The holiday season is upon us. It’s a time for getting cozy, making memories, and looking forward to the new year ahead.
My guest today has plenty of research-backed insights on how to take each of those things to the next level. His name is Meik Wiking, and he’s the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute and the author of The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living, as well as The Art of Making Memories: How to Create and Remember Happy Moments. We begin our discussion exploring the Danish concept of hygge, which is the art of getting cozy, and how it helps Danes survive their long, harsh winters. Mike also discusses his research on how to create lasting memories. We then combine these ideas to explore how lighting, food, scent, and more can help you inject more hygge into the holiday season, and make Christmas and the coming year your most memorable yet.
You’ll want to grab a hot cocoa and wrap yourself in a blanket before cozying up to this show.
- What is hygge?
- What elements make hygge happen?
- Why you feel more hygge after some sort of exertion or effort
- What’s the connection between hygge and making memories?
- The value of nostalgia
- The connection between our senses and memory
- What does research say about how to make memories last?
- Injecting more novelty into your holidays (and life)
- What can people do to make their home more hygge during the holidays?
- Why you should put up even more Christmas decorations
- The power of happy Christmas smells
- The impact of food on how hygge our holidays are
- Balancing traditions with new experiences
- The Apollo picnic
- How to review your memories of the year that’s passed
- The ways in which struggle brings greater happiness, and how to do that at the holidays (in a healthy way!)
- Chore wars and being tolerant of how other people are remembering things
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Wish You Had More Time? What You Really Want is More Memories
- More Footage: Take the One-Month “Do Something New Every Day” Challenge
- Nostalgia: Its Benefits and Downsides
- In Defense of Nostalgia
- 11 Ways to Get Into the Holiday Spirit
- The Art of Anticipation
- Be a Time Wizard
- Culture You Can Heft
- How to Make Your Own Candles
- How to Get the Most Out of Family Dinners
- The Magic of Walking with Erling Kagge
Connect With Meik
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. The holiday season is upon us; it’s time for getting cozy, making memories, and looking forward to the new year ahead. And my guest today has plenty of research-backed insights on how to take each of those things to the next level. His name is Meik Wiking, and he’s the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute, and the author of The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living; as well as The Art of Making Memories: How to Create and Remember Happy Moments.
We begin our discussion exploring the Danish concept of hygge, which is the art of getting cozy and how it helps Danes survive their long, harsh winters. Meik also discusses his research on how to create lasting memories. We then combine these two ideas to explore how lighting, food, scent, and more can help you inject more hygge into the holiday season, and make Christmas and the coming year your most memorable yet. You want to grab a hot cocoa and wrap yourself in a blanket, sit in front of a roaring fire, cozy up before listening to this show. After it’s over, check out our show notes at A-O-M-dot-I-S/cozy.
All right. Meik Wiking, welcome to the show.
Meik Wiking: Thank you.
Brett McKay: So you are the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute and author of two books that I really enjoyed. The first one is The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living and the Art of Making Memories. So how did a guy with the name of Meik Wiking end up being the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute and writing about happiness?
Meik Wiking: You start to wonder why is it that Denmark often do well in all these happiness rankings, and you think there should be somebody trying to explore this, and there should be somebody setting up a think tank on happiness in Denmark. And then you think, “Maybe I should do that.” So that was seven years ago, and we work on well-being, happiness, quality of life; trying to look at happiness from a scientific perspective. I know [inaudible] the Happiness Research Institute sounds like a magical place, and people imagine that all we do all day is look at puppies and eat ice cream. But really, we’ve got a lot of data and studies and evidence.
Brett McKay: So let’s talk about this concept of hygge. I wasn’t aware of this until I think maybe two years ago, and then all of a sudden I saw it popping up in the media, in social media posts here in the United States. What is hygge? What does it mean, and what does it mean to Danes in particular?
Meik Wiking: I think the best short definition of hygge is the art of creating a nice atmosphere. So it’s moments where we enjoy simple pleasures in life, a sense of togetherness, a sense of relaxation, and of course that happens everywhere around the world. But what is uniquely Danish is that we have a word that describes that situation, and secondly also I think that we see it as part of our sort of cultural DNA. Perhaps a little bit the same way that Americans see freedom as inherently American, Danes will see hygge as inherently Danish.
