'Hygge' The Curious Story Of Danish Happiness

If Nordic people are the happiest people in the world, it is thanks to the state of welfare and cuddling with friends in the candlelight. Today the word for this ritual invades the life of Francophones.

It's pronounced 'hoo-guh'
It's pronounced "hoo-guh"
Nic Ulmi

GENEVA How is Denmark, a country with scarce sunlight and high taxes, one of the happiest countries in the world? That's at least according to a happiness index ranked by the United Nations.

Denmark's welfare state "reduces risks, insecurity, and anxiety among citizens," says Meik Wiking, director of the "Happiness Research Institute" in Copenhagen.

Welfare doesn't explain everything. Other Scandinavian countries share a similar economic model. If Danes are happier than their neighbors, it's because of hygge.

The word, borrowed from the Norwegian language, is frequently used in Danish. Hygge (pronounced "hoo-guh") means a type of happiness derived from a friendly atmosphere, candlelight, a tight-knit group of friends, fatty or sweet foods or both. It also involves the rejection of narcissism and online social networks. The concept of hygge has now been exported to the Anglophone world. This year, 25 books on the topic have been or will be published.

"Thick sweaters and wool socks'

Hygge is "an atmosphere," writes Wiking in The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way of Live Well. It is "the feeling that one is safe, sheltered from the world, and can let his or her guard down." Other languages have similar concepts: German Gemütlichkeit, English "cosiness'. What is fundamentally Danish though is "how we focus on it, seeing it as a trait that defines our identity." Hygge is a strategy to survive Denmark's cold winters. The term also resonates with Danes because of the country's history.

The Danish empire crumbled in the 19th century and lost all its possessions to Germany, Iceland, Sweden, and Norway. "The Danes began to identify with simplicity," says Louisa Thomsen Brits, author of the book Hygge. The military defeat "was not deplored as a loss, but celebrated as a gain."

How would one describe hygge? Wiking offers an anecdote.

"One day, a little before Christmas, I spent the weekend in an old cabin with some friends," recounts Wiking. "We were tired after a walk, a little sleepy, sitting around the fireplace in thick sweaters and wool socks. The only sounds were those of the pot-au-feu (French boiled dish) simmering, logs cracking and someone sipping a hot glass of wine. All of a sudden, someone broke the silence to ask, "Could someone imagine a moment more hygge than this?" After another silence, someone answered, "Yes, if there was a blizzard outside." Everyone nodded."

Wiking conducted an experiment that made subjects spend a weekend without connecting to social networks online. The result? "All the indicators of happiness were significantly increased." So happiness isn't really found on Instagram.

Photo: Ignat Gorazd

"Break from healthy living"

"The fastest way to become hygge is to light candles," says Wiking. With six kilograms of candles bought a year per person, Denmark tops the European ranking on candle usage. Scented candles are considered artificial. Danes prefer natural and organic products, Wiking says.

"Our obsession with lighting comes from the lack of natural light between October and March," says Wiking. Danes such as Arne Jacobsen and Verner Panton have created some of the most beloved lamps on the planet. Pioneer Poul Henningson, born in 1894, took the soft lighting of the kerosene lamps of his childhood and adapted it to the electric age.

But candles emit "more micro-particles than cigarettes, the kitchen, or the exhaust gas," says Wiking. Although Denmark has many regulations, there are no health warnings on candles. Hygge involves taking "a break from the requirements of healthy living," he says.

It's not just candles. According to the annual Europe report on sugar confectionery, a Dane consumes 8.2 kilograms of sugar a year, double the world average.

The most essential ingredient of happiness is a connection to other people. "In all of my research, it is the thing that I am the most certain of," says Wiking. According to a majority of Danes, it's necessary to have three or four friends to be hygge. Work hours in Denmark allow for plenty of time with friends.

"Stay at work past 5:30 p.m. and the office will be as deserted as a morgue. Work on the weekend, and the Danes will think of you as crazy," says Wiking.

Hygge also involves certain behavior traits. "To boast of achievements and show off a Rolex is considered bad taste, breaking the hygge. The more bling, the less hygge."

The flip side

Not everything is great in Hygge country. "The Danes are not very good at inviting new people into their circle of friends," Wiking says.

There are other factors too. The World Health Organization says that Denmark is 82 in a ranking of suicide worldwide. Why are suicides so high in a happy country?

"It is more difficult to be unhappy in a society that is otherwise happy," says Wiking. "Because the evaluation of one's own happiness feeds on a comparison with others."

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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