Down to earth – How to be happy in January

(Originally published January 8, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life) 

I recently overheard a friend of mine describe January as thirty-one Mondays. That’s harsh, I thought, but kind of true. Even though I regularly remind myself how much I enjoy winter, in actuality I drudge through most of it pining for spring like it’s the next long weekend. I’m sure that’s natural for us gardeners. There’s little to do outside beyond keeping the bird feeders filled, and being stuck indoors can really feel like being stuck. That is, unless we make a concerted effort to enjoy the break and the quiet of snow days. Whether it’s snowy out or not. (As I write this, it is very snowy.)

Bitter cold January snow day

This year’s World Happiness Report names Denmark as the happiest country on Earth. There are a number of factors that contribute to a country’s collective happiness such as a terrific education system, decent politics, access to healthcare, and equitable wages. For Denmark though, a country with long, dark winters, a particular cultural practice must have pushed them to the top of the list. Hygge (pronounced hyoo´geh, more or less) doesn’t translate directly to English but can be generally—and inadequately—explained as coziness. Things like hot beverages (spiked or not; chocolate or not), wrapping up in blankets and reading on the couch with a dog on your feet, candlelight, rich, delicious food, and good company would all be described as hyggelig and would all be considered essential not just for getting through the dark days of winter but for thoroughly enjoying them.

It would also seem that the Danes don’t feel exiled indoors over the winter. They bundle up, get on their bikes (according to Denmark’s official website, 50% of Copenhagen’s residents commute by bike on over 400km of bike lanes), take dirty weather on the chin, and soak up every mid-day sunbeam. You probably already know I’m not one for making—or keeping—New Year’s resolutions and it’s highly unlikely that I’ll get on my bike again before spring, take up skiing, or visit Denmark anytime soon, but I’m inspired to practice hygge here and now, outside and in.

I wasn’t even thinking about hygge a few weeks ago when I took a hyggelig walk with friends around The Arnold Arboretum in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. There were no leaves left on the trees, the wind whipped over the hills, the low sun was blinding, and I was never so enchanted with a place. Even though spring and fall must be their busiest, most colorful seasons, winter is the perfect time to go. The Arnold happens to be the oldest public arboretum in the country and the age of some of the trees in their collection is especially evident as their gnarled trunks and branches are on naked display. And I could only imagine—it was easy to do—how magical their conifer collection would be under a layer of snow. Like Narnia. To plan your visit, go to

looking down into Logee's long houseAnd get thee to a greenhouse. Any place filled to the gills with green growing things will be full of hygge too. Some of my favorite local retail greenhouses close for a winter’s nap after the New Year so I use that excuse to make an annual pilgrimage to Logee’s out in Danielson, CT. Their oldest greenhouses and biggest biggest-lemon tree (Ponderosa lemons weigh up to 5lbs each) are well over 100 years old. The dirt-floor aisles are narrow as a jungle and the benches are a tropical vacation of tiny rooted cuttings. I have thoroughly enjoyed rainy day visits—the “long house” is always toasty—but a sunny day will warm you to the core. Just try to leave without a handful of paradise for your windowsills. And feel how much happier you are when you inject some cozy weekend-like moments into this month of Mondays.

What do you do to enjoy January – and/or polar vortices?