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Wellness around the world

Global wellness traditions: What you can learn

Fireplace, man and woman sitting around it

Have you heard about hygge? The Danish concept roughly translates as ‘cosiness’, but many other countries have also developed practices meant to instil happiness and promote strong social bonds, so it’s worth learning about those too. Read on for our highlights.

Happiness is increasingly seen as an important measure of wellbeing. The first World Happiness Report was prepared for the United Nations in 2012. Now produced annually, it explains happiness levels in terms of factors like GDP per capita, social support, life expectancy and generosity. While many of these factors are partly or wholly beyond our control, the lifestyle choices we make influence our wellbeing, too.

Denmark: Hygge

There’s no direct English translation for hygge (pronounced ‘hoo-guh’). The Oxford English Dictionary definition is: “A quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.” Its roots lie in the 16th-century Norwegian word, hugga, which is related to the English ‘hug’. This lexical connection is no surprise: to hygge is, in a sense, to give yourself a cuddle.

At the core of hygge is the pleasure to be found in everyday moments and time spent with loved ones. In her bestselling The Book of Hygge, Louisa Thomsen Brits says hygge is “as simple as a candle, lit and placed on a windowsill to welcome someone home. It is both an inner and outer condition of simplicity; a clarity of presence and intention, and an honest, uncomplicated practice.”

This attention to the present moment and sensory experience means hygge resembles mindfulness. Whether the idea of hygge appeals to you or not, it’s worth noting that mindfulness techniques have been linked to improved mental health1.

Sweden: Lagom

Often hailed in the media as the successor to hygge, Swedish lagom is underpinned by a belief in equality, and centres on the idea of ‘just enough’. Like hygge, the aim is contentment, but here the means are frugality and modesty, in everything from conversation to consumption. Lagom isn’t beloved by all Swedes, particularly the younger generation and those who feel that it limits self-expression. However, an ethos that encourages us to be more satisfied with what we have could also mean good things for our wellbeing.

Another Swedish custom is fika: a convivial coffee break taken with colleagues, family or friends. While you might not always want to include the cakes that traditionally accompany the caffeine, regular fikas could help you relax, refuel and connect with others.

Japan: The KonMari Method

‘Less is more’ is the philosophy that’s core to the decluttering craze sparked by Marie Kondo’s bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Her method, based on Japanese aesthetic principles of Zen and dubbed “the ruthless war on stuff” by The New York Times, is based on the idea that all possessions should “spark joy”, propelling their owners forward rather than holding them in the past.

Whether the thought of purging your belongings fills you with delight or dread, a tidier approach to life can help us to reduce stress, conserve mental energy and feel more in control2. If you’ve ever felt oppressed by your belongings or hankered for a pared-down lifestyle, the KonMari method could be for you.

“Whether the thought of purging your belongings fills you with delight or dread, a tidier approach to life can help us to reduce stress, conserve mental energy and feel more in control.”

Woman and child walking in a forest

Spain: Siesta and sobremesa

Originally designed to let agricultural workers escape the hottest part of the day, the afternoon nap or siesta is no longer universally observed, but we could all learn something from the concept.

Nasa found that 26-minute power naps improved the performance of astronauts3. Google and Huffington Post are among the companies that provide nap rooms for staff. According to sleep guru Nick Littlehales, just closing your eyes and disconnecting from the world can give you a boost4. If you find daytime snoozing difficult, or your employer is yet to embrace the sleep-pod trend, taking mini breaks could serve you well.

Sobremesa (also Spanish) is similar to the Swedish fika. It’s a post-meal interlude for chatting, relaxing and digesting your food. Like fika, it’s all about slowing down and cherishing the social value of shared meals and drinks.

Japan: Forest bathing

Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, was introduced by the Japanese government in 1982 as a means of boosting public health. No water is involved; the aim is simply to sit, wander and relax among trees. For another meditative bathing experience, you could also try a Tibetan Gong Bath.

It is thought that essential oils emitted by trees strengthen our immunity when we inhale them. A study by Nippon Medical School in Tokyo found that after a weekend in the forest, subjects had month-long increases in the activity of their natural killer cells, which act against viruses and tumours5. Further experiments have shown reductions in cortisol levels, blood pressure and pulse rate6.

Meanwhile, a study of 498 healthy volunteers found that time among trees reduced people’s depression and hostility scores while increasing liveliness scores. The authors concluded: “shinrin-yoku may be employed as a stress reduction method, and forest environments can be viewed as therapeutic landscapes”7. Forest therapies have also taken off in the US.

The Norwegians have a similar reverence for nature: friluftsliv (pronounced ‘fri-loofts-live’) is a philosophy meaning ‘free air life’. The concept, which is shared by the Swedes, refers to any activity that brings you into contact with the natural world. Whether it’s sleeping under the stars or strolling in a park, spending time in nature is a simple way to invest in your wellbeing.

Denmark, Norway and Sweden are among the world’s ten happiest countries, according to the 2016 World Happiness Report (Denmark has the top spot)8. While many factors are at play and we all have different opportunities and limitations, there’s much to be said for a measured, sociable lifestyle and a love of nature.

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Sources

1. NHS (http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/pages/mindfulness.aspx), last accessed in March 2017

2. Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/11/habits-of-organized-peopl_n_4921454.html), last accessed in March 2017

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6. US National Library of Medicine (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19568835), last accessed in March 2017

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