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The Up and Downsides of “Hygge” in Denmark

We arrived on a lovely but rainy evening, quickly rushing past the bicycles that rule the streets of Copenhagen. In Demark as a Marshall Memorial Fellow, my first meeting was at Danish Industries (DI), a large chamber of commerce group that lobbies for business and economic reforms in Denmark. From the building, a modern piece of Danish art against the historic city center, we were afforded a view of the downtown area, the water and–even on a rainy day–the bridge connecting Denmark to Sweden.

It was at dinner in this building that our group of fellows was first introduced to the idea of “Hygge”. The issues of Denmark were discussed including the changes in the welfare state, immigration, and the lack of entrepreneurship. These issues seemed, at the time, relatively standard based on our previous conversations in Europe and even typical of conversations in America. When probed about why things like entrepreneurship were a problem, however, the term Hygge (pronounce Whoga) was introduced. It means “cozy” or “coziness.”

The basic argument is that the very high level of benefits afforded to all regardless of income by the welfare state has made people too comfortable. All Danes, regardless of income, have access to free health care, free education through university, unemployment support and housing subsidies if they don’t own a home. These benefits provide a strong and broad safety net for people to have the basic necessities. In addition, the fully paid education system allows students to “find their passion” studying what they want and doing what might make them happy rather than focusing on finishing school to get a job. Yet many of the Danes I met were concerned that innovation, risk taking, and creative spirit were waning and that the Danish feel too comfortable or “hyggeligt.”

As an American with a city planning background, this was surprising as it seemed to me there is a lot of innovation going on. A hipster magnet, Copenhagen continues to invest in environmental projects and green energy, and works to reduce greenhouse emissions to make the city more hyggeligt for families. In fact, the city is growing at a rate of 1,000 people per month through both immigration and migration to the city center. Danes do not seem to consider this innovation, however, but instead just part of the planning and infrastructure afforded to them by the high taxes collected and the desire to make a place for everyone to be able to have a good life. Very hyggeligt indeed.

The idea that the desire to be “cozy and happy” could be a deterrent to innovation was amazing to me. I am what I’ve termed an “accidental entrepreneur” because I didn’t find a job right away in my current city and didn’t have any social safety net. The Danes thought this was great. I had created a company and jobs all on my own. After 10 years of owning a business I was thinking the exact opposite: that with a safety net I would be even less risk adverse and more accepting of the possibility of failure. This, however, is likely too naive a way to look at things as entrepreneurs are driven by all sorts of motivations, regardless of social safety nets.

In fact, on my last day in Copenhagen, we went to the Prime Minister’s home in Marienborg for Sankt Hans evening. This is the national honoring of the lightest and longest evening of the year, celebrated with bonfires throughout the city. In her welcome, Prime Minister Thorning-Schmidt of the Social Democrats used the word or a derivative of “hygge” at least four times while mentioning how great it is that the Danes come together on this one evening, stay up through the night and welcome the longest day of the year together. Despite invoking hygge in the welcome, she did remind Danes that Denmark is a place for people to use their individual talents to build a stronger society, and that it is the individual’s responsibility to use the system to see those talents blossom. It seems that the push for individual initiative is coming to Denmark in a very hyggeligt way.

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