Early last week, I was surprised by a sight in my backyard. Robins, a couple dozen of them, were flitting about in an ornamental fruit tree.
At first I thought my eyes were playing a trick on me or that I was misidentifying them. With several inches of snow on the ground, surely there couldn’t be a flock of robins, the quintessence of spring!
It was a hectic day, but I stopped what I was doing and sat on a chair in my screened-in porch. The air was crisp, and the neighborhood was quiet aside from the birds’ chirping. I watched the robins hopping from berry to berry on the tree, flitting down to the snowy ground to feast on fallen fruit.
A few bright red cardinals punctuated the gathering of birds. A squirrel was perched high in the tree.
A small hawk swooped into the yard and was greeted by my dog, so it continued its arc of flight and landed high in a nearby tree. It was probably on its way to harvest one of the songbirds. I know that happens, but I didn’t want to watch it, so I was grateful to my dog for being a sentry.
The presence of the hawk caused the birds to disperse, but I took pleasure in the moments that I was able to enjoy the natural wonders in my own yard. It cost me nothing except the energy to intentionally focus on beauty for a while.
I went back to my work with a renewed spirit.
There’s a word in Danish for this type of moment. The word, which I’ve learned in just the past couple years, is hygge.
Hygge is not an easy word for non-Danish speakers to pronounce. It sounds sort of like HYU-gah.
The word is even more challenging to translate, as it has no English synonym. Basically, though, it’s a concept of being kind to oneself and of taking joy in small things: curling up on the couch with a good book, bird watching, a great cup of coffee, a beautiful melody, a warm sweatshirt right out of the dryer, dinner with good friends.
I have a Danish friend on Facebook named Dan "Ole" Faaborg. We met online because his last name is the same as my maiden name, and it’s fairly rare, although he and I are not related. Faaborg described hygge to me as "slow food, slow conversation, relaxed taking in nature’s charms."
Faaborg is lecturing on intercultural competence this week at the University College of Northern Denmark. "Hygge is part of this," he said.
I like to think of hygge as a directed and deliberate attitude of gratitude.
And it’s an attitude that could account, at least in part, for Denmark being the happiest country in the world. The United Nations ranked Denmark as No. 1 in its "World Happiness Report" in 2012 and 2013. (Yes, that’s an actual report.) And the European Commission’s well-being and happiness index has listed Denmark first for 40 years in a row.
Danes have plenty of reasons to be happy. Denmark’s citizens enjoy easy access to health care and higher education. They have low crime, high gender equality and relatively clean air. They also get at least five weeks of paid vacation per year.
On the other hand, only about one-third of American’s consider themselves to be "very happy," according to a 2013 Harris Poll. Perhaps we would benefit from more hygge.
Although I’ve never been to Denmark, I consider myself to be a "very happy" person.
My ancestry is 75 percent Danish; my Dad is 100 percent Dane and my Mom is half.
As we grew up, my brothers and I were introduced to many Danish traditions, foods and phrases.
Most of the foods are delicious. There’s frikadeller (meatballs), pebernødder (tiny spice cookies), kransekage (pastry rings filled with almond paste), ableskiver (ball-shaped pancakes), spritz (butter cookies), just to name a few.
Most of the phrases we learned are ways of welcoming or thanking people. Velkommen (welcome), velbekomme (bon appetit), værsgo, (help yourself), tak (thank you), mange tak (many thanks), tusind tak (a thousand thanks), tak skal de have (thank you very much), tak for kaffe (thanks for coffee), tak for mad (thanks for the food).
My parents didn’t teach us the word hygge. But judging by all the ways they taught us to say thank you, perhaps they taught us the practice of it.