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Discover winter wellness the Nordic way

Adopt Nordic attitudes toward winter — including creating a cozy vibe, enjoying warm food and drinks, and experiencing the outdoors — and you might find yourself looking forward to the next snow day.

Despite freezing climates and long periods of winter darkness, the Nordic countries of Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Iceland consistently rank in the top 10 of the United Nations’ World Happiness Report every year. What are their secrets to happiness? Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, has written several books on the subject and conducts research on happiness around the world. As we look ahead to a winter of continued social separation and vigilance against COVID-19, we can take comfort and find tools in the habits of our Nordic neighbors.

Elements of happiness

Wiking describes happiness as having three components:

  • Affect, or the emotions people experience from day to day
  • Life evaluation, or their cognitive sense of overall happiness across their lives
  • A sense of purpose and fulfillment

Purpose, passion and pride — feeling good about what you do — also are three keys that Dan Buettner found in the happiest places to live in the world in his book The Blue Zones of Happiness. Big predictors of happiness in studies done by the Happiness Research Institute include an individual’s sense of social support, health, wealth, kindness, freedom and trust in their community. Considered among the happiest people in the world, Danes also spend the most time with friends and family. That may be, in part, because of their national passion for what they call hygge.

Let’s get hygge

Hygge (pronounced HOO-gah) is a Danish word for a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being. While it’s hard to describe in a few words, Wiking defines it as, “Being consciously cozy, the pursuit of everyday happiness.” Hygge is deeply ingrained in Danish culture and, Wiking says, “while it is practiced throughout the year, I think for the winter period it becomes almost a survival strategy.”

A recent poll shows that Danes associate hygge with hot drinks, candles, fireplaces, board games, music, holidays, cooking, books, Sundays and sweets. Hygge isn’t about things, but about feeling and mood. Spending a peaceful, relaxed evening with friends in front of a fireplace, drinking a cup of tea alone and reading in a cozy window seat while snow falls outside, or making a favorite recipe with family could all be hyggelig occasions. According to Wiking, Danes try to bring hygge to every area of their lives, including work.

While hygge might include a bit of indulgence in pastries or sweets (remember the 80/20 rule, following a diet that’s 80% healthy foods and 20% “want” foods), Danes keep fit with plenty of outdoor activity, including skiing and biking. In Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, nearly half of students and workers commute by bicycle. Several studies have shown that people who bike to work are happier and have a better life expectancy than those who drive. It’s important to remember to build exercise into your schedule during the winter months, both for fitness and your sense of well-being. Even 11 minutes of physical activity a day has health benefits.

Head out the Nor-way

In Norway, the similar concept of koselig (pronounced KOOSH-lee) is also all wrapped up in a sense of coziness. The two have a lot of similarities, including enjoying simple pleasures and things that make you feel cozy. But while hygge can be had at home and alone, koselig emphasizes togetherness and the great outdoors. Getting together with others to enjoy a walk in the woods or a thrilling ski adventure is not just koselig, but a great way to drive off the feelings of isolation that winter can bring. Positive thinking is essential to surviving harsh weather, so Norwegians don’t complain about the freezing cold (complaining about the weather is definitely not koselig), but rather find ways to enjoy it.

We can learn from the traditions of hygge and koselig and increase our happiness and resilience by taking time to connect with friends and family; enjoying down time, simple pleasures and exercise (indoors and out); and embracing winter as a time for celebration, joy, positive thinking and adventures. Also, remember that a daily dose of Vitamin G (gratitude) really helps to reduce stress and improve mood, so make it a habit to count your blessings first thing every morning.

About the author

Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk

Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk is vice president for health promotion, university chief wellness officer, dean and Helene Fuld Health Trust Professor of Evidence-based Practice in the College of Nursing, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry in the College of Medicine and executive director of the Helene Fuld Health Trust National Institute for Evidence-based Practice in Nursing and Healthcare.