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Is the secret of happiness contained in this Danish word?

BY   June 30, 2015 at 11:41 AM EDT

Denmark ranks extremely high in work-life balance. Understanding the Danish concept of “hygge” may explain why.

Park at sunset in Copenhagen, Denmark. — Photo by Tim E White.

One of the most commonly-used words in Denmark has no English translation. “Hygge,” pronounced hoo-ga, is often translated as “coziness.” But coziness paints only part of the picture.

Simply, hygge is about living in the moment. It’s about spending quality, peaceful time in a calm environment with no agenda. It’s about humor, warmth and making connections. It’s about spending time alone and spending time with family. And it vanishes the moment your to-do list gets involved. It even has its own adjective: hyggelig. As in, “This quiet cafe is so hyggelig.”

Hygge is not entirely foreign to Americans. Consider Johnny Cash’s description of paradise: “This morning, having coffee, with her.” That’s hygge.

But the fact that there’s no easy translation may tell us as much about the country behind the word as the word itself. Denmark boasts generous vacation and parental leave, along with high-quality health care and unemployment benefits. It is also one of the highest-ranked countries in terms of happiness and work-life balance. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development defines work-life balance according to time devoted to leisure and personal care and the percentage of employees that work long hours. (Denmark ranks first at 9.8 and the U.S. ranks eighth from last with a score of 5.3.)

Being truly content with the way you’ve lived your life is the highest honor in Danish society.
— Jeppe Trolle Linnet, Danish anthropologist

First used in the 18th century, hygge’s roots derive from the Norwegian word for ‘well being’. The concept of hygge is believed to have made the cold and dark winters more tolerable. Now, it’s common to say “this is hyggelig,” while enjoying a meal or time with friends or “that was hyggelig” while saying farewell.”

Rufus Gifford, the U.S. Ambassador to Denmark describes it this way: “The way I define it to Americans is Thanksgiving. You’re together with family and friends, you’re eating delicious food, there’s tradition associated with it. It’s kind of an emotional happiness, an emotional coziness.”

For Danes, happiness is a goal and a way of life. And though work is considered the antithesis of hygge, hygge extends to work. Danes value friendliness, trust and teamwork over competition, along with flat hierarchical structures.

“Danes are uncomfortable talking about their accomplishments and ambitions and often downplay any success as pure luck. That is the Danish code for being professional,” says Jeppe Trolle Linnet, a Danish anthropologist.

“The highest honor that you can claim,” he adds, “is that you are happy and that you are really content with the way you have lived.”