon globally, thanks to the 2017 release of “The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living” by Wiking, who followed up that bestseller with “The Little Book of Lykke: Secrets of the World’s Happiest People,” released this year.
“Lykke” is pronounced “loo-ka” and means “happiness.” The author uses examples from other cultures in the world to demonstrate that this state of mind need not be just a Danish thing.
Making the film festival circuit nationwide this year is “Finding Hygge,” a feature-length documentary by 12 Stars Media in Indianapolis. Footage includes Denmark sites, Manitoba, London and Colorado.
The film debut is March 21-25 at Sonoma International Film Festival, California. No Wisconsin dates have been announced yet; stay tuned.
“Right away, we noticed some differences between Denmark and America, beyond the architecture and language,” filmmakers say online, regarding project research. “Everything and everyone seemed less busy. In the middle of the workday, people were taking breaks in the park and lying in the grass soaking up the sunshine, not their smartphones.”
One category at Denmark’s tourism website is “how to get more hygge in your life” while visiting. You’ll find playful answers and settings, like “beer made with coffee beans that have gone through a weasel in Vietnam” and “taking a bite out of your childhood” with a bowl of porridge at a morning-to-night specialty café.
Danes don’t promote a grab-and-go vacation pace. The goal is not how much you can see, spend, experience or multi-task. Substitute relaxation for break-neck speed. Blend the right atmosphere, indulgence and companion (or not – only-you hygge counts too, big-time).
And don’t presume you need a plane ticket to make hygge happen. For starters:
Stay cozy and quiet at home. Do what you need to turn a nook into a haven. Settle into something cushy while swaddled in something soft and warm. Turn off the TV, stash the cellphone and get lost in a book, sonata or nap.
Find a fireplace. Linger with a mimosa or smoothie for an hour or the day at Evensong Spa, across from Heidel House Resort in Green Lake. A $25 access pass (available weekdays only) allows 9-to-5 lounging. Relax in a borrowed bathrobe while walking the labyrinth, eating lunch or melting into a seat by the fireplace. Bring a swimsuit for a dip into the steam room or waterfall hot tubs. evensongspa.com
Feel the fresh air. Let calls of the wild invigorate you at state parks and nature trails, all over Wisconsin. Bring binoculars because bird migration intensifies with the arrival of spring. Explore on your own or take a guided tour. Example: The 90-minute Spring Thaw Hike crosses cattail marsh and prairie at Big Muskego Wildlife Area in Waukesha County on March 24. dnr.wi.gov
Learn to take tea leisurely. Johanna May’s Fine Teas, Weston, matches steaming loose-leaf tea with a four-course treat of savory and sweet nibbles. Think scones with clotted cream and lemon curd. Teeny but elegant sandwiches. Salad-soup-sandwich lunches are other options. Service, in a beautifully converted storage shed with a pleasant mismatch of antiques, is leisurely. Hours and prices change with the seasons. Reservations recommended. johannamaysfineteas.com
Savor a sliver of fine pastry. We’re not talking about a Danish or doughnut – that’s dime-a-dozen stuff. Indulge in the exquisite. Two Madison examples: The cash-sales-only La Baguette French Bakerie, where croissants, pain au chocolat, quiche and tarts have been made by a native of France for 10 years. Lane’s Bakery, open since 1954, specializes in the labor-intensive Danish kringle, but it is sold by the entire oval instead of a slice. Lucky you.
Shop, slowly, at a specialty store. Think “quality” instead of “quantity.” Among my favorites in Madison: Little Luxuries, just as its named, on State Street; the Badger-centric gift shop at the Wisconsin Historical Museum, near the State Capitol; and Orange Tree Imports on Monroe Street, a gift and kitchen boutique whose proprietor (Carol “Orange” Schroeder) wrote an “Eat Smart in Denmark” culinary guide. littleluxuriesmadison.com, shop.wisconsinhistory.org, orangetreeimports.com
Linger along a waterfront. Illinois Beach Resort, near the Wisconsin border, faces Lake Michigan in a state park with 6.5 miles of waterfront access. Rooms are standard but views extraordinary, especially from a spacious lounging area that has walls of windows and lots of cushioned seating. Onsite are an indoor pool, hot tub, steam room, sauna, restaurant and bar. Overnight rates start under $100. ilresorts.com
For more about:
Denmark tourism: visitdenmark.com
“Finding Hygge” documentary: 12starsmedia.com
Happiness Research Institute, Copenhagen: happinessresearchinstitute.com
Meik Wiking’s books (each $20): harpercollins.com