Feb 19, 2021 | LIFE | By Katherine Moynihan | Illustration by Patil Khakhamian
Hygge, pronounced ‘hoog-ah,’ is a Danish word that translates best to comfort in English, somewhat comparable to gemütlichkeit in German. The Danish book “A Little Book of Hygge” by Meik Wiking, the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute, inspired me to discover hygge equivalents in American culture.
Hygge directly translates to the feeling of warmth, happiness, and security. Denmark is cold and dark for most of the year. However, Danes are statistically the happiest people in the world. How is this possible?
Social science measures the benefits of a nation that values social connection, community, and pleasure the same way Americans value freedom. Soft lit candles, blankets, chocolate cake, and wool socks are hygge at face value, yet the notions of patience, togetherness, warmth, and focus characterize such happy Danish traditions.
Hygge is a state of mind. Imagine this: after a long day skiing out in the cold, you and your friends stumble into a warm, fire-lit cabin, take off your wet ski clothes, and collapse into a huge armchair. Everyone is tired and delusional from facing the elements. Hair is messy, lips are chapped, melting snow is falling down ankles.
In this god-given cabin, there is hot chocolate, warm chili, and fresh wool socks. You can’t stop talking about that last run or just how good it feels to take off your boots. That warm fuzzy feeling is the feeling of hygge. It is contentment, joy, and pleasure.
A key element of hygge is food. Wiking emphasizes that a true hyggeligt meal is not complete without high quality ingredients and people to eat with. Furthermore, a slow-meal preparation process makes the end-product extra hyggeligt.
To illustrate this concept more clearly, imagine jam on toast as the hygge meal in question. The best way to embody hygge when making jam on toast is to spend a day with friends hand-picking the berries yourself to gather the fruit mixture.
Then, you and your friends can find a time to meet up and boil the fruit, add sugar, and wait for the jam to simmer. When it is time to eat the jam, you are tasting the climax of a slow process involving memories, patience, and friendship.
Over the holidays, I made a point to make my meals extra hyggeligt. My favorite was homemade tomato soup, which involved twelve crushed plum tomatoes and a generous portion of olive oil. I made a large portion – enough for everyone in my family to enjoy for a few days.
Light, in addition, is critical. Copenhagen’s northern location and harsh winters require lots of light sources when the sun is absent, like candles and glare-free lamps. Surprisingly, scented candles distract from the light of a candle flame, so Danes opt for non-scented candles – and for that matter, lots of them.
Wiking reports that most Danes light four candles for four to six days per week. Hygge also has texture. Think about your favorite things to touch. Maybe it’s petting your cat or your favorite comfortable sweatshirt that has been through the wash dozens of times but never loses its feel.
After reading about how light contributes to Danish culture, I questioned my own light sources. Keeping hygge in mind, I started lighting fires and candles on regular occasions, not just holidays, to broaden exposure to natural light.
However, hygge is not hedonism. Although Danes are pleasure-seekers, that warm fuzzy feeling in the category of hygge only holds power when there is something non-hygge to contrast it. Take, for example, a winter storm. The enjoyment of sitting inside during a storm is amplified by the unpleasant weather, the same way spending a day watching movies with friends feels fun after a long week of hard work.
Wiking’s inverted approach to self-improvement, by describing the enticing reward, is effective. After reading this book, I admit to finding myself reading in the morning with some jam on a toasted muffin and opting for hot chocolate instead of tea.
Oddly, I started making choices that were more indulgent, which seemed contradictory for a book about self-improvement and change. Surprisingly, making a habit of indulgence actually helped my self-control. I managed my time better and learned to control my emotions because I felt intrinsically satisfied.
“The Little Book of Hygge” is not about changing your entire life from the bottom up; it is about finding pleasure in what you already have.