Hygge. It’s everywhere these days. Blog posts and books abound. So what is it, why should you care, and how can you bring a little hygge into your own life?
What the heck is hygge?
Hygge (pronounced, “hoo-gah”), a Danish word, is perhaps best defined by Louisa Thomsen Britts, author of The Book of Hygge, as “a life art.” It is “a quality of presence and a feeling of belongingness and togetherness. It is a feeling of being warm, safe, comforted, and sheltered….Hygge is about being, not having.” Hygge is not necessarily unique to Denmark – there are similar concepts throughout the world, including gezelligheid in the Netherlands, gemutlichkeit in Germany, and in Uruguay, it’s just “life,” and they’d probably tease you for asking what they call it. But only the Danes use hygge as a verb, as well.
Many articles point to superfluous things that one can do to create a feeling of hygge at home. Add candles, one article suggests. Light a fire in the fireplace, says another. Simplify and incorporate natural textures like wood and wool into your home.
The superficial things are nice, but alone, they lack the fundamentals of hygge, which is, as Britts puts it, “an experience of selfhood and communion with people and places that anchors and affirms us, gives us courage and consolation….it is a feeling of engagement and relatedness, of belonging to the moment and to each other.” Hygge meets our need for belongingness and feeling connected to others, and thus, leads to contentment and happiness (<- and that’s why taking what we can learn from hygge matters to you!).
A Hygge Manifesto
In The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living, Meik Wiking (the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen) offers a “hygge manifesto,” which encompasses the following key areas:
- Shelter and Atmosphere
- Equality and Harmony
Let’s take a closer look at these areas in terms of what you can draw from them to make your own life happier, cozier, and more hygge:
1. Shelter and Atmosphere
Shelter is about safety and security surrounding you. It’s about building a tribe that provides that safety, so it’s not just a physical location like your home, but shelter in a more figurative sense as well. It’s about knowing that if anything goes wrong, someone’s got your back. As an old Irish proverb says, “It is in the shelter of each other that people live.”
Even if you’re an introvert, you can still experience hygge. Hygge can be enjoyed alone, in a cozy chair, reading a book, for example, or enjoying a hobby. However, we all need some human contact and connection. Introverts might prefer spending evenings with friends, one-on-one. Some of my favorite introverts have built tribes around board games and book clubs. Whatever you choose, be sure to build yourself a figurative shelter in and among those who care about you and who can catch you if you fall.
Atmosphere is a more superficial part of hygge, the part where you bring into your home candles, cozy blankets and cushions, and natural textures (hygge encompasse how things look and feel). Candles are alive and warm, and create an atmosphere of coziness (however, if you’re like me, you’ll experiment with flameless candles, for safety and environmental reasons). According to Wiking, you want to put books in strategic places: “Taking a break with a good book is a cornerstone in the concept of hygge.” And keep your favorite mug nearby, in case the need for a warm drink strikes you.
Bring nature inside, says How to Hygge‘s Signe Johansen, because “Nature calms you and allows you to reflect on the very essence of what living is about.” Wiking says, “…nature enables you to bring your guard down and adds a certain simplicity.”
Johansen and Wiking also encourage spending time in nature, as the research suggests that doing so tends to boost self esteem, improves physical health, and reduces social isolation (this information merges with literature outside the topic of hygge ; in Go Wild, for example, John Ratey suggests connecting with nature is critical for our whole well-being.) Johansen also encourages bringing plants (and the occasional twig) indoors, saying that they remind us of the cycle of life and the importance of making the most of our lives.
Lighting is key for hygge. According to Wiking, you want to create soft pools of light throughout the room, aiming for a warm, soft, diffused light that mimics “magic hour,” that dusky time between afternoon and night.
Presence is about being in the moment. Turning off your phone and other devices and being fully present with everyone and everything around you. While Johansen argues that mindfulness is about turning inward, while hygge is more outward-facing, to me presence is the mindfulness piece of hygge.
However you see it, being in the moment, being fully present, is an important component of hygge. Wiking puts it like this: “Hygge is charged with a strong orientation and commitment toward experiencing and savoring the present moment.”
Brits says that hygge is about respect and participation. She tends toward a mindfulness orientation, suggesting that we can find hygge in everyday rituals and routines, simply by giving them our full attention and presence.
Hygge also encompasses paying attention to others’ needs. A blanket draped around another’s shoulders, a favorite mug filled with tea, or a chocolate left on a coworker’s desk when she is away show other that we care for them – hygge is often found in small gestures.
