The word “hygge” is all over the place. I first encountered it on the art and design blog Creative Boom. Recently, I saw British author Hari Kunzru poking fun at Scandinavia with the following tweet: “The five stages of contemporary Scandinavian fiction: (1) Hygge, (2) Quietly despairing, (3) Wartime secrets, (4) Alcohol, rage and shame, (5) Serial murder.”
Well, what is hygge (pronounced hoo-gah)? The concept is explained very well in The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well by Meik Wiking (@MeikWiking), CEO of the Happiness Research Institute (Facebook)—an independent think tank based in Copenhagen exploring why some societies are happier than others. Coming from the fields of economics, anthropology, psychology, political science, philosophy and design, the folks at the Happiness Research Institute aim “to inform decision makers of the causes and effects of human happiness, make subjective well-being part of the public policy debate, and improve quality of life for citizens across the world”.
“Hygge” is a Danish word that originates from a Norwegian word meaning “well-being”. The first time ‘hygge’ appeared in written Danish was around the early 1800s. It is quite untranslatable in English. Hygge, writes Wiking, is:
about an atmosphere and an experience, rather than about things. It is about being with the people we love. A feeling of home. A feeling that we are safe, that we are shielded from the world and allow ourselves to let our guard down. You may be having an endless conversation about the small or big things in life – or just be comfortable in each other’s silent company – or simply just be by yourself enjoying a cup of tea.
Candles, coffee, socks, fireplace, lamps, books, films, handwritten letters, notebooks, stews, wooden things, mulled wine, a meal cooked by 3-4 people, togetherness, cosiness, comfort, casualness, egalitarianism, simplicity, modesty—that’s what hygge sounds and looks like. And it is the big reason why (that is, in addition to the Nordic welfare model that greatly reduces stress and anxiety) Denmark is often said to be the happiest country in the world. Just see the news articles: “Denmark tops happiest country in the world 2017” (Study in Denmark), “Welcome to the happiest country on Earth” (CBS News), “Here’s why people in Denmark are happier than anyone else in the world” (Business Insider).
In his book, Wiking admits that: “Denmark is by no means a perfect utopia, and the country faces challenges and issues like any other country”, but he does believe that “Denmark can be a source of inspiration for how countries can increase the quality of life of their citizens.”
So Wiking illuminates “hygge” through 14 chapters: (1) Light (2) We Need to Talk About Hygge (3) Togetherness (4) Food and Drink (5) Clothing (6) Home (7) Hygge Outside the Home (8) Hygge All Year Round (9) Hygge on the Cheap (10) Hygge Tour of Copenhagen (11) Christmas (12) Summer Hygge (13) Five Dimensions of Hygge and finally (14) Hygge and Happiness. He teaches us how to cultivate the phenomenon, mentioning the attitudes, the decor and the objects that it requires.
Hygge, I realised, is ultimately important because it helps deepen our relationships, it creates an environment where we can intimately interact with those who are closest to us. And studies have found that it is our social relationships, more than our income or status or possessions or anything else, that finally determine our happiness. Here’s Wiking again:
…research from several decades demonstrates evidence that supports the bond between our relationships and well-being. Happier people have a larger quantity and better quality of friendships and family relationships. Thus, good relationships both cause happiness and are caused by it. The studies suggest that, of all the factors that influence happiness, a sense of feeling related to those around you is very near the top of the list.
That is why hygge may be one of the reasons why Danes always report high levels of happiness. Not only are there policies that secure them time to pursue meaningful relationships, but the language and the culture also drive Danes to prioritize spending time with family and friends and to develop quality relationships over time.
To learn more, check out videos of Meik Wiking: