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Hygge: The Danish Art of Living Cozily

The word "hygge" stems from a Norwegian word meaning “well-being” and the Scandinavians know how this has less to do with money and more to do with creating contentment. Basak Gurbuz Derman/Getty Images

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You've got to hand it to the Scandinavians. Almost every year one of the Nordic countries – Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland or Iceland – makes it to the top of the World Happiness Report. This report, produced every year since 2012 by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, says it ranks the world's 156 countries in order of "how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be." Based on data from the Gallup World Poll, Finland took the No. 1 spot in 2019.

The question of what makes Scandinavians so darn happy has been the subject of much consideration and research. In fact, the independent think tank, the Happiness Research Institute, based in Copenhagen, Denmark explores why some societies and some people are happier than others.

While many point to benefits like strong social welfare, tuition-free higher education and access to health care found in these Scandinavian countries as reasons for their high happiness rankings, an appreciation for hygge might be a vital factor, too. Translated in many ways like "the art of creating intimacy," "coziness of the soul" and even "cocoa by candlelight," Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute, points out that some of the key ingredients of hygge are togetherness, relaxation, indulgence, presence and comfort.

What Is Hygge?

Pronounced "hue-gah" or "hoo-gah," depending on whom you ask, the word hygge stems from a Norwegian word meaning "well-being" and entered written Danish in the early 1800s, according to Wiking's "The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living." For residents of Denmark, hygge is part of daily lifestyle and conversation. It can be combined with other words like socks (sokker), giving you hyggesokker or chat (snak) to make hyggesnak, which is small talk – that is cozy, of course. But it's not just for Danes, and having more hygge might even help Americans move back up on the happiness chart. (They ranked No. 19 on the 2019 World Happiness Report.)

"It's a feeling or a moment in time," says Niki Brantmark, blogger at My Scandinavian Home and author of "Lagom: Not Too Little, Not Too Much: The Swedish Art of Living a Balanced, Happy Life". "It's about cozy contentment." Creating a cozy atmosphere is also very Swedish, and Brantmark says that even as a transplant to Sweden from the U.K., she was familiar with the concept long before it became a worldwide sensation in 2016. "It's about going back to the basics. It's about simplifying things."

Creating Hygge Style

While hygge is often associated with having a cozy home, it's not necessarily a design style, although how you style your home and the items you choose to include are an important part of a hygge life. Home is central to social life in Denmark, according to Wiking. Not surprisingly, hygge at home is about creating coziness. Even in a big house with white walls, Brantmark says it's possible to bring in hygge by creating zones within the larger spaces.

Wiking says there is not a specific rule for making your home as hygge as possible, but introducing a fireplace and candles – a hyggekrog – along with natural elements made of wood, books and plenty of blankets are a good starting point.

"Also remember that a hygge interior is not just about how things look, it is just as much about how things feel," he explains by email. "Letting your fingers run across a wooden table, a warm ceramic cup or through the hairs of the skin of a reindeer is a distinctly different feeling than being in contact with something made from steel, glass or plastic. Think about the way objects feel to your touch and add a variety of textures to your home."

Whatever the season or climate, home hygge – hjemme hygge (pronounced "yem hooga") – is possible. Recommendations for generating coziness often include blankets and hot tea or cocoa, but in the warmer months, hygge can be experienced through the smell of fresh-cut grass or sunscreen, according to "The Little Book of Hygge." In any temperature, one of the simplest ways to begin creating hygge is with thoughtful lighting.

The elements of hygge include woolly socks, candles and a mug of hot cocoa.
istetiana/Getty Images

"It has to start with the candles," says Brantmark. "Candles emit a warm glow that makes everyone feel good." Indoors, lights should be dimmable. "If you have really harsh lighting, it automatically does not feel relaxing."

Yet even with these recommendations, having hygge does not equate to buying more objects, despite the use of hygge as a marketing pitch by some companies.

"I think many people, also partly because of the commercial attention that hygge has received in the last couple of years, believe that hygge can be bought," explains Wiking. "But in reality, hygge is more of an atmosphere that cannot be purchased."

Living the Hygge Lifestyle

In addition to making a hyggelig home, the true essence of hygge is the pursuit of everyday happiness, according to Wiking. Activities can be hygge too, and while enjoying at-home dinners and board games with friends are some hygge options, you can also find happiness in time alone. In "The Joy of Hygge," Jonny Jackson and Elias Larsen offer outdoor activity suggestions like fruit picking, winter beach walks, bonfires and stargazing. Simple solo pleasures might include enjoying a candlelit bath or reading by the fire.

"I have come to realize that hygge may function as a driver for happiness on an everyday basis," explains Wiking. "Hygge gives us the language, the objective and the methods for planning and preserving happiness – and for getting a little bit more of it every day."

Is the concept of hygge transportable outside of Denmark and neighboring Scandinavian countries in a way that it can benefit other less-happy countries? Will it be helpful to create what Wiking calls a "hygge emergency kit" containing items to pull out when feeling out of sorts? (He suggests having candles, good quality chocolate, tea, a favorite book, jam, a good pair of wool socks, a notebook, a sweater and a nice blanket at the ready.)

"I do believe that Denmark can be a source of inspiration for how countries can increase the quality for their citizens, but hygge is not something that the Danes own for themselves," he says. "Hygge is something for everyone in every country."

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