Facebook is full of videos about it. Bookstores have tables piled high with books on the subject. The word itself looks and sounds very strange. Welcome to the world of hygge, (pronounced “hoo-gah”) the latest craze taking the world by storm.
I recently returned from Denmark, where I studied abroad for five months and was lucky enough to visit every Nordic country, all ranked in the top 10 happiest countries in the world (Denmark at number 1, Iceland number 3, Norway number 4, Finland number 5, and Sweden number 10).
I learned firsthand what hygge means to the Nordic culture and why it appeals to us here in U.S. While the word doesn’t have a literal translation in English, the closest interpretation is “coziness” — a word that doesn’t fully capture hygge’s all-encompassing meaning.
Hygge is that feeling you get when you come in from a rainstorm and put on warm, dry clothes. It’s the comfort of sipping a coffee by the fire. It’s the warmth of sharing lively conversation by candlelight at a dinner with friends.
Hygge is not just a feeling — it’s an adjective too. In Denmark, Danes use “hyggeligt” (like “cozy”) to describe things that are nice or fun.
“What did you do last weekend?”
“Oh I just went to Sweden.”
While books and social media videos in the U.S. present hygge as a lifestyle, it’s actually more of a mindset that’s deeply ingrained in Danish culture. Danes don’t need to be conscious of integrating hygge into their culture — they just do it. My roommates took hygge very seriously, but were also slightly annoyed by how the rest of the world is trying to capitalize off something that’s just normal for them. To them, it’s a state of mind and you don’t reach it simply by being cozy. Some have attributed the trend’s popularity to the current contentious political climate in the states, driving people to cozy up (or hide) under their protective blankets and shut out the world.
Here are a couple of Nordic habits to pick up that can bring you closer to experiencing hygge in your own life:
Simply put, Scandinavians don’t work as much as we Americans do. In fact, only one percent of Scandinavians work overtime, with work weeks generally ranging between 30-37 hours.
In Denmark I attended Københavens Universitetet (University of Copenhagen) and only had class on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays for a total of eight hours of class per week (compared to 12-15 hours of class per week at University of Washington). The focus on working outside of the classroom allowed me to fill my spare time with exercise and exploring Copenhagen. I wasn’t overworked and I had time to relax and focus on little things that made me happy — happiness and health are core elements of hygge.
More free time leaves fewer excuses to neglect exercise. Because I was less busy and stressed than I was in my American life, I bought a membership to a rock-climbing gym and went muuch more frequently than I ever did back home.
I also rode my bike everywhere. Cycling is the top form of transportation in Denmark, thanks to incredible bike infrastructure like separate bike roads and bike stop lights. Biking became popular out of necessity after gas prices skyrocketed during the energy crisis in the 1970s. Today bikes outnumber people in Denmark and 56 percent of commuters in Copenhagen ride their bikes to work.
Even in freezing, windy, or rainy weather people still ride their bikes. I fully embraced this lifestyle and biked everywhere. Because Copenhagen is relatively small, I could bike to my university in 15 minutes and be in the city center in under a half an hour. Getting around was less of a chore and more of a peaceful time to take in Copenhagen’s beautiful sights while cycling to my destination. Being outside every day helped me have more of an appreciation for the fresh air and my general surroundings, which embodies the spirit of hygge. Upon coming inside after a long, cold bike ride, I would be greeted by my warm room, snuggle up in my blanket and watch some Netflix. Hygge at home helped me get through bike rides on freezing days.
Scandinavia is probably most famous for it’s minimalistic-yet-functional design (Ikea, Lego, Marimekko… the list could go on). The strong desire for minimalism is not only present in design and architecture in Denmark, but also in the Danish lifestyle. Hygge is all about focusing on the small things that make one happy — a warm cup of coffee on a rainy day or the warm sunshine, for example. It is about life’s simple pleasures and enjoying the small things rather than worrying about complex, daily life and all of its elements.
While much of what hygge represents focuses on mindset, its aesthetic also plays a huge role in Danish culture. My Danish roommates were especially keen on this part of hygge. They lit candles at every dinner we had together and leisurely conversed about life for a couple hours after we finished eating. The warm food and atmosphere contrasted with the harsh weather outside and the candlelight was a welcome element, as the days were short and the nights were long during late fall.
Fika is actually a Swedish practice that comes from hygge and is also common in Finland. It is simply a coffee break — in the afternoon or during work — when you take time to enjoy your coffee and a sweet pastry or cinnamon roll. It goes along with the hygge principle of being cozy and taking time for yourself to enjoy something small yet important throughout your day.
I used fika as a good excuse to explore Copenhagen and spent afternoons in cozy coffee shops, snacking on insanely delicious kanelsnegle (cinnamon rolls). I found myself coming back and missing these little solo trips, so I’ve started to make a point of getting myself a coffee and sweet pastry when I have some downtime.
Around Christmas time, hygge goes into full swing. Danes even have a special word for it: julehygge (“jul” means Christmas time). Extra candles are lit and special Christmas food, like æbleskiver (small pancake balls you dip in jam and powdered sugar), risengrød (warm, vanilla rice pudding sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar with a dollop of butter), and gløgg (mulled wine with spices), are staples at any dinner table during the month of December.
Nothing is more “hyggeligt” than strolling the streets of a Christmas market at night under the twinkle of the string lights overhead, vendors lining the streets in little wooden stands, and holding a piping hot cup of gløgg while enjoying some æbleskiver — arguably, the most hygge experience ever.
While the culture of hygge is all about focusing on the little things in life that bring you happiness, it is by no means just a temporary Band-Aid for feeling better. It’s a mindset. The Danes don’t just talk about incorporating hygge into their everydays lives — they do it. Amid life’s everyday stresses and challenges, hygge is their shared form of coping with it.
So, the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed by life’s everyday stresses, follow the Danes’ lead, and take the time to appreciate the little things that are right in front of you, hygge-style.
Gabriela Capestany is a sophomore at the University of Washington pursuing a double major in cinema studies and communication with a minor in Danish. She’s also the co-director of HuskyCreative, a student-run UW ad agency. Her main passion is film and her movies have been featured in film festivals around the world, most notably the Los Angeles Film Festival. When she’s not interning or at school, Gabi enjoys bouldering, biking, and traveling the world (21 countries and counting!)
Fun Fact: Her favorite kind of film is Scandinavian film. She just got back from studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark where she spent five months learning Danish and biking around the city.More stories by Gabriela Capestany