When the weather outside is frightful, there’s nothing more delightful than getting cozy at home with fuzzy blankets, a fire, yummy treats and a cup of coffee.
This kind of introverted paradise has recently become popular thanks to social media and #selfcare — but also thanks to hygge (pronounced hyoo-geh), an aspect of Danish culture often translated as “coziness” that has taken the Western world by storm.
Hygge, like many trendy things, isn’t what we think it is. Rather than being only about physical coziness with fuzzy socks and aromatic candles, hygge is more about coziness of the soul, if you will. It’s about spending quality time with people you care about, engaging in interesting and dynamic conversation, and sharing a moment or many where everyone is focused on each other and being mutually respectful.
Sure, good food and cozy things can intensify the feeling of hygge, but alone they don’t get at the core meaning.
“You can try and recreate it alone, but for me, hygge has social interaction. You can make a situation hyggelig, but for real hygge you have to have people, conversation and be present in the moment,” says Kristian Næsby, M.A., a visiting lecturer in the Scandinavian studies department at the University of Washington and a native of Denmark.
The real hygge
In an attempt to debunk hygge myths and misconceptions, here are five things you may not know about real Danish hygge — and how to add more of it to your life.
Hygge is a way of life, not an idea
You’ve probably heard hygge referred to as a concept or idea. That might make sense to us Americans, who, until recently, weren’t familiar with hygge and may be put off by the fact that it doesn’t have a literal translation in English. But to a Danish person, thinking of hygge this way would probably feel strange.
At its core, hygge is a feeling of coziness or contentment shared amongst people who respect each other. It’s a sense of trust and security that what you say will be valued, with the confidence that you will extend that same sentiment to your companions. It’s about being relaxed, mindful and enjoying the small things in life.
For Næsby, this was epitomized in days from his childhood when his parents invited close friends over.
“They were having discussions, political and otherwise; they were disagreeing. But then when the night was over, they would hug each other and say, ‘This was so hygge.’ They tested out their hypotheses and values against someone who felt differently from them, but they trusted and valued each other as good people,” Næsby says.
Hygge is not about…
Næsby has a list of things he says can’t be present if hygge is to exist. It’s not a long list, but it’s an important one.
First, the experience can’t be uncomfortable. If people are arguing or stressed out or feel alienated from the conversation, that’s not hygge. Nor is it hygge to be on your phone when you’re supposed to be spending time with friends (and no, looking at Scandinavian design accounts on Instagram doesn’t give you a pass).
Hygge also isn’t about being in a crowded public space. Going to a stadium concert, for example, might be fun, but it’s not hygge.
Ultimately, though, it’s not so much the location but the way someone interacts with it that makes a situation hygge or not.
And, contrary to what countless marketing campaigns would have you believe, hygge isn’t about materialism. It’s not about buying more candles or soft sweaters or turning your home into something out of an Ikea catalog, Næsby says. If you want to buy all of those things because they make you happy, more power to you — but money can’t buy hygge.
“In Denmark, the idea is that we don’t need fancy mansions; we can have a cabin in the woods and be just as happy,” Næsby says.
Hygge is new to Americans but not Danes
It’s probably no surprise that, although hygge has only existed in American consciousness since late 2016, when the trend first took off, Danish people have known about it for much longer — long enough for it to become part of their culture.
According to Næsby, hygge as a cultural movement began after the Second Schleswig War in 1864, when Denmark conceded to Prussia and Austria. Morale was low after the loss, and people decided to turn inward and focus on rebuilding local communities.
“It was about turning your back to the world and problems that are so big you don’t feel like you can fix it or fathom it, instead turning inward to smaller communities you trust and understand,” Næsby explains.
The Danish don’t necessarily understand our fascination with hygge, either. Næsby sees this when he visits Denmark to give lectures about his work at UW.
“I say, ‘So one of the things we talk about in the U.S. is hygge as an intellectual concept,’ and they’re dying laughing that someone would study what’s just an ingrained part of our lives,” he says.
Hygge isn’t all positive
Many of the things hygge represents — quality time with friends, focused conversation, being comfortable — are positive, but there’s one aspect of hygge that Næsby admits isn’t perfect.
That’s because hygge’s origins are based on the idea that it’s good to close yourself off from the world in order to focus internally, whether that’s on your small group of friends or on your local community. This isn’t always a bad thing, but it can be isolating — and make others feel unwelcome.
Much like us Pacific Northwesterners, Danish people aren’t exactly outgoing to strangers, Næsby says — something that resonates with anyone in this part of the world who understands the so-called Seattle Freeze.
“Danes are seen as kind of a closed-off people; it’s hard for newcomers to have more friends and to get into those social circles,” Næsby says.
This can serve as a reminder that sharing cozy moments and feeling closer to good friends is great, as long as it’s not to the exclusion of others who might be looking for a new friend.
Hygge is not the same thing as happiness
Articles about hygge often make the claim that Danes are the happiest people in the world because of it, and that, if you add more hygge to your life, you’ll be happier, too. This is, of course, hard to quantify, and Næsby thinks such a broad generalization misses the point.
How to add more hygge to your life
So, what does all this mean for you? Instead of trying to find hygge solely in material objects or a few isolated moments, discover how to add more hygge into your day-to-day life.
“What you can do is carve out more time in your calendar, put your phones away, meet up with friends — and you should definitely have a glass of wine or cup of coffee and some nice snacks,” Næsby says.
Maybe that means inviting friends over for dinner instead of going to a bar, or setting aside time each week to sit with your partner and discuss what you’ve seen in the news, what you’ve been thinking about lately and what your goals are for the next few weeks.
However you decide to incorporate more hygge, don’t forget that it’s ultimately not about isolating yourself but about sharing meaningful experiences with others.
“It’s critically important that you are together with other people, genuinely and in the now. Learn about them, ask questions more than you talk, have conversations about who you are and what you want to be. We train our empathy and ethical core in situations that have hygge,” Næsby says.