Why are the Danes so damn happy? Year after year, the Scandinavians school the rest of us in world happiness ratings. Maybe it has to do with their incredible and affordable education systems; maybe socialized and accessible healthcare plays a role; and maybe it’s all the oil money that pumps so much money in to the Nordics that they literally can’t keep it all.
Of course an overall arc of happiness can’t be traced back to a single source, but experts agree that a person’s outlook on life can have a significant impact on their perceived happiness. This leads us to the myriad of Scandinavian happy-inducing concepts, including but not limited to: lagom, lykke, koselig, and janteloven. But one has stood out among the others and managed to transcend national lines (especially across the North Sea to the UK) and cultural barriers in recent years: hygge.
If you are not Scandinavian, no doubt your inner reading voice stumbled over that pronunciation. Here’s a video that does a pretty good job of explaining it (think HOO-ga). Even if you can’t manage the potato-mouthed wrangling of the Danish language, you can still learn to live with more hygge in your life, and consequently, more happiness.
Hygge is simply defined as a Danish ritual of enjoying life’s simple pleasures, often with an idea of ‘warmth’ or ‘coziness’ attached. The concept of hygge is associated with a gathering of people and creating a sense of closeness, connection, and kinship.
Meik Wiking, the CEO at the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, knows a thing or two about hygge. His bestseller The Little Book of Hygge is a guide to pursuing a happier life, based in the Danish concept surrounding simple pleasures. Wiking notes several key components of living a ‘hyggeligt’ life.
Scandinavians are obsessed with soft, glowy lighting (probably to do with the long, dark winters). The whole area is run quite effectively on an army of large, white, unscented candles, which are lit for any and all occasions. The soft glow of candlelight (or any sort of firelight) is overwhelmingly associated with feelings of hygge. Wiking’s book states that 74% of Danes are lighting candles more than once a week, while 68% light three or more candles at a time.
The fireplace is an essential focal point of the Scandinavian home. They love any reason to snuggle up in soft pajamas and warm wool socks next to the fire, sipping on a warm cup of gløgg or kakao.
Another key component of hygge is spending time with those you hold dear, i.e. family and friends. Keeping loved ones close, especially around the holidays, is essential to finding that elusive, cozy inner warmth.
Food and Drink
The culinary arts play a central role in creating hygge atmospheres. In the winter, it’s imperative to always have a warm drink or decadent sweet on hand, like hot cocoa and chocolate cake. In the summer, a delicious dinner with wine under the night sky is the ideal hygge environment.
The Scandinavians could be considered professional nesters. Making the home as comfortable and inviting a space as possible is top priority, which may have something to do with the Danish eye for design. But the home is important to the other Scandinavians as well; Norwegians are obsessively fond of their cabins and country homes, which are often scantily clad in terms of resources like electricity and running water, but are filled with hygge potential. The chance to snuggle up in a remote cabin against a raging snowstorm is an unmissable opportunity for the true Norsk.
The yuletide season is the most hygge of all, they even have a specific word for it – julehygge. Traditions and events are planned (whether consciously or accidentally) around creating as hyggeligt an environment as possible.
And they talk about it allllll the time. Social gatherings are rated on their success by how ‘hygge’ the event is deemed by attendees. Danes often attach hygge to other words to create more specificity, as with “hyggespreder” or someone who spreads the hygge; “familiehygge”, hyggeligt time spent with the family; and “hyggesokker”, a pair of socks with especially hyggligt design.
Although most agree that hygge is attainable for anyone, not just the Danish, Wiking describes just how much of a cultural centerpiece the concept remains for the Danes.
“What might also be unique for Denmark when it comes to hygge is how much we talk about it, focus on it, and consider it as a defining feature of our cultural identity and an integral part of the national DNA. In other words, what freedom is to the Americans, thoroughness to Germans, and the stiff upper lip to the British, hygge is to Danes.”
Hygge is a concept, a feeling, a manifestation of a mood. But as the idea originated in the far northern hemisphere, where the days grow dark and cold for half the year, a certain aesthetic has emerged around the idea and with it, an industry.
There’s a whole market out there for ‘hygge’-related products, not limited to but including: warm blankets, wool socks, thick sweaters, candles, chocolate, mugs, tea, coffee, sheepskin rugs, plush furniture, pastries, and more. Bonus features include, a fireplace, a group of close friends, and a storm raging outside.
But at its core, hygge is a feeling, a manifestation of a mood, not a material possession. I leave you with a glimpse into my own experience with hygge.
On a cold February evening in Trondheim, Norway, one American, one Swede, and five Norwegians gathered for a meal. The room was aglow with the light of at least 20 candles. Bone marrow sizzled on the stovetop while the sommelier among them discussed the wines he’d brought for the occasion; smooth, soft indie tunes lilted through the air. Just on the other side of the skylight windows, it began to snow.
The evening moved to dinner. Seven friends sat around the table and switched between languages as they discussed everything from Swedish children’s television programs to the latest gossip from the culinary front lines. The atmosphere grew more boisterous as the wine and happy hormones from the fat-laden meal kicked in. They played games testing their international pop culture references and cried laughing at one unsuccessful player’s particular frustrations.
Cold weather outside, warm food and sweet drinks, captivating conversation and friendly affection. I don’t think it could’ve been more hygge unless we’d imported an actual Dane.