I Learned the Hard Way What Hygge Is Really About

(Image credit: Hayley Kessner)

I moved to Denmark with one real goal in mind: to find out what hygge really means. Two weeks in, I discovered I didn’t have the hip som hap spirit necessary for hygge — at least that’s what my boss, Vibe, said when she let me go.

What is hip som hap spirit? I don’t know anything about it, other than the fact that I apparently don’t have it. Still, I wasn’t deterred! Or rather, I had already moved all my stuff in pursuit of hygge, so dammit I wasn’t going to let Vibe (pronounced Vee-ba) have the final word.

Desperately Seeking Hygge

At that low point, I started to question if hygge actually existed in real life. It seemed to be all about appearance versus actually being comfortable and experiencing warmth. It’s that gray napkin folded perfectly, furniture arranged against a simple backdrop, the mess (but not too much mess) on Instagram that happens to be oh-so-perfectly juxtaposed against the morning light. But where (and when? And how?) do those things happen?

I wanted real hygge, which proved articles about loneliness and Danish obtuseness wrong. I wanted something where a table of strangers could gather and, without pretending, talk about their kids, or their jobs, or whatever else was happening in life.

If I was ever going to find hygge, I needed something else — a new job that could keep me in Denmark. I decided to start my supper club, which I had been known for in California. Through this club, I’d be able to really explore what it meant to be hospitable, cozy, and have all the feels.

My Supper Club Disaster (aka the Opposite of Hygge)

For whatever reason, I decided to plan my first Danish supper club event on a boat. Boats seem hygge-friendly! Or so I thought.

I had almost finished the final touches on the table, when I suddenly found myself (and the boat!) at a 45-degree angle. The boat dipped again, and my friend had to break my fall and keep me from going overboard. My stomach turned. I felt as if I was on a roller coaster without the safety bar. The boat rocked harshly one more time (apparently to avoid actually hitting another boat!). When I looked up to see if I was the only one experiencing what had just happened, everyone’s eyes were as wide as challah loaves, and their ghostly knuckles clinched the rail for stability.

“You guys okay?” I shouted to the boat crew — which was really a bunch of friends who volunteered to help me in exchange for free food.

“Umm, you might want to come back here and look at this,” the captain stammered.

I rushed to the dining area to check on the table I had just set. It was chaos. Dishes, which I had spent two full days hand-picking, were split in half; cactus plants were flung out of their pots; the colorful napkins I had meticulously ironed were soaked in soil and water from busted carafes. I’m also pretty sure I saw a fork sticking out of a socket, just begging me to grab it.

With just 10 minutes before the guests were supposed to board, this was beyond horrible. I screamed some things, which would make a sailor flinch, as I ran down the galley to check on the rest of the boat.

My sous chef poked her head from out behind the kitchen wall.

“Umm,” she said slowly, in her thick Penelope Cruz accent. “Hot oil went flying everywhere. We cannot serve our first course.” The final blow: Chicken cracklins with hot sauce and honey remoulade were no longer an option.

My Make-Hygge-Happen Moment

I was so desperate to get hygge right, to create an environment of love and acceptance in the only way I knew how — by offering food — and I couldn’t even do that.

I had spent every penny I owned trying to make hygge happen. I didn’t even have the money to refund my guests, who were expecting to be cozy.

The bar was not set up, because my bartender was seven hours late. My sous chef and I had spent a whole month meticulously preparing for this event. She biked heavy pots and pans up hills (against the wind), pickled veggies during the witching hours, and smuggled rabbit from Spain, so that our andouille rabbit sausage could be authentic. I had spent every waking and non-waking hour hustling to sell tickets, babysitting elderflower and lemon kombucha (to get the second fermentation just right), organizing logistics, testing recipes, and planning menus. By the time the actual event rolled around, we were emotionally and financially exhausted. This was not what we needed.

“Dear Universe,” I thought. “Why do you hate me?” I took a moment to realize I might not want the honest answer.

My sous grabbed me, as if she had the power to mind-read in that moment, and hugged me. “You can do this,” she whispered as her oil-stained fingers pinched the tops of my shoulders, and I hyperventilated. “You always find a way.”

I stood there for a moment, allowing her hug to surround me. And then something clicked. I had fought like hell to incorporate the idea of hygge into my culinary career. I had seven minutes left on the clock, dishes were broken, the first course couldn’t be served due to lack of oil, and yet, I was surrounded by people — Danish, Spanish, South American, Canadian, and Portuguese — who cared, and were invested in my well-being.

Finally: Hygge Found

Hygge isn’t exclusive to the Danes, although they make it look great on Instagram and happen to have a specific word for it. Creating an environment for people to feel at home and cozy has existed since the beginning of time, in almost all cultures.

In that moment, what I kinda knew about hygge was solidified. It may offer the appearance of something perfect, sturdy, or unbroken, but it can’t fix broken hearts, reduce cholesterol, or walk on water unless there is real opportunity for discomfort. Hygge doesn’t try to pretend as if the hard, uncomfortable, and imperfect things in life do not exist; it simply offers a moment and warm space away from those things.

Amongst the broken dishes and spilled oil, we still had hygge because we found comfort in one another. We did not have to be something we were not, the napkins didn’t need to be folded perfectly, and the lopsided candles would have to do — I just needed to figure out a way to give people their money’s worth.

I re-set the table with what we had. My bartender finally got on board with the guests, and immediately went to work. We served the second course first on the bow of the boat. People watched the sunset, sipped drinks, and listened to live guitar music. We got more oil and we served the original first course later in the night.

It was happening: There were smiles and compliments abound, and bonds were being made between guests. What almost boat crash? Somehow hygge was alive and well — I had managed to pull off what seemed like an effortless and cozy event.

Have you found hygge? If so, how? Tell us in the comments!