For the last three out of four years, the UN World Happiness Report has declared Denmark the happiest nation on earth. (Switzerland edged out a win in 2015.) Their comprehensive welfare system means high taxes, but less stress and anxiety for those in need of unemployment benefits, health insurance, and time off. A healthy work-life balance is revered: Most people work a moderate 35 to 40 hours a week.
The Danes take their leisure so seriously that it extends to their language. Roughly pronounced hoo-guh, hygge is a word without direct English translation. Hygge can be facilitated, but not forced. One can experience hygge alone, though it is powerful with loved ones. Hygge is hard to define, but you know it when you feel it it.
“The closest word would have to be coziness, but that doesn’t really do it justice,” writes Pia Edberg in her book The Cozy Life. “[Hygge is] a holistic approach to deliberately creating intimacy, connection, and warmth with ourselves and those around us.”
Marie Tourell Søderberg, another hygge practitioner and Denmark native, says, “In a nutshell, it is a Danish word for finding happiness in the little things in life… it’s like a compass, steering us towards small moments that money cannot buy you, finding magic in the ordinary.”
Hygge is contentment. Hygge is comfort. Hygge is living in the moment.
While "in the US and the UK we’d fought for more money at work," notes Helen Russell, author of The Year of Living Danishly (a book I highly recommend), “Scandinavians had fought for more time—for family leave, leisure and a decent work-life balance.” They fought for hygge.
Though it bears repeating that you cannot force hygge, it can certainly be coaxed along. Below are some ways to cultivate all the warm, fuzy feels through this holiday season, the Danish way.
Danes care a great deal about their surroundings. Danish designers, such as Arne Jacobsen and Finn Juhl are these days household names. In addition to a rich design legacy, the country’s harsh weather plays a significant role in the Danish emphasis on home-life: Interior surroundings are treated as an extension of self and a calm refuge from winter temperatures hovering in the 30s.
When in doubt as to how to introduce some hygge into your home, candles are always a good bet. Reports show that Danish residents each burn an average of 13 pounds of candles every year (the most of any country, by a landslide). Lighting as a whole is very important to Danes, who prefer to create hygge “zones” using soft pools of light. Warm-toned lighting from ambient sources, such as lamps, are much preferred to harsh overhead bulbs. (Famously eco-conscious, the Danes would endorse the choice to use an LED!)
Adding soft blankets and plush pillows is another great way to easily increase your home’s cozy factor. There is no need to go for a strictly Scandinavian look—your space must represent you and your style to facilitate a hygge experience.
No matter your aesthetic, however, the space should be neat and tidy. As Helen Russell learned early on in her Danish journey, “cleanliness is next to Danishness.”
Perhaps most important of alI, invest in a well-made dining table that can sit at least 6 to 8 people. For Danes, much of the good life happens with friends and family around the dining table.
In Denmark, opening one’s home to others is so frequent and natural that it’s not necessarily a big to-do. Of course, all the hygge elements are in place with candles lit and glasses full, but other than these assumed pre-requisites, Danes keep it simple. They know that fussing over food and stressing out about timing will deflate a sense of hygge like nothing else.
If you’re trying to entertain like a Dane, set out some simple appetizers and treats and then sit down to enjoy your guests. As long as the schnapps is flowing, there won’t be any complaints. Danes also like to stay their welcome for hours on end, so games are a frequent after-dinner activity. Charades, anyone?
As far as what to cook, Marie Tourell Søderberg recommends making snørbrod as a quintessential way to achieve hygge. You can think of it as a more savory version of roasting marshmallows for s’mores: Dough is wrapped around a stick and baked over the open flame, rotated for optimum browning, of course.
In her book Hygge: The Danish Art of Happiness, she writes, “enjoying snøbrod is a classic hygge moment and the making of it stimulates all our senses: smelling the bonfire and the chilly summer night, seeing the dancing flames, and feeling the warmth on your face.”
To use another word without direct English translation, hygge has hit the zeitgeist. In time for this year’s holiday season, at least nine books will be published dedicated to the subject.
This concept of taking time to relax at home seems to be ruminating around our nation’s collective-subconscious, ready to break out in full force at any moment. Maybe it’s the crazy election season. Maybe it’s our very American habit of equating busyness to importance. Maybe it’s all the “one days” we pile up in hopes of finally having time to read, or paint, or just putz around.
Whatever it is, clearly something about hygge is striking a chord with the masses, myself included. While reading about hygge, I couldn’t help but think of the lyrics to an old John Mayer song where he sings, “I think I’m going to stay home [and] have myself a home life.”
How do you hygge? Tell us how you're getting warm and cozy this season, in the comments.