Brett McKay: And for me, when I think of hygge, it’s always like … for me, like the translation of the way I think about it in my brain is coziness; that atmosphere that’s cozy. So do other cultures over in Scandinavian countries, do they also have a concept similar to hygge?
Meik Wiking: I think the closest is probably The Netherlands further south. They have a word in Dutch called gezelligheid, which I think is the one language comes closest to having a similar word to hygge.
Brett McKay: So what are the components? Like when a Dane says, “I’m going to have a hygge night or hygge day,” what elements are there to make that happen?
Meik Wiking: I think it’s best explained with an example. And so a few years ago, I was in Sweden with some friends and it was the [inaudible 00:04:12]. We had been out hiking in the afternoon and came back inside, and we got a fire going in the fireplace, and we also had a stew boiling on the stove, and those were sort of the sounds you could hear. And we were just kicking back, relaxing, sipping some wine, and one of my friends said then, “Could this be any more hygge-ly?” And then one of the girls said, “Yes, there was a storm outside,” because hygge’s also this feeling of being sheltered from the outside. So I think that exemplifies what hygge is or how we should feel.
I think also some Americans pronounce it huggy, and I think we should all switch to that because that is actually sort of the essence of what it should feel like; like a good hug.
Brett McKay: Well, that was interesting. This sort of contrast you need for hygge, is that typically it comes after exerting yourself, right? You feel more hygge when there’s more adverse … like if there’s a bad storm outside, if it’s snowing outside. Or you’ve …
Meik Wiking: Yeah.
Brett McKay: You worked really hard that day, then you can just feel super relaxed and super like you can put your hair down.
Meik Wiking: Yeah, I think that’s part of it. And also, I think Danes use it as a survival strategy for winter. You know, we do have summers in Denmark; it’s four lovely hours, and then it’s back to winter again. So we have long, dark, cold winters, and Danes I think use hygge to get through those. So being indoors with your good friends, having some nice food, lighting up some candles, and sort of taking it slow indoor, I think that’s how we get through winter.
Brett McKay: So your latest book is The Art of Making Memories. What’s the connection between hygge and making memories do you think?
Meik Wiking: Well, I think both comes down to also being present at the current moment. And I think the main message of the new book is that we can actually influence what we and our friends and our family remember, and become sort of memory architects. And I think, I spoke recently to a Polish woman who had read the book, and she was reminded of a time when she was about eight years old, and she was having dinner with her mom and her sister. And they’re having a good time, they’re laughing, they’re feeling happy. And then her mother says to them, “I hope you remember this moment.” And here we are 30 years later, she still remembers that moment because her mother made her pay attention to it, and I think that’s a very simple, but very effective tool in terms of making memories, or ensuring that people remember certain things.
Of course, it’s also a tool that could be overused because if you every time you sit down with your kids say, “I hope you remember this moment,” they’re going to tell you to shut up. But used every once in a while, I think it’s really powerful and it’s also a tool of hygge. You’ll notice how hygge this is; notice how much we’re actually enjoying this moment. Danes have a habit of calling out hygge when they feel it.
Brett McKay: Well, you talk about, too, in The Art of Making Memories, this idea of nostalgia. And nostalgia’s a weird emotion because you both, you feel both happy and sad at the same time, sort of a longing for that time. And yeah, for me and my life, when I think of memorable or nostalgic moments, it’s kind of got that hygge feeling to it; it’s cozy; I’m with my family at Thanksgiving at my grandpa’s ranch in New Mexico, smelling pinon wood burning in his wood burning stove; and pancakes.
Meik Wiking: Nice.
Brett McKay: It’s nostalgic and it’s cozy as well at the same time.
