Dark and frosty winter days are here, which means it’s also time to welcome the Danish concept of hygge back into our lives. To get the essential question mark out of the way up front, the Scandinavian word is pronounced hoo-gah. And it loosely translates to a feeling of coziness, particularly among friends.
The New York Times’ Penelope Green explains it as “a national manifesto,” for Danes which is “expressed in the constant pursuit of homespun pleasures involving candlelight, fires, fuzzy knitted socks, porridge, coffee, cake and other people.” And, she notes, those other people are intimates like friends, neighbors, or family. At its core the amorphous concept of hygge is about being present and together with loved ones. A winning—and winsome—idea.
And we’re not the only ones who think so. In the past few years, hygge has become an international phenomenon with books on the Danish concept translated into more than 25 languages, and trend articles about the topic written far and wide. Embracing this Scandinavian cultural concept has been called out by NBC and The Guardian as similar to our obsession with the Chinese “feng shui,” or the French word “chic.”
“There are countless empty Instagram posts with #hygge that in fact are not hygge at all.”
Pinterest is flooded with feel-good winter-themed posts featuring “Hygge On A Budget” and “How To Hygge,” and on Instagram the word has been hashtagged more than 3.9 million times. One recent Instagram photo with #hygge showcases an inviting—yet empty—bedroom with autumn-hued blankets. Atop the bed is a mug nestled next to book with two carefully curated sepia-toned autumn leaves. At first glance this photo looks hygge: There’s the candle, the cozy setting, and the toasty mug of something likely soothing and delicious. But look a little closer and you see what’s missing: the warmth of friends and family.
In a New Yorker article Anna Altman explains, “the true expression of hygge is joining with loved ones in a relaxed and intimate atmosphere.” Or as my partner who studied at the University of Copenhagen for half a year told me, “You can’t have hygge with strangers.” Or in an empty room, for that matter.
The Instagram photos with posed models (who are presumably strangers) laughing over their mugs of steaming hot cocoa with a #hygge are in fact counter to the intimacy at the heart of this concept. And there are countless other staged, empty, Instagram posts with #hygge that in fact are not hygge at all. Where’s the togetherness? The conversation that goes a little bit deeper that the Danish wax poetic about?
Likewise, hygge is all wrong in a recent ad campaign on Twitter by Bed Bath & Beyond which is captioned, “Cozy season has arrived! Here’s how to get the #hygge look.” There’s a portrait of a lifeless bedroom set-up which looks like it was plucked from stock images featuring grey-and-white bedspreads.
Again, no intimacy. The ad-campaign is extra eye-rolling because for anyone who is truly practicing hygge it doesn’t matter how much your toasty socks did or didn’t cost, or what brand of cocoa you’re drinking—it’s about the brightness of spending quality time together with loved ones during long, cold, and dark winter weeks. In fact, a lot of hygge’s cultural cache comes from the fact that the concept is available to anyone with access to somewhere cozy (Instagram-perfect prop styling not required), and a slice of time to spend with people they care about.
“Hygge is a reminder for us to pause to celebrate small moments with people we care about”
Denmark’s Simon Falk Christensen, who serves as a project manager for Danish State Railways, told The Guardian his own definition of hygge, and it echoes this sentiment. “For me it’s a lot about family. Being together. Candles. It’s never about being posh, about cakes from the ‘right’ place. It’s cake you baked yourself. It’s a feeling. It’s something that has meaning in itself,” He said. “It’s not a means to becoming a better person, like doing exercise. I associate it with being a child, the smell of my mother cooking onions in the next room. The smell of the Christmas tree.”
Hygge is a bit enigmatic—sure—but that is in part what makes this wintery Nordic concept so appealing.
Meik Wiking, the CEO of a Copenhagen think tank dubbed the Happiness Research Institute (yes, that’s a real thing) and the author of the best-selling The Little Book of Hygge, told NPR, “We see hygge the same way that you Americans see freedom. You see freedom as something inherently American, we see hygge as something inherently Danish and something that is part of our cultural DNA.” He adds that language also shapes behavior—and notably in the case of hygge—it can be linked to Danish government, which skews its policies in favor of creating a homeland that is cozy and safe for its citizens. The Danish have a 37-hour work week, universal healthcare, free education, and subsidized child care—doesn’t that all sound so snug and comfortable?
Hygge in some ways is a reflection of how the Danish operate by valuing togetherness and looking after one another rather than focusing on the individual (our own American tradition). Hygge is also a reminder for us to pause to celebrate small moments with people we care about even when the world feels dark and frozen. It can serve as something much more than the act of curling up next to a flickering fireplace; it’s a reminder that there’s comfort to be found in togetherness.
To fully practice hygge, do you have to also be Danish? Wiking (it’s worth mentioning his name is pronounced Viking) says “no.” Hygge can be embraced by anyone. So this season, pull on some thick wooly socks and a fuzzy sweater, set a sprinkle of candles ablaze, pour some spiked cider, and invite over friends and family for a time away from the glow of smartphones and TV screens to simply appreciate one another’s company. And think twice before you hashtag hygge.