Happiness expert reveals what makes societies smile

Founder of the Happiness Research Institute, Meik Wiking, has spent the past five years delving into what makes societies smile, writes Deirdre Reynolds

Happiness expert reveals what makes societies smile

Founder of the Happiness Research Institute, Meik Wiking, has spent the past five years delving into what makes societies smile, writes Deirdre Reynolds

Perched comfortably on a couch in the sun-dappled loft of 4 Dame Lane in Dublin, Meik Wiking takes a sip from a glass of water that is distinctly half full.

As the founder of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, the Dane has spent the past five years delving into what makes societies all over the world smile.

If you’re reading on in the hopes of discovering the secret to turning that frown upside down for once and for all, however, he’s got bad news, for a change.

“I’m sorry to tell you, but I don’t think there is one big secret,” smiles the happiness expert, whose name is pronounced ‘Mike Viking’.

“There [are] a lot of factors that impact our wellbeing, but I think the best predictor of whether people are happy or not, globally, is unsurprisingly our relationships; so do we have somebody we can rely [on] in times of need, do we have somebody we connect with, who we feel we belong with, family and friends?

“That’s also what I see in the data, that we are first and foremost humans, and the same things that drive happiness in Copenhagen also drive it in Dublin.”

The Little Book of Hygge author jetted to the capital to help Carlsberg launch ‘The Danish Experiment’, a five-part web-series following four Irish celebrities, including street artist, Maser, and Kodaline bassist, Jay Boland, as they join forces with some of Denmark’s top creatives to explore the country’s famously laid-back way of life.

Pipped to the post by Nordic neighbours Finland and Norway, Denmark was this year named the third happiest nation on earth in the World Happiness Report, released annually by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Sandwiched between slightly more upbeat Costa Ricans and marginally more miserable Germans, meanwhile, Irish people were found to be the 14th happiest people on the planet by the research, which ranks 156 countries across six factors including GDP, life expectancy and freedom.

“[Ireland is] usually in the top 20, and there’s 156 countries in the World Happiness Report, so I think you’re doing quite well,” says Wiking, whose bestselling books have been translated into more than 30 languages.

I think what characterises Denmark to some extent also characterises Ireland, in terms of a focus on togetherness, a focus on families, a focus on a decent work/life balance; those are some of the things that Denmark [does] well in in the happiness ratings, and I think that also pushes Ireland up the list.

“Also I think because we’re both small countries, there’s a modesty, but also a sort of international perspective, that we’re sort of outward-looking and open to seeing inspiration from elsewhere.

“I think the pace of life, the atmosphere, both in Copenhagen and Dublin is similar; we focus on ‘hygge’, you focus on ‘the craic’, but I think there’s a lot of similarities between those two.”

From knocking off work on time to cuddling up at home with a hot chocolate, his 2016 guide to happiness famously sparked a global phenomenon, not to mention an ongoing debate over how to pronounce the self-care practice (it’s ‘hue-gah’, he repeats).

So was the former civil servant with the Danish ministry for foreign affairs surprised at the number of people suddenly getting hygge with it?

“A little bit,” he admits, “but I think the reason why it took off was we described something that people were already doing and essentially gave it a label.

Hygge happens everywhere— it happens in Dublin, it happens in New York, it happens around the world, but Danes have a word that describes that situation, and I think people just felt that.

Studies show how happy people have stronger immune systems, healthier hearts, suffer less stress and even live longer than their malcontented counterparts.

In a world of LOLs and smiley faces though, how do we know if we’re truly happy?

“I think we recognise it when we feel it,” answers Wiking. “Happiness can both be sort of looking at my life, and feeling happy with my life overall, but it can also be how happy I feel right now — what sort of emotions do we feel on a daily basis.

“[For example], people who have a shorter commute to work are happier, so yes you are born more or less happy, but also the choices you make on a daily basis impacts your happiness.

“There’s a lot of factors that impact happiness, but we see people in all sorts of circumstances achieve happiness,” he adds, “but, of course, in some circumstances it’s easier than in others.

“I think that’s a global thing that the way we’ve been measuring progress in terms of GDP is perhaps not the only or the best way to do it, but I see more and more governments now focusing on measures of progress that include wellbeing and quality of life as a measure of progress, and not just focusing on standard of living.

Every nation has challenges; my objective in my work is to understand how can we create good conditions for good lives, and one of the things seems to be to create good conditions for people to connect with one another, and I think all countries could focus more on that.

After one study by the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health established a link between social media use and increased rates of anxiety and depression among 19-24 year-olds, temporarily unplugging from Facebook and Instagram is one way to get appy, and avoid “compare and despair” syndrome, says the happiness guru.

“We’ve done studies on the impact of social media on happiness and [it] seems to have a negative effect in part because, as you describe, we compare ourselves to other people,” he agrees, “and usually social media is this channel where we only show the good sides [of] our lives.

“But I think it’s also interesting to see schools and families looking at new ways of embracing technology and saying, ‘OK, between 6pm and 8pm, it’s no phone time for the entire family and we actually sit down and have a meal together as a family’.

“We see more and more families in Denmark doing that; we also see boarding schools saying to kids, ‘You can have your phones one hour a day, but for [the other] 23 hours, you connect with the people you are among’, so I think we are becoming better at using the new technology.

“There is good evidence on the positive impact of journaling in part because, especially if you do gratitude journals, you focus more on the positive things that do happen in your life, where we have perhaps a tendency to focus on the negative ones,” continues the author.

“I think it sort of rewires our brain to focus more on what we can be grateful for instead of what we don’t have, so there is evidence in that sense.”

As for Wiking himself, who is routinely described in interviews as “the happiest man on earth”, it’s the little things.

“I think the not-so-secret secret to happiness is connecting with other people,” he concludes. “I think I’m very ordinary — what I see in the data I also experience in my own life.

Bringing together some good friends over good food — I think that’s a very good recipe for happiness, whether you are Irish or whether you are Danish.

The Danish Experiment premieres on Facebook.com/CarlsbergIreland and @CarlsbergIreland on Instagram on Tuesday, June 12.

Living the Danish way 

1. Get on your bike 

Biking to and from work and social activities is not only fun, it will also get you out in the open and get your heart beating. It will give you a moment to think or simply take in the sounds of life around you.

2. Remember hygge 

In Denmark hygge is not just for special occasions. Hygge is something we do every day. Take time to simply exist and enjoy everyday moments.

3. Happiness is not expensive 

Happiness doesn’t have to cost money. Danes have decoupled money and happiness. We don’t have to go out to have a nice Friday night. We can just as well stay in with some friends and play board games.

4. Trust 

In Denmark we trust each other. And that makes life so much easier. Findings state that people are generally more trustworthy than we believe. So, give it a try and start trusting you neighbour with you house-key when you are away for a weekend next time.

5. Work-life balance 

Danes work hard and we work many hours — but we don’t forget to go home. We normally work 37 hours a week. We cherish time with friends and family and will not answer emails in the weekend or stay late to prove ambition.

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