Meik Wiking: Yeah. It’s one of the more interesting emotions because it has a complexity to it that we don’t see with some of the other emotions. And it is bittersweet, but it’s interesting what you mentioned about your grandfather’s ranch and that part of the memory is the scent; the smell of the wood burning, because that’s also one of the patterns in why we remember some things. We remember things through association. So perhaps today if you smelled wood burning, you would be reminded of your grandfather’s ranch in New Mexico.
Brett McKay: I do. Every time I smell pinon wood, that’s what I think of. I go immediately to that. And your institute has done research on nostalgia that, when someone’s going through a hard time and they’re feeling down, feeling nostalgic, thinking about a good time in the past can actually boost their happiness, boost their mood.
Meik Wiking: Yeah. So we see that people use happy memories as a sort of happiness bank. So when we’re feeling down, when we’re feeling sad or lonely, or sort of negative emotions, and we use happy memories to counteract those feelings. And we can see although people who are able to retrieve happy memories are happier overall, and what we also see is one of the things that people struggle with when they are living with depression is of course they are feeling unhappy right now, but they actually also have trouble remembering any time in the past they were happy. So hopefully with this book, we can also help people retrieve some of the happy memories they have experienced in the past.
Brett McKay: So what does the research say about how to make memories last and be more meaningful? So you mentioned association, right? So we associate scents, but anything else that the research has found?
Meik Wiking: Yeah. It’s really interesting to see when we look and talk with people who are 100-years old and ask them about their life stories and ask them about their memories, there is a huge bump around 15 to 30-years old. So we have a lot of our memories from that period in life, and one of the reasons for that is that it’s that period in life we have a lot of first experiences. So first job, first apartment, perhaps first car, first kiss; mine was with Christie Lee, I was 16 and she was an Australian girl. Whereas in our 40s and in our 50s, we don’t have so many first experiences, and first experiences just stick better to memory.
And that’s also one of the reasons why we can feel or experience that life seems to speed up as we get older, and so I think one of the ways to ensure that time slows down and we sort of create more meaningful memorable moments also in our 40s and our 50s is, of course, to seek out new experiences. And that can be, of course, traveling to destinations we haven’t been before, but it can also be new experiences in a gastronomical sense; so trying out new food we haven’t tried before.
Brett McKay: So novelty is a powerful memory-making tool, doing new things?
Meik Wiking: Exactly.
Brett McKay: How do you inject novelty in to hygge? Because whenever I think of hygge, I think of like, just like you’re doing the same thing; you’re in your house, you’re wearing your hoodie.
Meik Wiking: Right.
Brett McKay: You’ve got a fireplace going. So how do you inject novelty into that?
Meik Wiking: I think you go about it by using some of the other tools to either make happy memories or retrieve happy memories. So one of the tips in the book is to … Your brain works a little bit like a, or your memory works a little bit like a muscle. So the more you think of something, the more you talk about a certain memory, the more likely that memory is going to be retrieved in the future, the more likely that it’s going to be stored in your long-term memory.
And I’m sure you have a lot of photos on your phone. I definitely have a lot of photos on my phone. But back in the ’80s when I was growing up, we used to have these old school photo albums that you actually sat and looked at together as a family. So one of the tips in the book is to curate the Happy Hundred. That means it could be here between Christmas and New Years; get out your phones with your family and go through the pictures from the past year, and decide which were actually our 10, 50, or 100 happiest moments in the past year. And get those photos printed out and put in an old school photo album. I think that’s a great exercise if you have kids to sort of get their insight or get their input to what did we actually enjoy this year, what were the fun, happy moments? And put them in an old school photo album and …
Brett McKay: That’s definitely more hygge, because hygge is all that tactile, tactile.
Meik Wiking: Exactly. That will be a, that will be a hygge-ly activity together with the kids.
Brett McKay: All right. So it’s the holiday season. It’s Christmastime, and that’s a time that’s all about coziness and memories. So I thought it’d be fun to apply the principles in your books to help listeners have the most hygge and memorable Christmas ever. So what can people do to make their home feel more cozy at Christmastime?
Meik Wiking: So I think one of the easy steps is to go Viking crazy on the candles. So Danes associate hygge with candlelight, so the more warmer the light, the softer the light, the more hygge-ly it’s considered. So we use a lot of candles in Denmark. We actually use twice as many candles as number two in Europe. And so I think getting out the candles is the first step, and I know it’s a very sort of simple thing, but it’s interesting to see how it actually impacts how families interact.