Presence also allows us to attend to daily life in a more mindful way. Planting seeds or deadheading roses keep us attuned to the transitory nature of our existence.
In hygge, we are encouraged to take a moment away from the trials of everyday living to pause and savor – to give ourselves a treat. We’re talking sweets, cakes, pastries, hot drinks, and savory dishes like warm, hearty stews. When you’re going to hygger (verb form of hygge), think comfort food and indulgence. But hygge does include a certain amount of restraint – a stomach ache is not hygge.
4. Equality and Harmony
When you’re enjoying a moment of hygge with others, it’s a time to share tasks, space, and airtime. That means sharing any workload of food preparation, as well as sharing storytelling time. Hygge is about creating evenness, where everyone is equally valuable and worthwhile. So you’ll want to make sure you don’t suck up all the oxygen with bragging. Spend time with people who already like you – you don’t have to impress them.
As you hygger, remember that, as Wiking puts it, “This might be as good as it gets.” So sit back, experience the abundance of the moment. Be grateful for the warmth of the fire, the sweetness of the cake, the feeling of a warm drink in your hands, the spirit of congeniality and friendship that surrounds you.
It’s when we’re grateful for the simple things, the things that cost nothing, that we begin to notice and experience the true abundance of life. The research shows, in fact, that people who are grateful are happier, more forgiving and helpful, recover faster from stress, and are less materialistic.
Hygge is about relaxation. It’s a respite away from daily life. In fact, it is the contrast between our stressful, fast-paced daily life and the relaxing, fully-present downtime that creates the feeling of hygge. According to Wiking, “Hygge is possibly only if it stands in opposition to something that is not hygge.” The more hygge sets the here and now apart from the challenging realities of everyday life, of the outside world, the more valuable it becomes.
One of the most important things about hygge is that it’s about creating what’s comfortable for you. Don’t be drawn into trying to recreate a Scandinavian version of comfort if that’s not authentically your style. My Uruguayan husband’s style is vastly different from a Scandinavian aesthetic, but I would argue that he is better at hygge than anyone I know.
Comfort is also about paring down (a subject I’ll cover in another post). As Brits puts it, “To create a hyggeligt environment, we pay more attention to balance and harmony than to display. We give things space to breathe.” She encourages her readers not to accumulate goods just to fabricate a cozy atmosphere, but to consider and care for everything we own and thus become producers of meaning. “The things around us contain our stories and invite connection and conversation,” she writes, “Each home contains a symbolic ecology of objects and totems that speak of the lives of its inhabitants.”
However, Brits cautions us against trying to force hygge: “If we approach hygge from its perimeters by attempting to craft and capture perfect moments, it will elude us.”
Critical to hygge (and I think, critical to our times) is that hygge demands truce. There are no discussions of controversial topics like politics. There is no drama.
Strangely, perhaps, one of the most hygge moments I enjoy is when I am playing violin in our volunteer orchestra and I have no idea who believes what, or who voted for what party. Most of the players are acquainted, but not necessarily friends, and so the only time we see one another is during our weekly rehearsals and performances. So when we are together, all that matters is the harmonies that we create in that brief time.
As you embark up on creating hygge in your own life, seek to create havens of truce where you can enjoy the company of another person in a drama-free way. Speak of nothing that could come between you, just for this brief moment in time.
One of the most important parts of good hygge is building relationships, and one of the best ways to do that is through shared narrative. Memories and storytelling become a way to share the ties that bind us. “Remember when we….” “Or how about that time when…” Seek to craft these memories with others so that you can continue building the relationships and then the shared narrative becomes easy subject matter for future togetherness. Nostalgia is a key component of hygge.
When you hygger, sometimes you’re quiet, just staring at a fire in the fireplace, listening to the wind blow outside. Sometimes you’re laughing over a board game. Sometimes you’re watching a movie. Whatever you’re doing, you’re enjoying food, fellowship, and coziness, in contrast to an increasingly angry world where friendships end at the click of a button. This is hygge.
- The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living, by Meik Wiking (a straightforward approach with copious interesting data)
- The Book of Hygge: The Danish Art of Contentment, Comfort, and Connection, by Louisa Thomsen Brits (a philosophical approach to hygge)
- How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life, by Signe Johansen (a chef’s approach to hygge, includes many tasty recipes)