I’ve always liked the idea of Nordic life. The glistening, pristine snow in winter with fields of flowers in spring and summer, the welcoming people, the feeling that it’s such a hidden part of Europe: tucked up in the corner, the strange furniture, the food, the coziness…it always seemed so novel and lovely. Finding out I’m part Swedish was a big influence.
After studying my ancestry, I wanted anything and everything to do with the countries my ancestors came from. But somehow, I kinda…well, forgot, I guess, that I’m Swedish. I dug my heels into all things German, started digging through the culture of Normandy, learned Old English, even read on the Australian and New Zealand prison systems to get a better idea of how my Maori great-great-grandmother came in the picture, but being Swedish just passed like a blip. I loved the idea but wasn’t sure how to see myself in the culture.
Then, I found out about hygge.
The New Yorker called 2016 “The Year of Hygge” on December 18th, with hygge early in the article being defined as “a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being” which sounds…definitely not like 2016. Hygge comes close to the English word for “cozy,” although there isn’t an exact match for it, and is associated with being a true Dane. I decided who better to ask than a Danish-American? Martha has been living in Denmark for the past few years and is Danish by blood (she’s actually the great-great-great-granddaughter of King Christian IX of Denmark and one of his servant girls), so I decided to ask her all about this hygge stuff.
Charlotte: So, as both a Dane and a US citizen, what exactly is the best way to explain “hygge”?
Martha: Danes really like to say that you can’t translate “hygge,” but it’s pretty close to “coziness.” Just like cozy/coziness, the word hygge can be used in many ways and means slightly different things to different people. For some, it’s having a game night with friends. For others, it’s wearing sweatpants and drinking coffee. Maybe it’s sharing your favorite music with a new friend. Hygge is anything that warms your heart. You can use it as a noun (søndagshygge/Sunday hygge), verb (Skal vi hygge?/Shall we hygge?), or adjective (Det var så hyggeligt!/It was so hyggeligt!). It can even be used in a dirty way if you use the right tone and eyebrow move, but I guess anything can be dirty that way. I suppose I should also address pronunciation… the y is almost like “oo” as in “loot,” but then press the tip of your tongue against the back of your lower front teeth. Sådan! That’s a Danish y. The e is the lazy vowel sound known as schwa, like in “but” or “uhhhhh, what’s hygge.” If you’re using it as an adjective (hyggeligt/hyggelig/hyggelige), -ligt is pronounced as “leet,” -lig as “lee,” and -lige as a slightly longer “lee.” Have fun learning Danish grammar to find out when it should be -ligt, -lig, or -lige.
Charlotte: Pinterest has several ideas, almost like a checklist, of what hygge can and can’t be. Are there any mandatory parts of hygge, or anything that absolutely never, ever falls in that category?
Martha: I think many Danes would say that candles are mandatory to hygge. Also, maybe having something edible available. But again, what some people consider hyggeligt, other people don’t. So, if you consider something hyggeligt, it is welcome in your hygge time. As long as everyone involved is comfortable and happy, you’re safe.
Charlotte: From an outsider’s standpoint, hygge can seem almost indulgent – like everyone has time for pastries, snuggling by the fire, and work is an afterthought or unnecessary for a quality life. Do you have any tips for making Hygge more accessible, or should we change the way it’s presented?
Martha: Oh, big question. This is a classic case of cultural differences. Stay with me…
I think hygge is such a big priority in Denmark for a few reasons. In my opinion, there isn’t much else to do. I’m sure some people will passionately disagree with me on that, but I feel like the main options are to go out eating, drinking, clubbing, shopping, or do the touristy stuff. Those things aren’t for everybody, and on top of that, they’re expensive! When people come to visit me and they say they don’t want to do the normal touristy stuff, I have trouble filling their time and showing them the area because the main pastime in Denmark is hygge! So, on the one hand, inviting them home for some hygge would be giving them the real Danish experience, but on the other hand, it doesn’t really show them Denmark. Another reason I think hygge is so important here is that the weather here is rather gloomy most of the time. People asked me so much when I moved here how I was dealing with the weather. Luckily I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, so it wasn’t that much of a climate change for me to come to Denmark. Rain, wind, dark clouds? I’ve SO got this. But seasonal affective disorder (also regular depression) is really common here. As soon as the sun comes out, everybody FLOODS into the parks. The rest of the time, we hygger (present tense of “to hygge”) to get through the cold wet darkness. Of course, sitting in a park enjoying the sun is also hyggeligt, so that just shows Denmark’s addiction to hygge. As for work being an afterthought or a lower priority than hygge… well… it kind of is! One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed between the US and Denmark is the attitude toward stress. In the US, you say that you’re stressed all the time and nobody thinks much of it. Of course you’re stressed, life is stressful. Work, school, traffic, politics, family, etc… it all builds up. Everybody is stressed about something or another, and if you’re not stressed, you must be hella privileged. Or supernatural. Or lying to make yourself look good. In Denmark, if you say you’re stressed, people act like you’ve just said you’re going to kill yourself. When Danes say they’re stressed, they say they’re “sick with stress” and they take paid time off work until they feel better. In other words, they get paid to hygge. They can do this because Denmark has an amazing social welfare system to keep everybody as healthy and stress-free as possible. Now, of course, that isn’t the norm in the US. So YES, if US Americans want to adopt the whole “hygge” thing, it needs to be adapted and made more accessible. I’d suggest adding a little hygge to your daily routines. For me, one thing that makes instant hygge is Christmas/fairy lights. Stick ’em everywhere. Same with pillows. I also usually carry candy or chocolate in my purse. If you have a desk job, decorate that. You know that song from The Sound of Music, about your favorite things that make you feel not so bad? If you were writing that song, what things would you list? Surround yourself with those things, or pictures of them. Become a hygge junkie.
