10 Little Words of Happiness … Hygge to Lykke, Fika and Lagom, Apprivoise to Ataraxia, Ikigai and Wabi Sabi, WuWei and Sisu

February 2, 2019


A couple of years ago, the world went crazy for “hygge”… that untranslatable word that became understood and loved around the world.

The Danish concept of simplicity, coziness, and wellbeing has been translated into a design style, self-care routines and visions of covetable winter escapes complete with a roaring fire, wool blankets, and snow gently falling outside.

And then when Denmark became the world’s happiest country, people started to believe that higgle was more than a cute book of inspiration, and a way to sell infinitive Scandi lifestyle products.

And then other words started to emerge:


Lykke is the Danish word for happiness. It’s easy to see why the Danes are happier. Not only do they have equal parental leave for men and women, free higher education and trains that run on time, but they burn more candles per household than anywhere else.

No one needs to emigrate to achieve happiness! What we can do, however, is import happiness tips and tricks from other cultures that will help us become more satisfied with our lives.

In France, for instance, they have a wonderful culture around meals. It’s not just food that they value, it is the whole eating experience and, more specifically, how it encourages people to spend time and socialise with one another, and how that impacts on happiness. The extra time invested is about togetherness, not eating more – in fact, while the French spend twice as much time eating meals as people in the UK, they have lower obesity rates and a longer life expectancy.

Another tip I’ve picked up is from Bhutan, where the school day starts with a mindfulness exercise called ‘brain brushing’ that leads to better academic performance and higher levels of wellbeing. And in Denmark, most people (50 per cent, in fact) cycle to work –  so exercise is built into their daily routine.


Fika is often translated from Swedish as “a coffee and cake break”, which is kind of correct, but really it is much more than that. It is a concept, a state of mind, an attitude and an important part of Swedish culture. Many Swedes consider that it is almost essential to make time for fika every day. It means making time for friends and colleagues to share a cup of coffee (or tea) and a little something to eat.

Fika cannot be experienced at your desk by yourself. That would just be taking coffee and cake. Fika is a ritual. Even the mighty Volvo plant stops for fika. All Swedes consider it important to make time to stop and socialise: to take a pause. It refreshes the brain and strengthens relationships. And it makes good business sense: firms have better teams and are more productive where fika is institutionalised. Fika can be a verb. Swedes will say to each other, “Let’s go and fika!” or “You and I fika together so well”.

Exactly what you eat during fika is not really important. The food is incidental to the companionship, the socialising and catching up with friends and colleagues. But whatever food you choose for fika it should be fresh and well presented. Ideally it should be homemade. Many team leaders in Sweden consider it important to regularly bake something at home to take into work for fika.


Hot off the hygge trails, the Swedish word “lagom” is all about balance and the joy of a life of moderation. In essence, lagom means just the right amount. Enoughness. A particularly hard concept for the Type-A achievers out there.

Lagom can apply to work, of course, but also smartphone use, food, social media, virtually every aspect of life. Perhaps in striving for lagom, instead of striving for the most or the best, we can find a smidge of that elusive state we know as balance.


The simple translation from Greek: a state of serene calmness. More precisely, the term ataraxia comes from the Greek scientist and philosopher, Epicurus, and alludes to being free of unnecessary desires, or more literally, freedom from worry.

According to Epicurus’ philosophy, people should seek the absence of pain, not the pursuit of pleasure. The former results in peace of mind and tranquility while the latter ends up causing more dissatisfaction after a temporary lift.

In today’s world, we can seek ataraxia by spending more energy cultivating ideas, friendships with like-minded people, taking care of our health and becoming more aware of what emotions—positive or negative—cause pain and which bring happiness to our lives.


Apprivoise in French literally translates to English as “to tame” but that interpretation doesn’t tell the whole story. To tame something implies a certain submissiveness or domestication. However, apprivoise actually means to make ties with someone or something who was previously unknown in a sea of others. It’s the act of forming a bond, of creating links between one another.

By making something special to us, it becomes known and therefore ours. We become known to each other, endearing to each other, and begin loving each other through the forging of small moments of connection. In this world of building walls instead of bridges, we could all use a little more apprivoise in our lives.


The Japanese concept of ikigai centers around a life of meaning. When you’re “finding your ikigai” you’re searching for that sweet spot where your passion, profession, skills and what you can offer the world meet. In short: your purpose, or reason for being.

While Westerners might be quick to equate ikigai with work and career, it doesn’t have to be. In fact, having ikigai in retirement is said to have a positive impact on longevity and wellbeing in old age. It could be your family, hobby, art or anything you tend to or cultivate.

Wabi Sabi

In Japan, wabi sabi loosely translates to the acceptance of imperfection and transience, both as a design aesthetic and a lifestyle philosophy. Rooted in Zen Buddhism, wabi sabi isn’t easily translated, but its essence boils down to the wisdom of nature and simplicity combined with the beauty of age, flaws, and impermanence. At its core, it’s a feeling that guides us toward a more fulfilling and meaningful way of living based in authenticity.

Isn’t it welcoming to let go of the idea of youth, newness, and perfection and instead put value on the wisdom and beauty gained from maturity, hardships, resilience and the messiness of life?

Wu Wei

The ancient Chinese, or more precisely, the ancient Taoist principle of wu wei is essentially the art of non-action. Before you double up on your Netflix marathon sessions, wu wei isn’t about being lazy or turning a blind eye. It’s about letting go of struggle and effort to embrace ease and flow.

Wu wei relies on the understanding of nature, and how everything is done in its own way and in its own timing. That way, when we take action it’s strategic, aligned and in flow with the natural order of things. The idea is that when we do less, we preserve ourselves for action when necessary, leading to more precise and effective results. In other words: Get into alignment before taking action.


Sisu is a Finnish concept described as stoic determination, tenacity of purpose, grit, bravery, resilience, and hardiness and is held by Finns themselves to express their national character.

It is said to be a grim, gritty, white-knuckle form of courage that is presented typically in situations where success is against the odds. It expresses itself in taking action against the odds and displaying courage and resoluteness in the face of adversity, in other words, deciding on a course of action and then sticking to that decision, even despite repeated failures. It is in some ways similar to equanimity, with the addition of a grim kind of stress management.

“Gutsy” is a fairly close translation that uses the same metaphor (found in more languages than Finnish and English), as the word derives from sisus, which means “interior” and “entrails, guts”. A concept closely related to sisu is grit, which shares some of its denoting elements with sisu, save for “stress management” and passion for a long-term goal.

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