A room lit only by candles. Soft music playing in the background. A worn but unbelievably soft and comfortable armchair beside a roaring fire. A mug of hot chocolate topped with two marshmallows. You, wrapped in a hand-knitted blanket, seated on the armchair, the mug in your hands.
If you are reading this in the height of the Australian summer—or anything but a cold snap in the midst of winter—you may likely be filled with a sense of sticky unease. But in a country where the hottest average temperature reaches a sweltering 16 degrees Celsius, such instances of intimate cosiness are much easier attained—and desirable.
Hygge is the latest lifestyle trend to dominate much of the Western world, an export from the same country that gave us Hans Christian Andersen and The Little Mermaid, conferred upon Tasmanian plebeian Mary Donaldson the title of Crown Princess, and designs ridiculously good-looking and functional furniture.
What is hygge and does it even exist in Denmark? Is it as authentic as Ikea is to Sweden or a mere construct like the Swedish Chef from The Muppet Show? Kenneth Mollerup Birch, one of the few Danes I know, says, “Hygge is definitely real. The trouble with defining it is that for us Danes it’s ubiquitous. Just as fish cannot see water, we don’t really ponder the meaning of hygge until we have to explain it to a foreigner.”
So while it’s real, it’s an idea so ingrained into Danish life that defining it proves to be a problem—perhaps it’s like trying to explain the concept of mateship to a non-Australian.
Although difficult to define, how the Danes practise it may help paint a clearer picture. Mollerup Birch explains, “[Hygge] is about being in the moment. You set the scene for that moment with anything you like. Any combination of mood lighting, background music, entertainment, some form of comfort food and good company; indoors or outdoors. We tend to stay inside a lot because of the climate, but in my opinion a traditional Aussie barbecue would in fact qualify.”
The rest of the world, however, seems to have a pretty definite idea of what hygge is. According to Charlotte Higgins of British newspaper, The Guardian, it is “a feeling of calm togetherness and the enjoyment of simple pleasures, perhaps illuminated by the gentle flicker of candlelight.”
Meik Wiking, author of The Little Book of Hygge, offers another definition in an interview with Elle: “It all boils down to the pursuit of everyday happiness—the art of creating intimacy and cocoa by candlelight.”
In a nutshell, most English-speaking commentators agree it generally means “cosiness” and pronounce it “hoo-ga.” (Which seems oversimplified, considering how Mollerup Birch told me it should be pronounced.)
It is perhaps Wiking’s definition—the mention of cocoa and candlelight—that fully encompasses what hygge has transformed into outside of Denmark: a commercialised product, in part thanks to the publishing industry. (The New Yorker reports “at least six books about hygge were published in the United States [in 2016], with more to come [this year].” Over in Great Britain, Higgins reported 10, including a parody, were published last year alone.)
While to Danes, hygge is simply part and parcel of life, the rest of the Western world is quick to sell a whole gamut of products—from felt slippers and beeswax candles to Danish pastries and artisanal hot chocolate—so that we too can “get more hygge.”
As Higgins observed, “I have seen hygge used to sell cashmere cardigans, wine, wallpaper, vegan shepherd’s pie, sewing patterns, a skincare range, teeny-tiny festive harnesses for dachshunds, yoga retreats and a holiday in a ‘shepherd’s hut’ in Kent. The Royal and Derngate Theatre in Northampton has even opened a Bar Hygge—craft beer and open sandwiches a speciality.”
So although according to Mollerup Birch, “Real hygge is not about buying stuff. The marketing version is, at best, 50 per cent true,” we are being sold a paradoxical message: to connect with life and enjoy the moment we are in, we have to purchase all forms of material possessions, implying what we do have just isn’t enough to make us happy.
At the same time, as Anna Altman of The New Yorker observes, hygge takes prosperity for granted: How else can we afford all the goods required for us to attain some much-needed cosiness?
“All the encouragements toward superior handicrafts and Scandinavian design, the accounts of daily fireside gatherings and freshly baked pastries assume a certain level of material wealth and an abundance of leisure time,” she writes.
Search for meaning
But is it this level of material wealth that created the need for hygge in the first place? Pedro Diaz, from the Sydney-based Mental Health Recovery Institute, believes our current obsession with the concept is because “we’ve never had it so good financially and materially, so we are looking more at the existential questions of happiness, fulfilment and wellbeing (and being distressed if we don’t have it), whereas before we were focused on survival.”
The relationship between the mass-marketed version of hygge and material wealth seems to be stuck in an ever-revolving chicken-or-the-egg dichotomy: one cannot exist without the other. It is also somewhat reminiscent of King Solomon’s ponderings in the Bible, where he says, “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 5:10).
Returning to Mollerup Birch’s emphasis of being in the moment, hygge bears much resemblance to mindfulness, yet another lifestyle trend and concept.
Vicki Lanani, a Melbourne-based fitness entrepreneur and life coach, believes hygge and mindfulness are similar concepts “if not the same. Both are really about being comfortable, forgetting the worry (past and future) and just sitting in the moment in any way that you feel comfortable.”
According to Lanani, the mass acceptance of hygge has much to do with the state of the world we are currently living in.
“I think we live in a world of so much uncertainty. If we are honest, we don’t really know what is going to happen next. Our society is ruled by work and money (and more work and money) and to be able to stop, enjoy and embrace the present moment has become so comforting for us as a society,” she says.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Claire Thomson, who writes an online news site The Conversation, “After a turbulent, less than cosy year, it’s not hard to grasp why hygge has usurped mindfulness as the wellbeing trend of the moment. As one commentator has observed, hygge is ‘a soothing balm for the traumas of 2016.’ ”
At the end of the day, hygge seems to address humanity’s innate need for comfort and protection.
“In old experiments on baby monkeys, they took them away from their mothers and gave them two options: a metal, mechanical device that gave them food, or a metal mechanical device covered in soft cloth that gave them comfort but not food. The monkeys opted for comfort over food every time,” says Diaz.
“I believe hygge helps people address their needs for closeness and love, and also for safety and certainty.”
Source of healing
“When we are calm and still and focusing on that exact moment, our worries are few and far between. To live like this as often as possible has been proven to heal different disorders such as anxiety and depression,” Lanani further explains.
But in our search for some form of alleviation from all the chaos that surrounds us—from natural disasters to terrorist attacks, political upheaval and economic instability—we seem to have chosen to ignore the rest of the world to focus on our immediate circumstances. It’s a solution that seems as temporary as it is insular.
As Diaz warns, “If you use hygge to escape from deep problems that need your attention, then that’s not a good use of hygge. It doesn’t fix things; it just helps you create some needed rest for your psyche so you can deal with the more important things after. If you don’t take your refreshed mental state and use it to come up with better ways to live life, then hygge has been wasted.”
Everything taken into consideration, hygge is like the water that Jesus says cannot quench thirst (John 4:13).
In our desperate need to hide the confusion, pain and reality of the world we are living in, we seek a solution that only masks the symptoms. On the surface, it provides the solace we crave, but it doesn’t provide a permanent solution. It doesn’t give us “the water that will become . . . a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (verse 14).
The good news is, for that kind of healing, we don’t need felt slippers or Danish pastries. All we need is to “be still, and know that [He is] God” (Psalm 46:10). After all, the Bible says, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself” (Matthew 6:33, 34).