Charlotte: Are there variations of hygge depending on the time of year?
Martha: Ehhhh, I guess that depends on what you find hyggeligt. I mean, no matter what time of year it is, I am up for cuddling and candles and candy. But maybe in the winter I’ll serve hot cocoa and in the summer I’ll serve milkshakes. One specific seasonal hygge, though, is Julehygge (Christmas hygge). Christmas is HUUUGE in Denmark, so of course, it has it’s own kind of hygge. But surprise surprise, that means Christmas candles and Christmas candy and Christmas movies, etc. All the usual suspects for hygge, but Christmassy!
Charlotte: Is hygge more of a “me time” concept, or is it more of a company thing?
Martha: I think most people think of it as more of a company thing, but you can (and should) absolutely enjoy some solo hygge time.
Charlotte: Who needs to add hygge most in their life?
Martha: Hmm… everybody? I guess if I have to pick one type of person, I’d say people struggling with addictions of any sort. Hygge can be extremely restorative. Create some regular hygge time that revolves around comforting things that don’t include whatever you’re addicted to. There’s real power in realizing that you can enjoy yourself without the things you usually depend on—be it alcohol, drugs, sex, internet or electronic devices, food, certain people, etc.
Charlotte: Families and friends often make small traditions together. Are there hygge variations and traditions that are shared between friends or family?
Martha: Oh, yeah. These things develop naturally, like inside jokes. One thing that has been handed down in my family is how to peel citrus fruits. My mother’s father had a very specific way of doing it, and my mother does it the same way. When I was a kid, it was always a bit of a special little event when mom was going to eat a grapefruit. We would all pile on the couch and watch tv or something as she peeled it that special way and served us each of our pieces in turn. I watched her peel them hundreds of times. When I moved away from home, I had to peel my own grapefruit, but of course, I do it that same special way. It takes me about an hour to eat a grapefruit, but that’s ok, because it’s about the hygge. It’s about slowing down and enjoying the feel and smell and sound of it all. Hygge is very individual. Everyone will have their own little stories they could tell and wouldn’t be able to share without smiling.
Charlotte: Care to share the most hyggelig situation you’ve ever experienced?
Martha: Oh wow, there’s no way I could figure out what the most hyggelig situation of my life has been. Just trying to answer this question has brought back so many lovely memories that are so hyggelige for different reasons. If we’re going by the textbook (or Pinterest, as it were), most common hygge factors that almost everyone can agree on, I think I’d have to go with taking my grandmother to the spa this last spring.
She was visiting from the US, although she was born here in Copenhagen. She’s 89 now and still going strong. She’d been showing me all around the city, telling me amazing stories of her youth. I wanted to treat her to something special, so I booked us some pampering at one of the nicest spas in town. We got foot scrubs and massages and facials, and afterward enjoyed smoothies and chocolate fondue while we lounged in soft bathrobes. There were candles everywhere and we got totally relaxed and silly and had some really nice bonding time.
Charlotte: How does hygge come through in your life?
Martha: I guess what I’m realizing through this interview is that hygge isn’t just an activity or surrounding; it’s a mindset. I have hyggelige experiences all the time. These days, anytime I do something I enjoy, I think of it as hyggeligt. It’s like the difference between sitting quietly doing nothing and sitting down for mindfulness meditation. If you set your intention to make things hyggelige, something pleasant turns into something special. The tangible things you see on Pinterest—the candles, pillows, munchies, etc—are just tools to enhance the hygge.
So, now that we’ve got a basic grasp of hygge, I’m thinking that we should make this more common. Let’s enjoy life. Let’s make it so little moments are filled with intention, gratitude, and restorative power. I decided to ask some other Sweatpants & Coffee-ers what hygge is to them:
“Hygge to me is snuggling on my couch with my husband, watching Friends reruns as we say every single line and inside joke.” – Shandle Blaha
“Hygge is a good book and a cozy chair/sofa/bed and a fuzzy blanket. Hot tea. A sleeping cat.” – Julia Park Tracey
“Hygge is being with people you can be your truest self around. It’s wearing pajamas, turning off your phone, and just being.” – Emmie Arnold
“Hygge is home. It’s Sunday mornings on the porch with my husband, coffee, and the crossword. It’s books and blankets and my dogs. It’s summer nights that are still very warm from the sun, late spring soil, hot apple cider, hot cocoa.” – Emily Parker
“I am very familiar with the feeling, but I struggle with the words to describe it or to describe the thing that moves it from ‘a pleasant moment’ into ‘hygge.’ I can tell you that it usually involves being outside on a warm – but not hot – day, with a cool breeze, the smell of sassafras and magnolia blossoms on the air, and the sound of my husband’s voice. I feel such an intimate serenity in those moments.” – Jessica Grey
“A stormy winter night with a roaring fire, having gotten out of a warm bath and into cozy pajamas, slurping down a bowl of baked potato soup while I’m snuggled in blankets watching Bob’s Burgers and my husband’s snoring.” – Charlotte Smith
Want to learn more about Hygge? Grab a copy of The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking out today!
What is does hygge mean to you?