The secret to the happiest families on Earth—in one word
Florida native Jessica Joelle Alexander wondered, when she married a Dane, what made his country the home of “the happiest people in the world.” For more than 40 years, Denmark has topped surveys ranking countries by happiness. And she could see the signs wherever she went.
Everyone just seemed friendly, welcoming…happy. Especially the kids.
But was it something the Danish grow up with, like all those Legos, bicycles, and pastries? Hans Christian Andersen and his fairy tales?
Or maybe the fact that Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens inspired Walt Disney to build Disneyland?
On second thought, maybe the weather did have something to do with it, because a big part of the answer definitely had to do with warmth. Alexander quickly realized that there’s a special kind of warmth—both sensory and emotional—that’s embedded deep in the fabric of family life. And now her children, 7-year-old Sophie and 4-year-old Sebastian, have learned the secret too.
All Danish kids do.
It’s what the Danes call hygge.
If you think the word looks odd, it sounds even funnier. You say, “hoo-gah.”
As a family idea, it’s totally serious.
And totally worth importing!
Hygge doesn’t have a one-word English equivalent. “It literally means ‘to cozy around together,’” says Alexander, co-author of the new book The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids.
Ask a bunch of Danes to define it and you’ll hear a lot of talk about lighting candles, playing games, eating nice meals, having tea and cake, and being in one another’s company in a cozy atmosphere.
But hygge translates to more than the sum of atmosphere, food, and activity.
Iben Dissing Sandahl, a psychotherapist and family counselor in Copenhagen and Alexander’s co-author, calls it “we-fulness”—times reserved for mindful togetherness that can happen anytime, anywhere.
Imagine how most Americans feel at Thanksgiving, the U.S. Ambassador to Denmark, Rufus Gifford, told NPR: “You’re together with family and friends, eating delicious food, there’s tradition associated with it…kind of an emotional coziness.”
Only it doesn’t just happen once a year. And there’s hardly ever any of the family drama that might come up at an American Thanksgiving dinner. It’s almost as if everyone in Denmark reserves their best behavior, without any noticeable effort, for all those “we-full” moments.
Hygge’s simple recipe…
Spending hygge time with her new Danish friends and relatives, Alexander was amazed to see how much cooperation and goodwill—and how little negativity and complaining—were part of it.
Nobody criticized anyone else or argued about politics over the biscuits!
“We seldom realize how often family gatherings are marred by some kind of drama or need to put your guard up,” she told me.
Hygge is all about creating a safe psychological space free of anything negative for a defined time, Alexander says. “We can complain about our stresses, politics, or other people another time, but not in the hygge space,” she told me.
Think of it as a “family ritual” or “quality time”—but with these magic ingredients:
- Making a conscious effort to enjoy the food, the moment, and one another
- Leaving drama and outside stressors at the door
- No complaining or dwelling on negative things
- No bringing up controversial topics
- No bragging or competing (it’s all about “we,” not “me”)
Any of us can hygge.
The Danes have been doing it for a few centuries, so it’s second-nature to them. We have to be more intentional about it, Alexander says. She suggests starting with baby steps, whether it’s a weekend family breakfast or how you spend after-school snack time together.
It’s not just for families: Alexander loves the idea of a hygge mother’s group.
“At first it can feel a little awkward, but that melts into joy and, frankly, a relief to be together without negativity,” she told me. “It’s so nice to be in a safe psychological space where you won’t hear complaining, feel judged, or need to put your guard up.”
The safeness is what kids love about hygge. “Children don’t like negativity and drama,” Alexander says. “They thrive when their family and loved ones are together in a controversy-free space.”
Hygge fosters an inner peace, Sandhal adds. We feel well-stimulated, seen, heard, and acknowledged. “And when feeling connected, safe, and secure, it becomes easier to deal with external demands and expectations, which daily life offers all the time,” she says.
Sandahl used to sit down with her daughters after school while they ate a snack and talked about their day, a little ritual accompanied by candlelight and hot chocolate. Then, she says, “I read a tale for them and they were ‘full’ of my attention, so they were ready to go play by themselves. That was very hyggeligt and made the time afterward so much easier, because they were ready to do something without me.”
Basically, we’re like herd animals, she told me. “The feeling of belonging to a larger flock is significant. We feel confirmed that ‘I am like the others’ and therefore ‘I am quite normal and thus an accepted individual.’”
More hygge pointers:
Exactly how you spend the time is up to you: sharing stories, playing games, making a craft, having ice cream. The idea is for everyone to feel engaged and present. Maybe that’s why hygge is all about simplicity: games more than toys, people more than screens, feelings more than things. (“It isn’t that difficult to ditch the phones and tablets during hygge because we know it’s for a limited time,” Alexander says.)
Kids love team-building activities (performed with the grown-ups) that encourage working together, like scavenger hunts, fort-building, and tournaments, Sandahl and Alexander say.
Popular in Denmark: singing. Research has shown that singing makes people happier and feel as if they’re part of a meaningful group.
“It can seem superficial because many of us are used to going into the heavier stuff when we’re together,” Alexander says. “But remember how the kids experience this: Just being in the moment, enjoying the food, playing cards, being nice—it feels good. It feels clean.”
Hygge is often loosely translated as “coziness” because a cozy setting helps everyone feel welcomed and relaxed. You don’t have to go all HGTV, though. Part of the idea is that everybody gets invested in contributing to making things hyggeligt: Spreading a fun tablecloth, your child picking a jar of wildflowers, your partner making a special guac, or a guest bringing homemade cookies or bakery favorites.
Candles are a popular feature in Denmark for the inviting glow they cast, summer and winter. (Danes burn more candles than any other Europeans!) They’re totally optional, but don’t overlook their power to signal to kids that “this is a special time.”
Not only is hygge fun and comforting, Alexander adds, but it pays forward big time.
Kids grow up treasuring this safe, attended-to time with their families, and, at least in Denmark, grow up recreating it for their own børn (children).
It’s totally reinforcing, Alexander says. “It doesn’t cost a cent, and the payback is more happiness.”
Take it from “the happiest people on Earth.”
—Content chief Paula Spencer Scott is a mom of 4 and step-mom of 2—and the author or co-author of more than a dozen books about parenting, health, and eldercare, including Bright From the Start; The Happiest Toddler on the Block; Like Mother, Like Daughter; and Surviving Alzheimer’s.