Americans are an increasingly busy and stressed-out people. We work long hours and still struggle to make ends meet while worrying about the direction of our government and the safety of our families. Indeed, according to the United Nations, the United States now ranks 18 on the 2018 World Happiness Report by country; Finland is number one, followed by three other Nordic countries — Norway, Denmark, and Iceland. To combat perpetual fatigue and keep fear at bay, we download smartphone apps that remind us to drink water and meditate. We have also taken to importing concepts of happiness and comfort from other cultures as new self-improvement trends. The Danish term “hygge” took the United States by storm a couple of years ago, with its emphasis on a way of living made up of cozy moments with loved ones as a refuge from harsh winters. Hygge is a feeling — not a thing — that can be cultivated and enhanced with items like candles, soft blankets, and hot tea. From Finland — in case you were wondering what makes the Finnish so happy — we learn the idea of “kalsarikannit,” which describes drinking wine in your underwear while having no intention of leaving the house. From Japan comes “ikigai,” a word that describes joy as made up of five pillars: starting small; releasing yourself; harmony and sustainability; the pleasure of small things; and being in the present moment.
Certainly, anyone’s ideas of coziness or purpose might align with hygge, ikigai, or kalsarikannit. Case in point: I love tea, and there are three blankets on my couch at any given time regardless of the weather outside. But thinking about these ideas from other parts of the world made me wonder whether we Americans have our own unique national conception of everyday pleasure.
The United States might be too large and culturally diverse for a single definition of daily happiness. Santa Fe, however, is small enough that there must be something we embrace as a populace, something that connects us whether or not we have collectively identified or acknowledged it. To find out what it might be, I approached dozens of strangers and asked how they achieve moments of respite, solace, or joy in their everyday lives. I visited the Plaza and small businesses around town, where I talked to locals, tourists, and employees. What I found in general is that Santa Feans like to be outside, they like to exercise, and they like to exercise outside. Spending time with family, gardening and keeping houseplants, and having pets — especially dogs — were all described as soothing, nurturing choices. A few people mentioned the importance of laughing often; many more said they meditate daily. No one mentioned alcohol, money, or sleep.
In an effort to boost my well-being at the beginning of allergy season, I went to the Santa Fe Oxygen and Healing Bar on San Francisco Street for a Santa Fe- style wellness experience. I sat in a zero-gravity chair, which positioned my feet above my heart. A tube attached to my nose fed me oxygen dosed with a few drops of essential oils for about 20 minutes. While I relaxed, I chatted with Noah Kass about the business. He owns the place with his sisters, Miriam and Mya, and their mother, Kadimah Levanah, a master healer. The Oxygen and Healing Bar (and the Apothecary, the sister store across the street) offers a holistic healing experience for walk-in clients seeking a massage, spiritual counseling, or an herbal boost for a specific health concern. Sometimes their customers are just tourists in need of a break from sightseeing and looking for an alternative to coffee or cocktails. I felt so calm — yet energized — after I left there that I surprised my dog with an impromptu evening walk to the park.
At the end of another busy day, I went to Kakawa Chocolate House on Paseo de Peralta, which epitomizes a sort of Santa Fe-style hygge, assuming there is such a thing, with its look and feel of a storybook adobe gingerbread house. I downed a cup of spicy hot chocolate, which always makes me feel at ease. (I like to think it’s the magnesium, but maybe it just tastes good.) The owner, Tony Bennett, often works the counter because he finds happiness in bantering with staff and customers. “People come in here looking for a lift, the same as going to a bar,” he said. “You can hear people after they drink their elixirs — their voices get louder because they get energized.” Many people I talked to at Kakawa found respite and joy in the act of sipping hot chocolate while chatting with friends — so they were in the right place. One woman said that if money were no object, she’d go shoe shopping, but otherwise, she finds solace by surrounding herself with joyful people.
The more I spoke to strangers about happiness, the lighter I began to feel. I was delighted by how often people had answers at the ready and comforted by how few found my inquiries intrusive or silly. Some answers bordered on hygge — as when a teenage girl equated happiness with piñon and cedar chimney smoke in winter — and some answers filled me with gratitude for whatever advantages life has handed me. An elderly artist named Sergio Moyano told me that he used to be a “crazy guy,” but that he thinks he’s a better person now. “At the end of the day, if I haven’t harmed anyone, and I’ve been a good man, and I’m painting and making my art, then I’m happy,” he said.
I was surprised more people didn’t mention travel as a source of respite, but the subject only came up with tourists — all of whom were thrilled to be in the City Different. It was through their eyes that I began to see what Santa Fe’s defining happiness qualities might be. A man from Long Island, who was making his third visit to Santa Fe, said that as soon as he can see the surface of the land change from the airplane, he breathes a sigh of relief. “The dry air and the mountains,” he said. “Everything just feels better here.” His wife said that unlike in New York, the museums here are quiet enough to peacefully enjoy the artwork.
It was two women who used to work in Washington, D.C., who really put things in perspective for me. Over lunch at the glass-walled, plant-filled Opuntia Café on Shoofly Street — where I sipped buttery-tasting green tea brewed to a perfect temperature, and fortified myself with a wholesome bowl of chicken and quinoa — they told me that in Santa Fe, no one cares if you are different. “In D.C., if someone asks what you do, they mean, ‘What can you do for me?’ Everyone in Santa Fe does their own thing, and everyone is cool about it,” one said. The other woman, who had retired to Santa Fe, said she fell in love with the city because it feels like home. “I lived in Mississippi once, and that felt like death. Santa Fe is the complete opposite of that.”
It seems that when we remember not to take Santa Fe for granted, moments of solace and joy are right in front of us. Jessica Crockett, owner of Chrome Salon & Blowout Bar, said she finds respite in the drive home along Highway 14. “Everything about the day falls away. I see deer, coyote, elk — and the road.” The most beautifully succinct reaction to my questions about happiness came from a cashier at Sprouts on Zafarano Drive, who bids each of her customers a “sparkling day.” When I explained my project, she leveled me with a steely gaze. “If my feet hit the floor in the morning,” she said, “then I’m royalty.”