So I spoke to a Canadian a couple of years ago who had read Hygge, and because of the focus on lighting and candles in the book, he went out and he bought some chandeliers and started to light candles for dinner at home. And him and his wife, they have three teenage sons, and when this guy, he started to light the candles, the boys, his sons, they started to tease him. “Dad, what’s going on with the candles? Do you want to have romantic time with Mom? Should we leave?”
But eventually the boys, they started to light the candles and it became this sort of ritual of food and fire. And more importantly, he says now their family dinners last 20 minutes longer because the atmosphere of the candles puts the boys in a storytelling mood. So instead of just sitting down and shoveling down their food, they sit down, they talk about their day, they sip their wine. And I think it’s really fun and interesting to hear, and hear that from several sources, how a candle can actually change how a family interacts. So I think that’s one way, an easy step towards a more hygge-ly Christmas.
Brett McKay: And also, just put up decorations in general. I’ve noticed in my own, whenever my experience, whenever I put up Christmas decorations in the house, it makes the house feel smaller because you got a big, giant tree and you have all this greenery everywhere. And just that fact that it kind of closes things in, it just feels, you feel a little more cozy in your house. And yeah, I can account to the lighting, the candles can really make a hygge-ly Christmas. We have a Christmas party every year, and one year we ended with singing Christmas carols. And we gave everyone candles and turned off the lights, and it was really nice.
Meik Wiking: And so it’s interesting to see for my latest book, I collected more than a thousand happy memories from all over the world, and I think I have memories from 75 different countries or something like that. A lot of them were actually on evenings where people had lost power, lost the electricity and brought out candles, and sat and talked about family anecdotes, and sort of went completely old school in terms of entertainment. And so that sounds a little bit similar to what you’re describing at the Christmas party.
Brett McKay: So what about hygge-ly Christmas smells? What are some of those, do you think?
Meik Wiking: Oh, I mean to Danes it would be cinnamon and orange. And I think it was actually interesting to see when hygge exploded as it did with the books and people globally sort of embraced hygge. And the Financial Times wrote that the hygge craze and the love of Danish pastry have actually driven up the price of cinnamon on the global market. I thought that was really, really hilarious that a book could drive up the price of spice. But yeah, cinnamon and oranges I think are some of the things that Danes associate with Christmas.
Brett McKay: I think here in America, for me at least, the smell of a Christmas tree. The pine smells really good.
Meik Wiking: Yeah.
Brett McKay: And then also, yeah, cinnamon, too, as well. There’s something interesting, too … this is sort of my own experience; like, the smell of Christmas decorations. I don’t know that … They have a smell because I think they all, they’re infused with like cinnamon and all those spices. But whenever you pull them out and they just kind of hits you in the face, it’s like ahhh …
Meik Wiking: Right.
Brett McKay: Christmas is here. I love it.
Meik Wiking: Yeah. And there you’re going to have the memory through association or memory through scent. We smell something, we hear something, we taste something, and then we are instantly transported back to a certain memory. Now if you put on the music you heard in high school, then some memories are likely to pop up.
Brett McKay: What about sounds? Do you have sounds you associate with Christmas in hygge?
Meik Wiking: Ahhh. I guess it would be the carols and the classic music tracks you hear during Christmas. I think that, yeah that triggers certain Christmas memories for me.
Brett McKay: Food is an important part. In fact, you offer recipes throughout the book. So what’s the type of food you want to eat during Christmastime to feel like, yes, this is Christmas?
Meik Wiking: I mean if you’re going for a hygge-ly Christmas, then you need to go sort of classic, traditional Danish Christmas, and that is sort of duck or roasted pork, and sometimes potatoes that are loaded with sugar and red cabbage; really sort of traditional set up of courses you have to have for Christmas. But if you want to make sort of, it a more memorable Christmas, then you would have to sort of seek out new experiences and try sort of new ingredients. But of course, I think in many families, that would create a small revolution and outcry from half the family, so perhaps better to stick with tradition for Christmas.
