Hygge Is Where the Heart Is
Baby, it’s cold out there. And I don’t mean the weather. This, the most divisive political season in memory, has truly been the winter (and spring and fall and summer) of our discontent. Many of us are struggling. It’s not even a question of loving our neighbor at this point; it’s more a question of tolerating him.
Is it any wonder, then, that a year like this has coincided with a fascination, bordering on obsession, with the Danish concept of hygge? (Pronounced HOO-gah, like an old-timey car horn.) Hygge roughly translates to “coziness” and “well-being” and encompasses an entire way of living that promises warmth, safety and, most important, community. Books on the Nordic concept of hygge have proliferated here and in Britain like candles in a Danish home. Which is to say, there are a boatload of these books. Because Danes feel about candles the way Americans feel about cat videos and guns. There’s no such thing as “too much.”
The movement’s manifesto, already a best seller, is THE LITTLE BOOK OF HYGGE: Danish Secrets to Happy Living (Morrow/HarperCollins, $19.99). The author, Meik Wiking, tells us that Denmark has one of the happiest populations in the world, which I believe is the result of two things: (1) The Happiness Research Institute, of which Wiking is the chief executive, is located in Copenhagen, so they have the home team advantage; and (2) who wouldn’t be happy eating their namesake pastry?
Wiking lays out the principles of hygge quite simply — and simplicity is at the heart of hygge. You need: atmosphere (thus the obsession with lighting), presence (the ability to be in the here and now and turn off the phone), pleasure, equality (“ ‘we’ over ‘me’ ”), gratitude, harmony, comfort, truce (the willingness to get together and not discuss controversial issues . . . imagine that), togetherness and shelter, which involve recognizing and celebrating “your tribe.” What I originally thought was the tent pole of hygge — best exemplified by being curled up next to a fireplace, cocoa in hand, cashmere cowl neck caressing my cheek while deer gamboled on the beach in front of my picture window (shut up; my fantasy, my beach-deer) — bore little relation to what hygge actually was. Well, I got the fuzzy clothing and the fireplace and the hot drink right. But you can’t hygge alone. Or shouldn’t. “The best predictor of whether we are happy or not is our social relationships,” Wiking writes. On the down side, Danish culture is very closed to outsiders, and you have to work mightily to make it into anyone’s social circle. On the upside, once you’re there, you have friendship tenure — you’re in for life. “The Little Book” is popular because it is both prescriptive and descriptive, explaining in great but amusing detail how you can hygge with your friends: the right lighting (fluorescent bulbs need not apply), the right furniture (think wood), food and conversation. Along the way you learn the meanings of all sorts of words that get you in the mood for the complete hygge experience. Take hyggebukser: These are the one pair of pants you really should never wear in public but are a favorite anyway because they’re so comfortable. Or, as I call them, pants.
While Wiking talks about the food and drink traditionally part of a hygge evening, Brontë Aurell and Signe Johansen show you how to make them. Fika is the Swedish word that means meeting for a chat over a cup of coffee or tea and something delicious. It’s a concept very much at the heart of the hygge movement — and Aurell’s SCANDIKITCHEN FIKA & HYGGE: Comforting Cakes and Bakes From Scandinavia With Love (Ryland Peters & Small, $14.95) is food porn at its finest. It’s rare that I open a book on baking and everything looks good, from the Vores banankage (That Banana Cake) to the Toscatarta, or almond Tosca cake, named after the Puccini opera presumably because you will hurl yourself off a parapet if you can eat only one piece.
I tackled the tasty and not overly sweet blueberry studmuffins. But many of the other baked goods were too complicated for this amateur. So I sneaked over to the chef Signe Johansen’s HOW TO HYGGE: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life (St. Martin’s Griffin, $19.99) to bolster my confidence. I picked something I thought would be easy and delicious, a recipe for Chocolate, Almond and Marzipan Prunes. I guess I failed to see it for the arts-and-crafts project it was. Halfway through stuffing the marzipan paste and whole almonds into the prunes and ripping everything into one big sticky mess (only later did I realize the almonds go on top), I gave up, and decided my dish would be called Chocolate Prunes Adjacent. Just lay everything on a plate and stuff it into your mouth at once. Stop whining. That’s so un-hygge.
Johansen is also a lifestyle guru, stressing that simplicity in all of life’s pursuits is the underpinning of hygge: “Jettison the anxieties and clutter of modern living to free up your time and energy to make the most of life.” (This simplicity can be kind of expensive and time-consuming, though. Wiking describes the “Kähler vase scandal,” a.k.a. Vasegate. On Aug. 25, 2014, 16,000 Danes tried to buy a limited-edition piece of striped tableware that was considered perfect for a Danish home. They crashed the manufacturer’s website, and long lines formed outside stores.) She also discusses the centrality of outdoor life to happiness. To be active is to be alive, and the outdoors is always preferable to a gym. “If you experienced a P.E.-related trauma in your childhood, please don’t let that deter you from taking up an activity later in life,” she writes. “Even if your body is clumsy, it’s still a magnificent feat of engineering. Marvel at what your body can do.” I got a little weepy over that one. Time for another cup of cocoa.
Johansen calls hygge “a culture of healthy hedonism,” which is the most aspirational definition of a life well lived one could hope for. As if to drive her point home, “How to Hygge” is illustrated with photos of staggeringly gorgeous Nordic people in Fair Isle sweaters clutching coffee, riding bikes and potting plants. For some reason I don’t find this as obnoxious as I would if they were Americans. Maybe because I am convinced this is how they really live — as though the cameraman happened to drop by, and Johansen invited him into her sun-dappled kitchen to watch her chop fennel. But first, she hands him a cup of coffee and some “psychedelic socks” — presumably knit from the patterns of Nicki Trench’s HYGGE KNITS: Nordic and Fair Isle Sweaters, Scarves and Hats, and More to Keep You Cozy (CICO Books, $19.95).
I began to wonder why I was impervious to being annoyed by all this codified happiness. After all, I am generally churlish. Yet here I was, savoring the small moments in life like a woman in a ’70s feminine hygiene commercial. Then I realized that what I needed to come back to reality was to hear this concept explained by someone who is not Danish. Who is part British, in fact. Let’s call it Britsplaining. “When Danes get together, the principles of inclusion manifests,” Louisa Thomsen Brits writes in THE BOOK OF HYGGE: The Danish Art of Contentment, Comfort, and Connection (Plume, $22). “Hygge comes from a society that prioritizes tender values and is shaped by the patterns of egalitarian behavior.” “To hygge is to build sanctuary. . . . We shelter each other when we invite people into our homes, when we give time, listen well, or provide a bed for the night; when we offer privacy, a winged armchair, anonymity, a tent in the garden.” Can we just get back to the good lighting and pastries for a second? Not that Brits is wrong, but there’s a sense that someone stuck her and Roland Barthes in a particle accelerator and hoped it would all work out. It’s no coincidence, I think, that at the moment of a huge swing toward right-wing populism and every-man-for-himself, many readers feel wistful about a culture viewed as a liberal utopia, where citizens willingly give up a large chunk of private income for the public good. If we want to truly experience hygge, a cultural commitment to free education and health care — to people over profit — would go a long way. But listen, I’ll take the cake and candles too.
This article was originally published on nytimes.com