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Lessons From the World's Happiest Country

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by Elior Moskowitz

Now that the holiday season has wound down and those graceful first snows have transformed into muddy slush, it's easy to start resenting the weather and wishing the chill away. But while drab winter days can feel draining on our psyches, they're a great time to boost our resilience.

Take it from one of the happiest countries in the world: Denmark. With up to 17 hours of darkness per day at the height of the winter months--and average temperatures hovering around zero degrees Celsius--you'd think this small Scandinavian country would be struggling to stay cheerful.

But in reality, Denmark has placed at the top of the European Commission's well-being and happiness index for 40 consecutive years and has proven to be the picture of resilience--not just coping but thriving during the trying winter months.

So, how do they do it?

Introducing Hygge: "Hygge" (pronounced hoo-guh) is a Danish concept, originally adapted from the Norwegian word for wellbeing. According to Helen Dyrbye, author of 'Xenophobe's Guide to the Danes', "It is the art of creating intimacy: a sense of comradeship, conviviality and contentment rolled into one." While hygge is especially relevant during the coldest months of the year, we don't need winter weather to get our hygge on--no matter what the temperature is, anyone can enjoy candlelit cafes or small evenings in with friends. And while Denmark surely has a myriad of other factors contributing to their high happiness ranking, the mindset behind hygge is something we can all strive to master.

5 Keys to Hygge:

1. Show Yourself Some Love
This time of year, we tend to go from excessive indulging to New Year's resolution-fitness-damage-control. The end result? We are highly critical of ourselves. In the spirit of hygge, balance out that critical eye with inward warmth and compassion. "People who are kind to themselves rather than harshly self-critical tend to have better mental health and higher life satisfaction," reports Dr. Mark Williamson, Director of Action for Happiness think-tank. One easy way to do this is to create a self-love affirmation, such as "I accept that to err is human and I forgive myself for all my mistakes." Repeat this to yourself when your inner critic starts to act out. Some other simple ways to show yourself some love include taking a warm bath, carving out time to read a good book, or cooking your favorite meal.

2. Feel Grateful...
Although it might feel like the list of things to be grateful for has gotten buried under a pile of snow (along with your car), the concept of hygge proves that winter can provide us with unique opportunities for gratitude. Hygge, at its core, is rooted in mindfulness, which in turn leads to a greater sense of gratitude. By savoring small pleasures--such as candlelight or a warm drink--we bring our attention to the things we are fortunate enough to have, but tend to overlook. If the winter tends to send you into a slump, make it a point to think of one positive seasonal thing each day. Maybe you wore your favorite sweater or a beloved TV show is returning--whatever they may be, you can keep track of your winter wonders in your gratitude journal!

3. ...And Not Just for Material Things
Hygge encourages us to appreciate those things that aren't material. "When it comes to understanding hygge...it's about experiences rather than 'stuff'," says Meik Wiking, CEO of The Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. This mindset has been compared to the familiar idea of "holiday cheer"--which often reorients our priorities towards immaterial things, such as family, community, and quality time. Hygge shows us that the mindset behind the holidays is possible to sustain year-round, without the added stress of holiday shopping and meal prep. (Win-win!) The idea is to carve out small, carefree havens of "home" by seeking out joy, whether it be through hosting a dinner party with your closest friends or embarking on a solo winter hike.

4. Seek Out Social Time
Although winter is naturally conducive to feelings of isolation, Wiking says that a fundamental aspect of hygge is sharing it with loved ones: "We talk about hygge things coming up that we're looking forward to; we point out when something hygge is happening right now; then we like to talk about what a great 'hyggelit' time we've had afterwards." In other words, beat the winter blues by fostering a sense of connection. And it turns out that allowing ourselves "hygge time" even puts us in a better place to contribute and help others: "The most important contributor to our psychological well-being is the strength of our relationships," says Dr. Williamson, "and hygge definitely tends to encourage more close and intimate time with loved ones."

Instead of wishing the cold away, we can take a lesson from the slower pace of winter and tune into the present moment. "Life is so rushed that we often forget about creating these events of hygge," says Michele McNabb, librarian for the Museum of Danish America. "Slow down and enjoy it. Hygge is not something you can do in a rush. "

Elior Moskowitz is an intern at meQuilibrium in the Content department. She's a recent college grad with a dual major in Psychology and English.