Brett McKay: Well yeah, that’s a hard balance. You’ve got to do memorable things, but you also want to respect tradition. Have you found a way … I mean in talking to people and your own experience, have you found a way to balance that?
Meik Wiking: I mean one thing you could do is to introduce a theme for Christmas. So you stick with some traditions, but then you add one element that makes it distinguishable from the other years, some sort of element. But I think Christmas, it’s one day of the year, so maybe best to stick with tradition from now on.
Brett McKay: What about any other activities that in Denmark they associate Christmas and hygge together?
Meik Wiking: Oh, I mean we have Christmas lunches, like I’m sure you do in the States as well. And of course, in Denmark we bring out, and don’t try to pronounce this word at home; but we bring out schnapple, which is sort of open-faced sandwiches, Danish herring, and schnapps, and get quite drunk during Christmas parties and Christmas lunches. So that’s also a cornerstone of the Danish Christmas tradition.
Brett McKay: And I guess bringing … and this art of making memories. So you can inject some new things maybe, but also another important thing to do during the holidays is to make sure you track it. Take pictures, make notes; because if you don’t you’re going to forget about it.
Meik Wiking: Right. And also I think the time between Christmas and New Year’s is a good time to plan a memorable year. So what kind of activities can we do in the coming 12 months that we are likely to remember 10 years from now? And one of the suggestions in the book is to create something I call the Apollo Picnic, and you do it on July 20th. And the concept is you ask your friends and family for a picnic, and everybody brings a dish or an ingredient they have not tried before. So it’s going to be a new experience; somebody brings Danish herring, somebody brings, I don’t know, habanero chili, and that will also mean that you’re going to push your comfort zone a little bit. If we do something that scares us, we’re also more likely to remember it in the future. And habanero chili should definitely scare you.
And you do it on July 20th because that is the anniversary for the moon landing, so the Apollo mission. So in the future when you hear about the moon landing and the Apollo mission, that is going to trigger your memory of the Apollo Picnic. So building in triggers like that is one of the tools you can apply if you are interested in making a memorable year, and I think we all are.
I think we’re all striving to achieve sort of an unforgettable life, and I think we all like to have sort of memorable moments to look back on. And it’s also our shared experiences, it’s our shared memories that bind us together with people. And if you have kids, I think we’re all interested in them looking back on their childhood and thinking of happy times. And the good news is, there’s a lot we can do actually to influence what we and our family and friends remember.
Brett McKay: So okay, use this time at Christmastime perhaps, and maybe even July, to plan out future memories. Christmastime is also a good time to review memories. I remember as a kid growing up, one thing we did around the holidays was watch old videos that my dad took of Christmases when we were kids, and that was a way to review those good memories.
Meik Wiking: Yeah. And again, you can use all the five different senses. So even something as crazy as scent. So one thing that the artist, Andy Warhol, would do was he wore the same perfume for three months, and then never wore that perfume again and switched to another one for three months, and so on, and so on. And that meant over time, he had actually created a museum of scent or a museum of memories. So he could say, “Now I want to go back to the spring of 1982,” and then take a whiff of that perfume and then be transported back in time. And I think it’s a fun, interesting way of doing it. It’s way too expensive for my budget, but I think that’s a fun idea.
Brett McKay: Yeah, he got buried with his favorite perfume, Beautiful.
Meik Wiking: He did, he did.
Brett McKay: My mom wore Beautiful. That’s why that stood out to me when I read that. You know, one thing my wife does that’s similar is after listening to a new music album a lot, she kind of puts it in the memory vault and doesn’t listen to it at all for a long time. That way, it’s only associated with the period of time in which she first listened to it. So whenever she does take it out and listen to it again, all the memories from that particular period come back really strongly.
So let’s get back to this idea of hygge being connected with doing hard things, because it seems like Scandinavians like to do hard things. We recently had Erling Kagge on the show; he’s a Norwegian explorer; the first man to take unsupported treks to the North and South Poles, and he had this same idea; that you’ve got to make your life hard so you can really enjoy the downtime.
