The United Nations recently released its “World’s Happiest” report, and this year the happiest country in the world is Finland, with Denmark ranking second. When my wife and I visited in 2017, Denmark was second to Norway, and, in years prior to that, Denmark often landed number one, with Norway, Sweden, and Finland juggling for the follow-up spots. Iceland was in there too somewhere. So was Germany and The Netherlands. The big takeaway year after year seems to be that Scandinavia is king.
The U.S., by the way, came in at 19.
The U.S. dropped one spot since 2018, and a total of five spots in the last two years. While they rank tenth in income, they fall short of the top ten in all other categories: 12th in generosity, 37th in social support, 42nd in corruption, and an abysmal 61st in freedom. Ouch. Let’s get those “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” chants going!
The common denominators among these high-ranking countries are a long life expectancy (good food, cultures that prefer walking and bicycling over cars), generosity (higher taxes as a safety net for all), state-run universal health care, small wealth gaps, higher education all EU students, and, of course, beautiful, beautiful scenery.
And while certainly Denmark has all of those things, it also has one intangible: the hard-to-describe, hard-to-define, mysterious hygge.
Pronounced hoo-gah (I think) or maybe it’s huh-guh, hygge is a feeling: it relates to coziness, or contentedness, a feeling of comfort. A lot of different things can be described as being hygge: a meal, hot cocoa, the right lighting, a blanket, candles, a fire crackling in a fireplace. It’s cozy contentment, a feeling of well-being. There’s a rumor that our English word hug derives from it. And maybe that’s a good way to think of it: what are those things, those moments, that give you an emotional, or spiritual, or metaphorical hug? That’s hygge.
And in Copenhagen, it’s not difficult to find.
Copenhagen offers an abundance of outdoor seating at its restaurants, ideal for people-watching and soaking in the city’s vibes. But being a Scandinavian country and north of much of Europe, even summer nights can be cool. It’s not uncommon, then, to find a cozy fleece blanket draped over the back of your chair at these outdoor restaurant seats. That’s hygge. And it’s everywhere.
In the waterfront district of Nyhavn, vibrantly-colored 17th century structures line the canal, looking no different than they had hundreds of years ago, excect now, instead of being a haven for men coming in from weeks at sea and looking for cheap liquor and cheap women, the neighborhood caters mostly to tourists, selling good food and good views, ice cream and hot chocolate and pastries. But its rowdy vibe remains intact.
It was here that my wife discovered her new favorite beverage, a hard cider called Somersby. We sat outdoors and she had a couple, her hygge blanket draped over her lap, the Scandinavian air coming off the water in cool but pleasant whispers. A steady flow of tourists passed along the canal, laughing and celebratory, loosened by booze. Directly behind them boats moored in the canal listed and bobbed, groaning against the pylons. After a long way of walking and exploring, we settled into the moment, our bodies synching with the roll of the boats.
Another day we decided to walk along the water to find the Little Mermaid statue, commemorating Copenhagen’s favorite son, Hans Christian Anderson. Our guide book said the statue was a bit touristy and crowded, and looking at the map it seemed like a long walk, our feet already numb and throbbing from the days before. But we made the trip anyway, if for no other reason than to see an end of the city we hadn’t yet explored. Ultimately, the statue became just a target, a point to reach. The real attractions were the things we encountered on the walk, like the Amalienborg Palace, the food carts we found all over (we treated ourselves to a couple vibrant red hot dogs, since Copenhagen really just might be the hot dog capital of the world), and especially the quaint stone church we stumbled upon, St. Alban’s, with its white trim and light stone, one of the smaller churches we’d visited but picturesque in the simplest and best way. Near it was an arching stone pedestrian bridge over a canal, and the two framed together made for a lovely photo. On the return walk, I kept turning around to face it, appreciating this new angle, snapping a couple more pictures. If ever a church were hygge, this one was.
It’s what makes travel so exhilarating, moments like this. Go looking for the Little Mermaid statue, happen upon a cute stone church you can’t stopping looking at. The discoveries that you chance upon, the gems that have fallen through the guidebooks’ cracks that you adopt as pieces of yourself.
On the way back I kept snapping pictures of the bicycles lanes. Not really lanes at all but paved roads separated by curb, completely removed from the road clogged with autos. I took a photo of a bridge—two sides to it: one a pedestrian lane and the other a bicycle lane, no automobile traffic on this bridge. So much real estate dedicated to bikes. Like Amsterdam to the north, Copenhagen loves its bike culture. For many, it’s their primary source of transportation: to work, to the shops and markets, often with child seats attached or even towed. They don’t see leaving the car and taking the bicycle as a sacrifice, the way we might, but as a preferred means of getting from point A to point B. Better for the environment, sure, but better for their own physical and mental health, at one with the city and their neighbors. A leisurely pedal. A friendly wave and smile. The fresh air. The sun.
Man, that’s hygge.