Why you need to know about 'hygge', the Danish lifestyle craze that's all about comfort

A comfy couch, doughnuts, coffee, and a book make this a pretty hyggelig nook.
A comfy couch, doughnuts, coffee, and a book make this a pretty hyggelig nook.  Photo: Stocksy

As soothing as a video of a basket of baby sloths, and borne on a raft of lifestyle books, hygge is headed for your living room.

Hygge (pronounced HOO-gah, like a football cheer in a Scandinavian accent) is the Danish word for cozy. It is also a national manifesto, nay, an obsession expressed in the constant pursuit of homespun pleasures involving candlelight, fires, fuzzy knitted socks, porridge, coffee, cake and other people. But no strangers, as the Danes, apparently, are rather shy.

Hygge is already such a thing in Britain that the Collins Dictionary proclaimed it one of the top 10 words of 2016, along with Brexit and Trumpism.

Denmark frequently tops lists of the happiest countries in the world, in surveys conducted by the United Nations, among other organisations, consistently beating its Scandinavian cousins, Sweden and Norway. While all three Nordic countries share happiness boosters like small populations and the attendant boons of a welfare state (free education, subsidized child care and other generous social supports), what distinguishes Denmark is its quest for hygge.

At least, that is the conclusion of Meik Wiking, the founder and chief executive of the Happiness Institute, a think tank based in Copenhagen dedicated to exploring why some societies are happier than others.

"We talk about it constantly," Wiking said. "I'll invite you over for dinner and during the week we'll talk about how hyggelig it's going to be, and then during the dinner we'll talk about how hyggelig it is, and then during the week afterwards, you'll remind me about how hyggelig Saturday was." (The adjectival form of the word is pronounced HOO-gah-lee.)

"Danes see hygge as a part of our culture," he said, "the same way you see freedom as inherently American."

When we spoke, Wiking - pronounced Viking - was home in Copenhagen for a few days after a multicity tour. He has written The Little Book of Hygge, which is already a best-seller in Britain and will be out next month in the United States. It is the most engaging of what is becoming a full-fledged lifestyle category. More than 20 how-to hygge books were published here in 2016, although the Marie Kondo of the discipline has yet to be anointed. Perhaps it is anti-hygge to suggest that any one of its gurus might prevail.

Also coming stateside in January is How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life, by Signe Johansen, a chef and food writer, to be followed in February by The Book of Hygge: The Danish Art of Contentment, Comfort and Connection, by Louisa Thomsen Brits, who is half-Danish and half-British and who sells Danish furniture from hygge.com, a domain name she was savvy enough to claim.

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"It had the feel of the feng shui phenomenon," said Cassie Jones, executive editor at HarperCollins, the parent company of William Morrow, which is publishing The Little Book of Hygge." An opportunity to look to another culture for something intuitively familiar yet refreshingly new."

In his own book, How to Be Danish, out in 2012, Patrick Kingsley, a reporter at The Guardian, wrote of his bemusement at the ubiquity of the term. His bike was hyggelig but so was someone's table, and a walk through the Vesterbro district in Copenhagen.

(These days, Kingsley is reporting from Turkey on the migrant crisis in Europe, and perhaps it is this vantage point that has made him see a darker, more insular side to all things hygge. Coziness, he said recently, is by nature exclusionary. "It's built on the idea of withdrawing from the rest of society and building a sort of micro-commune among a select group of friends.")

How to get hygge? Go home and stay there, preferably in your hyggekrog - aka "cozy nook" - wrapped in a blanket, drinking a cup of coffee and watching a Danish police procedural about a serial killer with your friends. (In his book, Kingsley speculates that the Danes elevate home life because eating out is so expensive - the food at Danish restaurants carries a 25 per cent value-added tax.)

Scary stuff, if it's fictional, can increase your hygge, as can a raging storm outside, said Wiking, who notes in his book that, on average, there are 179 days of rain annually in Denmark. Actual scary stuff, like the news, is not advised.

The question posed by Johansen, the chef, in her book, How to Hygge is largely answered not by furniture or clothes, but in recipes for glogg, muesli, fruit compote, salt cod fritters and roast lamb, her own versions of the highlights of the New Nordic Cuisine.

For her part, Brits, the author of The Book of Hygge, eschews recipes and goes in hard for a moody, meditative approach in which she extols the virtues of wooden bowls, cuddling, brushing your teeth while your partner brushes his or her teeth and stands next to you, being naked, vintage textiles, pendant lights, circular tables, burned spatulas, old shoes, honking geese and line-dried laundry, among many other wholesome items and behaviors. You may find yourself agreeing with her when she writes, "Hygge is a fragile bloom that can't be forced."

You can see why hygge is ripe for parody. As is the Danish language, which Wiking describes as sounding like a dead seal choking. The writer John Crace, in his column for The Guardian, found The Little Book of Hygge an easy mark.

"One of the reasons the Danes are so much happier than anyone else is because there is very little to do in Denmark, so we have got used to having very low expectations," he wrote in September, when Wiking's book was published in Britain. "For us, a bike ride in the pouring rain with a candle on our heads or sitting on the beach in the pouring rain eating cake can be pure hygginess."

As Jacob Gallagher, men's fashion editor of The Wall Street Journal, posted on Twitter recently, "Hygge is the wabi-sabi of 2016 which was the sprezzatura of 2015."

Indeed: Why hygge, why now? Lucie Greene, the resident futurist at J. Walter Thompson, said she thought it was a reaction to "the well-being movement," noting the elitism of a lifestyle predicated on $100 Lululemon leggings and $10 bottles of cold pressed juices.

"Hygge is an easier trend to adopt because it's so personal and so accessible," Greene said. "You're not just indulging for the sake of it. You're supposed to savour it. It's no surprise it came from a nation seeking comfort from the dark winters. It lends itself quite naturally to these uncertain times."

As for how it might play out on a retail level, she said she imagined "a massive emphasis on textiles and home wares, from affordable cashmere to candles, kind of like the cocooning thing in the '90s."

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