Meik Wiking: Yeah, and I think we … also when you look at happiness, we are also interested in looking at unhappiness. I think every human life is going to have periods of struggle and heartbreak and failure and unhappiness, and that’s part of the human experience. But it also teaches us about happiness. We appreciate our happy times, our happy periods in life even more when we also have had to struggle early on. And I think that’s the same point; we enjoy reaching the summit of the mountain because of the struggle up there. So I think there’s a lot of similarities there.
Brett McKay: And how do you make Christmas harder, right, to …
Meik Wiking: I think Christmas is hard enough as it is. I mean, there’s so much you have to do for December, so I’m not sure we need to make it harder than it is.
Brett McKay: Well then, I guess, so maybe we can use it to reframe. I know people get stressed out during the holidays; like I’ve got to do all this stuff, got to put up the lights …
Meik Wiking: Right.
Brett McKay: Got to put up the tree because …
Meik Wiking: Right.
Brett McKay: Just like, no, this is great because it’s all going to lead up to this moment where I can have this super cozy, memorable day with my family.
Meik Wiking: Yeah, yeah, true. I mean what you’re saying there actually also reminds me about something from the latest book on what we call Chore Wars; so why couples fight over how big a share of the household chores they do. So if you ask people how big a share of the cooking do you do, or how big a share of the cleaning do you do, and how big a share of the grocery shopping do you do, and we add that up between men and women, it always adds up to more than 100 percent.
So, I’ll say I do 70 percent of the cooking and Helena, my girlfriend, will say she does 50 percent of the cooking, so that adds up to 110 percent, and we see that for every chore on the list. And the reason why we get to that number is that we remember every time we did a chore because it’s must more vivid experience. We endured the struggle of putting up the Christmas tree, or getting the Christmas tree, or making sure that the kids got all the presents they wanted. But when somebody else does the chore, you just check it off the list. So that’s one of the reasons why we fight over chores.
Brett McKay: So I guess, during the holidays take that into consideration, right? If you’re getting angry at your spouse because they’re like, no, you don’t think … Like no, they’re actually doing their stuff.
Meik Wiking: Yeah. I think writing this book made me I think a little bit more tolerant because I understand now how beautifully flawed our memory also is. And so I’ve learned a little bit more I think about being tolerant of other people’s versions of history and the past, and acknowledging that I don’t necessarily have a monopoly on truth of what happened.
Brett McKay: Go back to this idea of doing hard, making Christmas harder, here’s a fun way to make it harder that, a tradition that I’ve seen in a family. Before they could open Christmas presents, the family had to run a marathon together. So it’s like they didn’t run … it was collectively, right? So each, they had to run enough miles collectively so that it was a marathon, and then they could open Christmas presents. And I was, I mean I would never do that, but I thought it was a great memory for them and a great tradition.
Meik Wiking: Yeah, it’s nice. It’s nice. It’s a good idea. It’s a good idea. I need to call all the cousins I haven’t spoken to in a few months and get them organized.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and get them … run a… Well, you can snowshoe I guess because it’s going to be snowy there in Denmark. You can snowshoe a marathon.
Meik Wiking: Right.
Brett McKay: Well Meik, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Meik Wiking: Well I mean, if they’re interested in happiness research, visit Happiness Research Institute-dot-com. So all our reports and findings are available on our website. And of course, they can check out the books at the various booksellers if they’re interested in taking a deep dive into the Danish Hygge or the Art of Making Memories.
Brett McKay: Meik Wiking, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Meik Wiking: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Meik Wiking. He’s the author of the books The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living, and The Art of Making Memories. Both available on Amazon.com. You can find out more information about his work at his website, Happiness Research Institute-dot-com. Also, check out our show notes at A-O-M-dot-I-S-slash-cozy, where you can find a list of resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the A-O-M podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years about how to have a great Christmas, great holiday season. A lot of articles there, check it out. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you’d take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher; helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it, and if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the Art of Manliness podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to Stitcherpremium.com, sign up. Once you’re signed up …
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