It was just a few years ago that the Danish concept of hygge became a popular fixture of the global lexicon. Between 2016 and 2017 alone, more than 30 books were published on the subject of Denmark’s “cozy” lifestyle, and major publications like the New York Times and the Guardian issued hefty thinkpieces about the topic while nearly every candle, blanket, and leisurewear company used the term to market their products. The Danish word even landed on the 2016 shortlist for Oxford’s Word of the Year, which annually highlights the most widely used expressions that “have lasting potential [for] cultural significance.”
That the Nordic concept of hygge reached a level of international fascination during the time of Brexit in the United Kingdom and Trump’s presidential election in the United States is fitting. The concept, which is rooted in comfort, togetherness, and well-being, is inherently soothing. During times of upheaval, when both public and personal perceptions of safety and community are at risk, it’s common to yearn for some of the senses that hygge evokes. Now, in another period of global uncertainty, it feels appropriate to revisit the term. Here’s everything you need to know about the Danish concept of hygge, including how you can embrace aspects of the lifestyle in this moment, when many of us likely need it.
What does hygge mean?
Hygge (pronounced “hoo-ga”) is defined by The Oxford English Dictionary as “a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being, regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture.” While the Danish word can’t be directly translated in English, it suggests a general sense of comfort, charm, simplicity, and community. (It’s similar to the German idea of gemütlichkeit, the Dutch term, gezelligheid, and the Swedish word, mys.)
The concept of hygge can be traced back to the early 1800s in Denmark, explains Dane Meik Wiking, founder of Copenhagen’s Happiness Research Institute, in his New York Times best seller The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living (William Morrow, 2017). While the notion of hygge is most central in Denmark, however, the term actually derives from a Norwegian word, hugga, which loosely means “to comfort,” and is also related to the English word “hug.”
How do Scandinavians hygge?
In The Little Book of Hygge, Wiking, whose think tank revolves around exploring the causes and effects of human happiness, lays out the primary principles of hygge in Denmark, which include atmosphere, presence (the ability to be focused in the now), pleasure, gratitude, comfort, and togetherness. The concept of hygge is about gratitude and savoring the simple pleasures that bring you joy, according to Wiking.
Danes practice the concept year round, whether by enjoying dinner in the backyard in summer or sipping tea by the fireplace during winter, which in Scandinavia is typically very long, cold, and filled with dark days. But hygge isn’t just for Danes—it’s practiced in neighboring Nordic countries such as Norway and Sweden, too. (Swedes, however, use their own word to describe this notion, as previously mentioned: “mys.”) Despite the harsh weather, all of the Scandinavian nations regularly rank among the world’s happiest countries according to the World Happiness Report, an annual survey that lists countries based on how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be. (In 2020, Denmark followed just behind Finland, which scored the top spot.)
However, as Wiking noted in a 2018 interview with Elle UK, it’s important to recognize that Scandinavians might be freer to pursue the simple pleasures in life because many Nordic countries ensure that the basic needs of their citizens are met, providing things like free university education, social security, universal health care, and paid family leave.
Still, hygge can mean something different to everyone, as simple comfort is—by nature—a matter of subjectivity. When you’re hunkered down with a soft blanket and the book you’ve been meaning to read, that can be considered hygge. If you’re looking through a window on a crisp, clear day and letting your face feel the warm sunlight, that can be considered hygge, too. After all, more important than what hygge looks like is what hygge feels like.
What are the tenets of a hygge lifestyle?
For Norwegian chef Signe Johansen, author of How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2017), the concept of hygge can often be linked to specific food and drinks, such as cardamom twists (Swedish pastry buns) or gløgg, a Scandinavian mulled wine with cardamom pods and star anise. In Hygge: The Danish Art of Happiness (Michael Joseph, 2017), Danish author Marie Tourell Søderberg points to household items that are commonly considered hyggelig (the adjective form), among them candles, fireplaces, hand-knitted throw blankets, and wool felt slippers.
In Denmark, there are even a few words specifically created for items that evoke a sense of hygge. Hyggebukser, for example, refers to the pair of pants you practically live in when relaxing at home, and a hyggekrog is often used in reference to a cozy nook or even your favorite armchair. Combine hygge with the Danish word for socks (sokker) and you have hyggesokker, or impossibly comfortable socks. Place it in front of the Danish word for chat (snak) to make hyggesnak, which alludes to charming small talk.
While the Danish concept of hygge is frequently associated with consumer objects like candles and blankets, most Danes (and other Nordic neighbors) maintain that practicing a hygge lifestyle doesn’t necessarily equate to buying more. Outdoor activities like bike rides, woodland walks, and stargazing are all considered hyggelig. Even indoors, you can embrace the concept of hygge by brewing a warm cup of coffee and calling your friends and family to chat, or starting to piece together a puzzle in the living room. When you’re feeling particularly inspired, you can cook a dish you’ve never tried or start an arts and craft endeavor, such as a scrapbook, with whatever you have available.
The most important aspect to embrace about Denmark’s “cozy” lifestyle might be summarized most succinctly in The Book of Hygge: The Danish Art of Contentment, Comfort, and Connection (Plume, 2017) by Danish English author Louisa Thomsen Brits. At its core, Brits writes, hygge is just “a practical way of creating sanctuary in the middle of very real life.”