Happiness expert Meik Wiking on the art of making memories
Cast your mind back to 2016 and you may remember one particular buzzword that dominated the cultural zeitgeist - hygge (pronounced 'hoo-guh') -the cosy Danish lifestyle concept that became a worldwide phenomenon, synonymous with slipping on cashmere pyjamas, lighting scented candles and bundling up in blankets on the sofa.
If you bought into the concept, which involved consciously taking pleasure in everyday rituals with friends and family, you probably have. Meik Wiking to thank for the trend. The 41-year-old Danish happiness researcher penned the international bestseller The Little Book of Hygge, which proved an unexpected publishing sensation when it was released that year. To date, Wiking's books have sold over a million copies worldwide.
"What we described [in the book] was something universal," says Wiking, looking back on its success. "Hygge is something that happens in the UK, in South Korea and in the US. I think we gave people a word to describe something they were already experiencing, to help them to appreciate it in new ways."
Although we think of happiness as a fairly individual topic, it may not be as subjective as it sounds. Denmark consistently tops the global index for the happiest country in the world, and Wiking - who set up theworld's first Happiness Research Institute - grounded the book in scientific research.
"I think there's an increasing focus on Nordic countries - in those countries that are creating good conditions for people to have happy lives," says Wiking, who is fascinated by the pursuit of happiness and what we can learn from those who've found it.
He set up the Happiness Research Institute after working for a sustainability think tank in Copenhagen for seven years, noticing that the subject of living well was gaining interest. "I saw how much was happening with happiness globally in terms of research," he says. "The UN had just passed a resolution on happiness to start to measure wellbeing and quality of life.
"I thought to myself, 'Someone from Denmark should create a knowledge centre and try to look at happiness from a scientific perspective, and find out why we consistently come top in the happiness rankings'." This was in 2012, just after the financial crisis, so setting it up was quite risky, Wiking says - but his mother died when she was only 49 and he'd just lost a friend at the same age. "I started to think, 'What if I only live for another 15 years? What would you like to spend those years doing?'," he explains.
Seven years on, Wiking has a new book and fresh focus - The Art Of Making Memories: How To Create And Remember Happy Moments. The book uses data and diaries, interviews, global surveys and studies to find out how we can hack and create happy, life-defining moments. Wiking says: "I started thinking about what I can remember about the first half of my life; the happiest moments from those 40 years. A lot of us think that memories are random and coincidental, but there's actually a lot we can do to influence what we remember.
"I wanted to become a memory architect and be better at creating moments I want to look back on when I'm older." In the book, Wiking outlines six non-negotiable ingredients for a happy memory. "We looked at more than 1,000 happy memories collected from more than 75 different countries, and I was surprised to see how many common denominators there are across different cultures," he says.
The big moments, such as weddings and a child's first steps, made an appearance, but so did stories about loving grandparents, hiking, and eating freshly baked chocolate cookies.
"We can see that new experiences, for example, or extraordinary days are more likely to stick to memories. Of the memories we collected, 23% were new experiences, like going to a new place for the first time or
starting up a new hobby." Wiking says that over the summer, in a bid to hack his own recall, he tried eating ants for the first time. "It was quite a memorable dinner," he says, laughing, "and probably the last time I will eat ants. I think that's what I want to encourage people to do though - try out new experiences." It's particularly useful advice if you're middle-aged or over, Wiking believes. "In many studies, researchers found something called the 'Reminiscent Effect'. At The Happiness Institute, we asked people between the ages of 80-100-years old to tell us about their life narrative. What we saw was that a large bump of the memories were from the ages from 15-30.
"A reason why we have a lot of memories from that period, in contrast to later in life, is that we live through a lot of 'first' experiences in those years," he notes. "We move out, get our first apartment, fall in love with our first partner. New experiences when you're my age are a lot harder to come by. That's one of the reasons why people feel like time is speeding up as we get older. It definitely takes a lot more effort later in life to design those memories."
So what are some of Wiking's own happiest memories? "They're pretty similar to what we found in the study - that often it's the small things in life that turn out to be the most memorable. Sharing a meal with loved ones or spear fishing on an island called Bornholm. The combination of the warm rocks and the cool water on the island really stuck with me."
He believes connecting with nature, others or ourselves is very powerful. "In our research, we've found that people are happy when three perspectives merge: They see themselves for who they are, who they want to become and how others see themselves. “When we become who we want to be and others see us for who we really are, that's when we are happiest."
If you fancy hacking your own memories, Wiking's book and its extensive research is a good place to start. There are plenty of good tips, like curating something called 'the happy 100'. "If you take a lot of photos on your devices, you probably have thousands of them that you never scroll through, but when I was a kid I used to have family photo albums. Once a year, you should gather family or friends and curate the 100 happiest moments, print the pictures and put them into a photo album."
Memory, Wiking says, is like a muscle, and it has to be exercised frequently to stay in shape. "When people use stories and anecdotes, that's when those memories are kept alive. "It's always great to outsource the memories to a souvenir, like a shell from a beach trip that will help to trigger the memories," Wiking adds.
"I'm not trying to be the arch enemy of Marie Kondo, but perhaps we've gone a little bit too far with throwing away our things."