Candles, a crackling fireplace, a mug full of a warm libation, wool socks; in the gray of winter, there's no more fitting social custom than hygge.
A Danish term that is difficult to define with a one-word translation, hygge is a cozy sense of being. It's the warm glow that comes from food and friends; the feeling you have after you return from a winter hike in the snow and wrap your hands around a hot drink.
"Hygge originates in Norway, and stems from the word 'hyggja' which means 'to be' or 'to think,'" says Signe Johansen, author of How to Hygge: The Secrets of Scandinavian Living. A clue! The modern incarnation of hygge is as much a state of being, a state of mind, as it is about coziness, conviviality, and kinship with others. "It's about stepping back from the hectic pace of modern living and looking after ourselves; about savoring the small moments of joy and contentedness we experience in life."
There's no right way to hygge (pronounced hoo-gah). "Some have described it as a Nordic 'zen,' which is an apt comparison," says Johansen. "It can be anything from coming together over small celebrations during midwinter to going skiing for a day and then tucking into a delicious feast."
If you're not Danish, Hygge can be a tad bit difficult to pronounce. It's somewhere between hoo-gah and hue-gah (try puckering your lips while you say it). But the good news is, it's much easy to embrace than it is to say!
Long a staple of daily Scandinavian life, hygge has recently taken on global proportions. In the last year alone, almost a dozen books related to hygge have been published, including The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well, Scandinavian Comfort Food: Embracing the Art of Hygge, and Fika and Hygge: Comforting Cakes and Bakes From Scandinavia with Love.
Note: It's no surprise that many of the hygge books would center around food; eating can create a very cozy, special moment, not only in the winter months, but also in the summer months as well.
Even The New Yorker has been charmed by hygge. But as writer Anna Altman aptly noted, "all the encouragements toward superior handicrafts and Scandinavian design, the accounts of daily fireside gatherings and freshly baked pastries assume a certain level of material wealth and an abundance of leisure time. As a life philosophy, hygge is unabashedly bourgeois."
The commercialization of hygge
With the increased amount of attention to hygge, it comes as no surprise that there has been a commercial embrace of the word, using it more as a marketing tool than as a simple approach to living well. There are actual hygge candles (you know, instead of regular candles), and you don't have to do much Googling to find listicles of how best to create the hygge home with assorted Scandinavian-themed interior accents.
Want a long read on the commercialization of hygge? Here you go: The Hygge Conspiracy at The Guardian
But as Johansen points out, historically hygge comes from much simpler roots. "For a long time the Nordic region was quite poor, and we had limited access to vital resources while having to cope with hard winters and difficult environmental conditions," she says.
No matter how hard you may try, you can't buy yourself into hygge.
Making hygge happen
No matter how hard you may try, you can't buy yourself into hygge. In fact, that's really the point: Achieving hygge is about slowing down and simplifying. Hygge isn't about things; it's a state of mind. So maybe there is a right way to do it. Or at the very least, a way not to do it.
Ultimately, it's up to us to create those moments, through time spent worrying less about objects and money and focusing more on family and friends and spending time in nature.
"There's a great deal of uncertainty in the world at the moment, and anxiety about the future. But we all have to look after ourselves, try to live in the moment and appreciate the small things in life," says Johansen. "Hygge really resonates with people for that reason: it's a gentle, restorative way of living that doesn't require spending money, and as such is a really democratic way of being. You don't have to be rich or thin to have a hyggelig time."