These 4 Danish words might help you better navigate life

Psychology professor Marie Helweg-Larsen shares how Danish words can help reframe stressful moments, create community, and prioritize intimacy.

It's time to add the words pyt, overskud, hygge and samfundssind to your vocabulary

This is a hygge scene, according to Denmark's current ambassador to Canada, in 2020. Hygge is one of several Danish words discussed by Marie Helweg-Larsen that can help encourage better living. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Words are powerful forces that can either deflate us or prop us up. 

But the English language can sometimes come up short when it comes to finding that perfect word that encompasses what we're feeling — or what we wish to feel. 

That's where the Danish language can come in handy. 

"Danes are among the most happy people in the world," Marie Helweg-Larsen told Tapestry

"I don't know that those words preceded the happiness, or whether Danes have words for things that we all know that we need to do, but maybe need to be reminded of doing."

Helweg-Larsen is a professor of psychology at Dickinson College and originally from Denmark. She shared how four Danish words can help us settle stress, set boundaries, and tune into shared moments.

Here is part of her conversation with Tapestry host Mary Hynes. 

How do you think it is that certain words can act as a kind of life raft for people? What's the power in thinking about these words, or in using them? 

I think that we often know that we ought to do things and we forget. And having a word that prompts us, can help us just get back on track. So for example, we probably all know we ought to let things go, let go of daily hassles. Say, "Oh, well" to daily frustrations. The Danes actually have a word for it: pyt. And that word is just a reminder to let go of something. 

So it's not that the idea is foreign, to most people — that we ought to let go of small frustrations — but having this word can just remind us.

I've been getting the impression that pyt might be a kind of antidote to perfectionism. Do you see it being used that way?

One purpose is definitely that if you are aiming at perfection, daily frustrations can feel like you are not doing the right thing — or things are not going well in a vague way. So this can be particularly useful for children who also get very frustrated, just like adults do, about minor problems or issues. "I didn't have my favourite pencil," or "I didn't win the game," or "They didn't invite me to the party." And in these cases, adults can also guide children and themselves to say, "Well, just let's just say pyt." Let's let it go. Let's not worry about it. Let's reset. 

In Denmark, some of the schools actually use a pyt button. They sometimes just put up a button that's a piece of paper, or a bottle cap on the wall, and they call it the pyt button. And the children, when they get frustrated — in minor frustrations, obviously, you wouldn't use the pyt button for major problems — the teacher says, "Well, just go and press the pyt button and let it go."

If Danish is not a language I'm familiar with, would there be some value in my learning what this word means and then just sort of saying it over and over again? 

I think that saying it is a good start, but you also have to mean it. You have to actually embrace the idea that you ought to let it go. And that's ultimately where the word is just a reminder of the action. So if you're stuck in traffic and you get unreasonably frustrated — and this happens to me all the time, even when I'm not late for anything — it feels very personal somehow that this person is blocking my way. So in this case it's not so much about perfectionism, but just the frustration that you ought to let go. So saying pyt would be a good start, but I actually have to mean pyt. I actually have to actually let it go. 

Saying the word is a good start, but I think the key is to reframe, maybe? So stop and say, "Is this actually a problem? Am I actually late for anything? Am I going to be frustrated by this in two hours or two days or in two months?" And probably the answer to all of those is no.

Smiling woman with short blonde hair wearing white and blue striped collared shirt.
Marie Helweg-Larsen is a professor of psychology at Dickinson College and originally from Denmark. (Frederik Helweg-Larsen)

Is there a word or a phrase or a state of mind you would encourage in yourself to try not to take things so personally?

One way that we can, this is actually coming from social psychological research rather than a Danish word, is that social psychologists study something that's called attributions. And attribution is the causal explanation that you get for events. In the case of the driving, it feels personal, even though we understand logically that that is probably, or most likely, not the case. But blaming the driver, or thinking that he is a poor driver, or worse, actually makes you more frustrated and more angry. 

Channeling pyt is to think about, what are the external drivers of the delay? So maybe the driver is sick, or has a toddler [in] the backseat. So making external, rather than internal, attributions for other people's behaviour, actually does reduce stress. 

Let's dip into the Danish dictionary again. Tell me about overskud.

I love this word. This is one of my favourite words. In everyday speech, it's used to refer to having energy or willingness or resources to tackle a task or a problem. So it might be having extra bandwidth, you might say in English. I think a lot of English speakers [say],"I don't have time," when they really mean "I don't have overskud." 

Overskud means that you have the energy to do something extra. So it's considered a good thing and Danish culture. We want to have overskud. Your employer probably wants you to have overskud. Your kids do. Your partner does. Your friends do. And we celebrate when people feel that they have overskud

And how can the idea of overskud help people establish boundaries?

We have often been told that the way to manage our wellbeing is to say no, but it can feel kind of harsh to say no. And saying that you don't have overskud is a way to say "No, but." So "I would love to but I can't."

Now a Dane of course, just like anyone, ought to follow that up by saying, "Well, I can't meet for coffee today, I just don't have overskud, but I would like to meet next week instead." So it's always good, because interpersonal relationships are good, to reschedule or in some other ways support the idea of it. Maybe you can't go to dinner, [but] maybe you can go to coffee. Maybe you can't plan the party, but you can attend the party. So some other way of signalling to people that you would like to do it, but you just can't do it. 

There's another word I'd like to ask you about — and you wrote about this one a fair bit earlier in the pandemic. What is samfundssind?

This word popped up, actually introduced by the Danish prime minister during the pandemic, and it had been kind of dormant in Danish language until she reintroduced it. And it means community spirit. So samfund means society, and sind means spirit. And it popped up during the pandemic because the prime minister said this is a time to all pull together. So what's interesting is that volunteering can be a way to have samfundssind, if you're volunteering contributes positively to communities. 

There is a Danish word we may have heard too much at this point: this is the famous hygge. But I was curious about something you've said. It doesn't really mean cozy the way all those design blogs have been insisting. What is hygge in your mind?

It's a cultural construct. So I think the other words we have talked about are really just words that can remind you to do good things, or set boundaries around your wellbeing. Whereas hygge is really integrated into Danish culture, and it's used in many different contexts.

So the idea is that you create a safe, balanced and harmonious shared experience through the efforts that you put into relationships. When people say cozy, they think it has something to do [with], often, things you need to buy. So it seems like you have to buy something to have hygge, which is actually exactly not true. 

What I'm saying is that this intentional intimacy that is surrounding the idea of hygge is the situation you create. You create an intentional, intimate situation by doing lots of things. You can dim the light, that's actually associated in research with wellbeing. You can turn towards each other. You can turn off the hygge-crushing mobile device in your pocket, and put it away. Not just physically but also in your mind. So you are creating an intimacy in that situation with the person you're with, you're turning towards them, and engaging with them in that moment. 

Interview produced by Mary Hynes and McKenna Hadley-Burke. Written by McKenna Hadley-Burke. Q&A edited for length and clarity.