Written by Zachary Cohen
Now that it’s February and the Winter doldrums have set in, millions are at risk of experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a mood disorder that recurs annually. It is thought that with less exposure to sunlight, the brain produces less Serotonin—the brain chemical that regulates mood—and Melatonin—which regulates both mood and sleep.
So how is that citizens of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark, who receive as little as four hours of sunlight a day during the Winter months, regularly rank as the happiest people on the planet?
In one word, it’s “Hygge.”
SAD is no laughing matter. The disorder brings with it such symptoms as lethargy, hypersomnia (an excessive need for sleep), overeating and weight gain. Perhaps most pernicious is the social withdrawal (hibernation), which reduces time spent with friends and family with the effect of raising stress hormones like Cortisol.
The Danes however, instead of treating Seasonal Affective Disorder with psychotherapy, antidepressants and light therapy as is common in the U.S., have developed customs and behaviors that embrace these Seasonal changes.
With a holistic focus on self-love, Hygge offers a behavioral and philosophical approach for keeping oneself happy, healthy and connected during long Winters. Instead of relying on time spent outdoors—36% of Danes bike to work everyday—Hygge asks us to create a warm and inviting home environment and focus on small, intentional acts of self-care.
Danes are big fans of the flicker of candlelight. Hygge even extends to the clothes we wear: think flannel socks, soft blankets and comfortable loungewear. Rugs, throws and pillows make those guests we do invite into our spaces feel relaxed, making conversation and connection more honest and organic.
But as one well known Dane famously illustrated, it’s not all about what happens externally; Hamlet was known for living inside his head. Hygge extends past the external. Practicing gratitude towards life’s simplest acts: the drawing of a bath, exploring a new craft and focusing on that stack of books on your nightstand rather that your Netflix queue, all have their place.
Though weight gain is a common effect of SAD, Hygge isn’t necessarily about eating healthy foods; but it is about indulging mindfully.
The consumption of coffee, cakes and meat skyrockets for Danes in the Winter, but simplifying the preparation and consumption is. Even nibbling on a well-crafted chocolate bar can be a thoughtful act once we learn to slow ourselves, and our environments, down.
The physical, emotional and social benefits of a Hygge lifestyle are profound and best of all they can’t be ordered off Amazon. Regulating health through seasonal changes is within everyone’s grasp. It doesn’t happen out there, it happens right here, with ourselves.
Just ask Hamlet.