Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - January 26, 2018

Embracing my Scandinavian side

Scandinavians seem to really know how to find comfort and happiness, even when it’s cold outside. Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland are consistently rated among the happiest countries on earth, according to the World Happiness Report by the United Nations.

Mom's father Nels emigrated from Sweden in 1909. Her mother Hulda was born in Iowa of Swedish parents, so she was 100 percent Swedish. In 2005, Mom, sister Gaila, Gaila’s girls and I decided to visit Sweden. We loved it. In 2013, husband Art, daughter Mariya and I visited Denmark and had the same reaction.

But in both cases, we were there in the summer. Don’t get me wrong, I love winter - except for the cold, long nights, slippery streets and having to dress up as if I’m preparing for a moon walk! Still, when I compare what we experience to the long winters Scandinavians face every year, I shouldn’t complain at all. Those nations typically have just a few hours of light each winter day and some areas have no sun at all!

So have these Scandinavians discovered some sort of secret they haven’t shared with the rest of us? Maybe - and what they have found is now being shared. A recent “Parade” magazine article, “A Warming Trend,” mentioned two recently-released books. One is “The Little Book of Lagom” (pronounced lah-gom). The other is “The Little Book of Lykke (pronounced loo-kah): Secrets of the World’s Happiest People.” The books contain inspirational quotes, recipes and tips for escaping from the winter doldrums. Lagom is a Swedish word meaning “just the right amount.” Lykke is Danish for “happiness.”

Those two words should be paired with another Danish term - hygge (pronounced hue-guh). According to hyggehouse.com, it is “a Danish word used when acknowledging a feeling as ... cozy, charming or special.”

In case this is all beginning to sound a bit too “touchy-feely,” scientists have studied this phenomenon and have described it as “cognitive ease.” Nobel-prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahnemann has described the brain as having two types of thinking. One type occurs when you do things you don’t have to consciously think about such as driving along a quiet country road on a nice day. The second is what people do while trying to balance their checkbooks. The first we do with minimal effort, while the second consumes measurable amounts of energy. We are in a state of cognitive ease when things are going along smoothly with no stress. Contented might be a good word to describe this state of mind.

Among items Scandinavians associate with hygge are a freshly-brewed cup of coffee, warm socks, candles in the window, a crackling fire and fuzzy blankets - in other words, things that send a message to our brain that all is right with the world and there are no problems to solve.

Meik Wiking, the author of the recently-released book about lykke and another best-seller, “The Little Book of Hygge,” is also the chief executive officer of a Copenhagen think tank called the Happiness Research Institute. Denmark is one of the happiest countries on earth for a variety of reasons: equal parental leave for men and women, free higher education and trains that run on time. Danes also burn more candles per household than anywhere else. But Wiking believes that, while we can learn a lot from his compatriots about finding fulfillment, the keys to happiness are found around the globe.

Over the holidays, I received two greetings from my Swedish relatives. The message from Lars-Gunnar, my second-cousin-once-removed, included:

Marita and I have finally moved to our new apartment in Östersund. It is very nice here on the shore of the big lake, Storsjön. The winter is very snowy as you see on the images from yesterday. As you see, mother is visiting us this week ... She is still going strong and has good health. She will be 90 this year. Yesterday Marita and I went skiing [with] a beautiful view.

During Christmas and the new year weekend we stayed in Bredbyn, in our "new" house in Ångermanland, just 50 km from Nyliden. We like the house very much. Mother compares the house (with old furniture) from the time when she was a little girl and visited her grandmother and grandfather (your grandfather’s brother) .... During winter we will go skiing as much as we can.

Third cousin Kersti wrote:

Nice to see about my "U.S. - family". I wish you that the new year would be continued well to all of you! Here is a huge mass of snow. This picture was taken this morning and after that it has been snowing a lot more.

It does seem my Swedish relatives enjoy their cold snowy winters. So maybe if we put lagom, lykke and hygge together, we might just have a recipe for happiness. I know looking at the pictures my Swedish relatives sent makes me want to put on my alpaca socks, my well-worn sweat pants and a comfy flannel shirt, wrap up in a blanket, and have a cup of coffee. And once settled on the couch, I will look at my LED candles between reading chapters of “Hygge: the Danish Art of Happiness” – the book I bought while we were in Wisconsin.

Top-left: this photo of Kersti's home in mid-Sweden shows an abundance of snow. The reddish hue of the snow is from the low angle of the sun; bottom-left: Lars-Gunnar, whose shadow can be seen at the lower left, sent this picture taken in northern Sweden; right: this snapshot was taken at our friend Jo's home in southwestern Wisconsin during our recent visit. It exudes contentedness with coffee at hand, a sweater and sweatshirt put to good use and a blanket in waiting, while Jo and Art chat. Deuce, the cat at the lower right, seems to be enjoying a little hygge of his own.

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