With Christmas heading our way, I would like explore one of the fundamental aspects of Danish culture and an important part of quality life which is “hygge’, pronounced hewge.
It is a word you will hear endlessly here in Denmark and to describe many things – a moody candlelit table, an intimate dinner party, a warm silky bath, a delicious gourmet coffee, a freshly baked cake straight from the oven, even watching TV with the family. And with regards to Christmas – it could include decorating your home for christmas, folding paper tree decorations with your children, drinking warm glogg (mulled wine) and of course eating the traditional Danish christmas dinner with roast duck, caramel potatoes, red cabbage and baked apples.
In Denmark, hygge allows for conviviality to balance out consumerism and all the christmas materialism we experience in other cultures.
Danes try to experience hygge on a daily/weekly basis, but as you can imagine they go into full overdrive during Christmas. It is rumored that hygge evolved from the necessity of the cold and dark Scandinavian winters, people would huddle together in small rooms around the fire and drink warm alcoholic drinks.
Instead of huddling around the fire, it is now the large living room TV with a bowl of Guf (candy, chips or maybe homemade goodies) I recently read an article that Danish television is playing a larger part of modern hygge by creating shows that the whole family wants to watch together – X Factor, Talent, Bingo Banko and the Danish version of Dancing with the Stars (Vild med Dans).
Hygge, loosely translated it can be considered “coziness” and includes the presence of and pleasure from comforting, gentle, and soothing things. Hygge is described as a deep sense of place & well-being; a feeling of friendship, warmth, contentment and peace with your immediate surroundings. The true essense of hygge is lost if it is too elegant, too extravagant, too luxurious. Hygge must be modest in a way, mundane and familiar – it is the celebration of the dull that hygge embodies.
Indeed the Danish author Hartmann Petersen mused that hygge had freudian like tendencies – reflecting back to the womb. Therefore warmth and enclosure are essential elements of hygge.
What’s great about hygge is that is easy to come by. What’s so special about it - is that Danes are able to recognize it, label it and appreciate it. Funnily when I reflect on hygge and hyggeligt things, they are not necessarily Danish – lighting of candles, intimate times with friends and family, a fresh baked cake, a family TV night – we have all experienced it. The difference is that Danes prioritize it.
When you read the literature on happiness, or what researchers call Subjective Well Being (SWB), they roughly split happiness in 2 areas – in the moment happiness and a longer term contentment.
I hypothesize that Danes actually work on both, the Laws of Jante provide a longer term contentment by creating focus on community, sameness, equality and reduced materialism (exceptions include Danish design lamps) – on the other hand hygge, gives us the daily joys and pleasures needed for daily well being and happiness.
In a study to demonstrate the importance of a moment of happiness on reported life satisfaction, Dr. Norbert Schwarz invited subjects to fill out a satisfaction questionnaire.
Before answering the questionnaire, however, he asked them to make a photocopy of the questionnaire. For half of the subjects, a dime was planted on the copy machine. Funnily enough, reported life satisfaction was higher for those who found the dime.
Hygge can symbolically be the dime – small moments of happiness. My Danish X husband once said to me ‘life should be a string of small happy moments’. I guess I was not providing these daily happy moments, hence the X but nonetheless like pearls on a string, can Danish hygge moments can lead to a life time of happiness? I needed to know.
I therefore made a self-experiment. In the spirit of Fraulein Maria from the Sound of Music, I made a list of my favorite everyday things: white tea roses, Molton Brown liquidsoap, Irish soda bread, interior design books, vampire paperbacks, all Diane Keaton movies, sparkly lipgloss, teen soap operas (yes I like Gossip Girl), diet coke and vowed to incorporate these in my life for 6 weeks. In addition, I threw in some standard ‘Hygge’ necessities – loads of candles, firewood and my duvet.
At first, my family was suspicious and noted that I was acting peculiar and a bit odd. My daughter asked me if I was sick – (when I was wrapped in my duvet, sipping a warm cup of tea and gazing at the snow falling) when I replied that I was experimenting with Hygge Sig (self inflicted cosyness)- she raised her eyebrows and flashed me a doubtful look. Did she think I was trying too hard? Was I doing it wrong? Hanging around, lounging on the sofa was not normal behavior for me…on the other hand, besides the growing stress of feeling like a couch potato, it did feel nice and relaxing.
I was indeed enjoying the sweetness of doing nothing or what the Italians call ‘Il Dolce Far Niente’. Between you and me, it sounds far more glamorous than what my American girlfriends describe as ‘vegging out’.