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The Map to Happiness: Hilary Term and The Atlas of Happiness

At the start of Hilary Term, I thought surely this won’t be too bad? The idea of spending the next eight weeks studying from home was hardly exciting, but lots of people had it much worse. Just stay organised and keep it in perspective I told myself, you’ve got this!

Cut to me four weeks later, sat in bed with an empty bottle of wine and the gloomy prospect of a hangover in the morning. A zoom call with friends had left me feeling flat and deflated – I was desperate to see them all in person, not just as blurry, pixelated faces on a screen. Perhaps, I thought, with the slowly dawning clarity only large amounts of alcohol can bring, I wasn’t handling lockdown 3.0 very well after all. 

I realised I had developed a strange sort of Stockholm syndrome. As the weeks dragged by, I had begun to think longingly of late night sessions in the library and what it would be like to be working at my desk in college. Up until that point, I had missed many things about Oxford but this was a new low. 

The only logical solution, I decided, was to try and distract myself – I would use this time to become an all round better person, and do all of the things I kept putting off. I would start exercising, maybe read some classics, become cultured and interesting. I might even learn how to do winged eyeliner. This was ambitious, particularly given my many failed past attempts at self-improvement. 

The most recent of these had been a short-lived effort to embrace the Danish idea of hygge. It might sound like an obscure martial art, or the noise you make when something gets stuck in your throat, but hygge is actually something far more comfortable. Described by Meik Wiking, the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute, as “a feeling of home”, hygge is the sense of cosiness and contentment that comes from simple things, like spending time with loved ones or curling up with a good book by the fire. 

It’s a concept that Danes apply to many different aspects of life, and over the summer I tried to do the same. I made more time for the things I enjoyed. I kept my room cosy, lit candles and went on long walks in the woods. I even tried meditating. But when university rolled around there were suddenly a hundred and one other things to do, and all thoughts of self-improvement quietly slipped away. 

This time, I was determined not to let that happen. I began by reading countless articles about personal growth and “maximising” your time in quarantine, and immediately felt guilty. It seemed like I should be emerging from lockdown as a master chef or a marathon runner, when in reality I was spending most of my time just trying to stay on top of my uni work. Looking back, that in itself was an achievement, but at the time I felt frustrated that I wasn’t doing more. Even when I read articles that questioned the culture of toxic productivity and the idea that we should all “make the most” of lockdown, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t achieving enough. 

Then, thankfully, I picked up The Atlas of Happiness by Helen Russell. It’s a book about all the weird and wonderful ways people around the world stay happy. Each chapter is dedicated to a different country and it’s customs, such as the Italian idea of “Dolce far niente” (the sweetness of doing nothing) or the Finnish practise of “Kalsarikännit” (getting drunk, alone, in your pants). I realised I slipped slowly into equating “productivity and achievement” with “happiness”, but in actual fact, there was so much more to it than that. As soon as I had finished the book, I wanted to give all these ideas a go. 

And now, with this column, I have the chance to do exactly that. Each week I’m going to be trying out a different “happiness habit” from around the world and writing about what happens. The aim is simple: to figure out the best ways to stay happy as a student. I’m not sure what to expect, but, hopefully, unlike hygge, this time some of it will stick. 

Artwork by Rachel Jung

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