Hygge and Happiness: Social Justice and the Danes


As I am sure most are aware from the flooded bookshelves of your local bookshop, ‘Hygge’ is the newest phenomena replacing the cold empty space where ‘mindfulness’ once sat. Hygge is a Danish concept meaning ‘cosiness’ and it is about (from what we are told) enjoying the ‘little’ things in life like a warm cup of tea indoors on a cold winters night, or putting phones away and enjoying a conversation with friends.

The very first article that I read on Hygge posed the question ‘Perhaps Hygge explains why the Danes are the happiest people in the world?’ and to be frank, this is where I’d had enough.

At what point do we stop trying to commercialise happiness and well-being as something we can buy in book form for €14.99 in our local shop? Instead, why not take a look at the wider context of the world around us?!

Before I continue, I must flag a BIG WARNING – I am passionate about well-being and mental health. I practice mindfulness and have done for a year now, and I bought my sister a book on Hygge upon her return from Erasmus in Denmark. I believe in reading in general as a tool to find out ways to mind your own mental health, and in the simplest sense reading makes me happy.

This is not a blog to bash books, Hygge or any other well-being concepts. If we are to take the concept of mindfulness, for example, my dismay comes when we are SOLD the idea that when things hit the fan, we need to grab the newest book, practice for a minute, buy another, then things will be alright. Mindfulness practitioners would tell you that it takes practice daily, through good times and bad, for it to influence your life. Mindfulness means caring for others and yourself, and a philosophy for life comes with it. It is for everyone and can be practiced by everyone for free, not those who were lucky enough to get a book token for Christmas.

It is along this path that I fear Hygge is following. Is the idea that Hygge is the reason the Danes are the happiest nation reasonable? Taking a social justice perspective the answer is a resounding NO! Let’s zoom out and examine some other elements of Danish society that may explain their high levels of well-being, starting with this video that warms the soul (seriously), and then some other stand out elements of their society.


The Danes have high tax rates; in fact, they pay almost half of their wages in personal income tax. HOWEVER this level of taxation is wrapped in the idea of the common good and tax is largely viewed a contribution to a better society for all. For example, tax revenue is used to provide public cycle lanes, transport infrastructure, free cultural activities and excellent recreational facilities.  Furthermore, corporate tax in Denmark is 22%, compared to a measly 12.5% in Ireland for example. Without an in-depth analysis from a taxation expert, what this says to me in the simplest sense is that the Danes believe in fair tax, and that everyone must contribute for the common good. As we know, connecting with our fellow human beings and contributing to a better society for all has a positive effect on well-being. 


“The basic principle of the Danish welfare system, often referred to as the Scandinavian welfare model, is that all citizens have equal rights to social security. Within the Danish welfare system, a number of services are available to citizens, free of charge. This means that for instance the Danish health and educational systems are free” (Official website of Denmark) Imagine not having to worry if you can pay for your sick parent to get treatment, or wonder if you can afford to send your child to school? Don’t you think that social security would result in a happier society?

Work life balance

According to OECD, Denmark has a high level of work-life balance. On average people spend comparatively more time on personal care than other OECD countries. Denmark also has ‘Flex jobs’ to accommodate those who might need shorter working hours. Under these agreements employers pay their workers based on the effective work done.

Imagine you are a new father who wants to continue working because it is good for your personal well-being, but you are unsure of how much time you can commit as you want to raise your child. Flex jobs seems like a reasonable solution to this problem, allowing you to balance your work and personal life. I don’t think it takes much of a stretch on the imagination to see what kind of positive impact that this would have on well-being – on the individual and the family as a whole.

There are many more elements of Danish socio-economic system that I could discuss in relation to well-being (for example Denmark is fourth in the world with regards to gender equality) but the main sense of the argument is there – Hygge, a concept that while it might be fantastic when achieved authentically, CANNOT be commercialised and sold for a huge profit and still deliver societal happiness.

This blog is not an attempt to parade Denmark as some benchmark for which we should all aim. It is certainly worth noting that the Danes too have their own problems like decreased trust in their politicians, question marks over integration of foreigners , and their treatment of refugees (however, this point is also contested. See here).

Instead, I am trying to fight back against the idea of the need to spend or consume to acquire a tiny sliver of ‘happiness’ while ignoring the social justice issues that prevail in our society. Outside of Denmark, Hygge is this month’s idea, and who knows what will be coming next, but instead of trying to buy our way to happiness, lets instead take time to learn from each other to improve our society for the better.