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Hygge: The Cultural Secret to Denmark's Happiness

Hygge: The Cultural Secret to Denmark's Happiness

Picture of Esme Benjamin
Wellness Editor
Updated: 5 October 2017
If you get excited when the humid days of summer subside and crisp fall weather arrives then you’re probably a person who embraces hygge without even realizing it. This, after all, is the most hyggeligt time of the year, according to its cultural creators, the Danes.

Hygge is as tricky to define as it is to pronounce (“hue-guh”, FYI). It’s an ambiance or a quality, something subtle but very much perceptible that underpins all of Danish life. The nation’s famously sunny disposition survives the most sunless time of the year (17 hours of darkness per day in the winter) thanks to its adeptness at cultivating hygge, often summed up as a feeling of coziness and comfortable ease.

Megan Routh is a New Yorker who went to grad school in Copenhagen, and is married to a Dane. To her hygge is best described in terms of a soft mood.

“The Danish way of life is centered around pleasure, but not in a hedonistic way,” she explained. “It’s about deriving contentment from the small things. Maybe you’re on the couch with a blanket and a cup of tea. There’s low lighting and you’re just talking with a friend. It’s about creating that relaxed snuggly feeling.” In other words, simplicity and wholesomeness are both crucial characteristics of hygge. Crackling fires, cashmere socks, hearty soup — these things are hygge. Warehouse raves, sushi, Christian Louboutin heels — these things are not.

Anthropologist Jeppe Trolle Linnet has penned several prominent research papers on the phenomenon, and believes it originated with the introduction of the Danish welfare state. “That created a sense of safety and security for middle-class Danes,” he said. “As a result the culture became focused on the home and the idea of being together in the domestic sphere.”

Sociality — the joy of doing cozy things in good company — is paramount to the practice. Perhaps that’s why, in our increasingly disconnected society, hygge is trending right now, with no less than five books on the topic being released this fall.

Kayleigh Tanner, a journalist from Brighton and author of the blog Hello Hygge, has another theory about why the concept resonates with the rest of the world. “In countries like the UK and the US, we’ve got the work-life balance all wrong. We work excessively and it’s almost a competition to see who can be the busiest,” she told Culture Trip. “In Denmark the lifestyle better supports downtime. We’re reaching a tipping point now where we’re looking for inspiration and permission to reclaim more of our time, and hygge gives us the perfect excuse to do that.”

Although hygge isn’t season specific — Routh notes that a dinner on the patio could be equally as hyggeligt as a glass of red wine in a candle-lit living room — the natural tendency towards hunkering down at this time of year aligns perfectly with hygge’s cozy ethos. So, for people looking to introduce more hygge into their lives, the best place to start is the home.

“Switch from harsh, bright overhead lights to softer candlelight, and as we approach winter, think about creating more of a ‘nest’ in your living space with blankets, throws and cushions for the ultimate coziness,” suggests Tanner. “If you want to get outside, go blackberry picking so you can make your own fruit crumbles or jam. Major hygge points!”

You can’t talk about cultivating hygge without candles being referenced. But, notes Linnet, they must be white and unscented. “Danes are purists in that sense,” he said. “We believe that no artificial fragrances should mask the natural scent of the home — the cleanliness and the home cooking.”

These material symbols of the phenomenon — candles and soft furnishings in muted palettes — are a marketer’s dream. Perhaps hygge is being branded to an international, culturally curious demographic of consumers as a quick fix? One that can counteract this unpredictable and frequently frightening world. “The international conflicts, the technological developments, the ecological disasters — they all feel threatening,” said Linnet. “With hygge we can build a bubble where time stands still and we can feel safe.”

Linnet’s words get to the heart of hygge’s universal appeal. It’s about leisure and pleasure distilled to their purest forms. It’s about escaping shallow distractions like social media, to be present in the moment. It remind us of the fundamental human desire for a good meal in comfortable surroundings with people we love.

Hygge is the giant exhale we didn’t know we needed until now.