Hygge: The Danish Trick for True Winter Happiness
Denmark consistently ranks as one of the happiest countries in the world, but why? Well, a concept called “hygge,” pronounced “HUE-gah,” is believed to be a big part of that.
What is hygge lifestyle all about? It’s a bit hard to put into words, but it involves practices that make the winter feel cozy, warm and comforting.
I turned to Danish happiness expert Meik Wiking, the founder and chief executive of the Happiness Research Institute, a think tank based in Copenhagen dedicated to exploring why some societies are happier than others, to help us better understand the benefits of hygge.
What Is Hygge?
The word hygge is described in various ways depending on whom you ask. According to the Hygge House website, the meaning of hygge is “a feeling or moment, whether alone or with friends, at home or out, ordinary or extraordinary as cozy, charming or special.”
The Oxford Dictionary defines hygge as “the quality of being warm and comfortable that gives a feeling of happiness.”
Wiking, author of “The Little Book of Hygge,” reveals that hygge has been explained as everything from “the art of creating intimacy” and “cosiness of the soul” to “cocoa by candlelight.” He says that this concept is engrained in the culture of Denmark.
Wiking told the New York Times that “Danes see hygge as a part of our culture, the same way you see freedom as inherently American.”
Some of the key ingredients of hygge include:
Danes essentially created hygge to cope with difficult feelings like boredom, coldness, darkness and mundaneness. While hygge is a year-round concept in Denmark, it’s becoming a more commonly adopted practice to help others around the world get through the dark, cold winter months while maintaining a positive attitude.
How to Practice Hygge
You can think of hygge as” making the ordinary extraordinary.” With a mindful component of focusing on and enjoying a simple moment, hygge is something Americans could certainly use more of. (American ranked No. 16 in the 2022 world happiness index, while Denmark consistently captures the No. 2 slot in terms of happiness rankings.)
Wiking says the true essence of hygge is the pursuit of everyday happiness — it’s basically like a hug, just without the physical touch.
How do you live a “hygge life”?
Hygge is about feeling safe and secure, and ultimately, you know it when you feel it. It might look like cuddling up to a loved one on the sofa when it’s cold outside or sharing comfort food with your closest friends.
What are examples of hygge? Some ways in which it’s practiced include:
- Reading books while snuggling in warm blankets
- Sitting around a fire sipping a cup of hot cocoa or coffee (Danes are the fourth-biggest coffee drinkers in the world)
- Enjoying some wine over candlelight while having deep conversations
- Cooking a satisfying meal with your family, such as Danish favorites like meat, potatoes and a healthy dessert
- Taking a walk or bike ride outdoors wearing cozy socks, gloves and a hat
Louisa Thomsen Brits, author of “The Book of Hygge,” suggests creating an atmosphere conducive to hygge by focusing on details like:
- wooden bowls
- 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
- line-dried laundry
Here’s an example Wiking shared to help us understand hygge:
One December, just before Christmas, I was spending the weekend with some friends at an old cabin. The shortest day of the year was brightened by the blanket of snow covering the surrounding landscape. When the sun set, around 4 in the afternoon, we would not see it again for 17 hours, and we headed instead to get the fire going.
We were all tired after hiking and were half asleep, sitting in a semicircle around the fireplace in the cabin, wearing big jumpers and wool socks. The only sounds you could heat were the stew boiling, the sparks from the fireplace and someone having a sip of their mulled wine. Then one of my friends broke the silence.
“Could this be any more hygge?” he asked rhetorically.
“Yes,” one of the girls said, “if there was a storm raging outside.”
Wiking shares his hygge manifesto in his book, which can help us all get a little more hygge in our lives. Here are his thoughts, as well as other experts’, on how to add more to your life:
- Turn down the lights. The most comforting spaces for hygge feel warm, relaxed and are usually dimly lit.
- Bring out the candles and fireplaces. (Dr. Axe note: Never ones with fake fragrances. I recommend beeswax only to avoid petrochemicals and toxic synthetic scents.)
- Turn off devices to help you focus.
- Build relationships and narratives.
- Gather and talk about things like, “Do you remember the time we …?”
- Don’t be afraid to dive into deeper topics that help people bond, such as the meaning of life, fears, goals, etc.
- Practice creating a space that is trusting, secure and supportive.
- Take it in. Slow down, and live in the moment.
- Understand that this might be as good as it gets.
- Learn to be content rather than to strive for more.
- Think “we over me.”
- Share the tasks and the airtime.
- Practice self-compassion and self-care.
What is a hygge lifestyle beneficial for? The main benefit is that it can reduce loneliness and depression while contributing to greater meaning in life and happiness. It helps us focus on what’s truly important in life, such as relationships and meaning.
Think of hygge as giving yourself and others a treat, to savor simple moments filled with good food, conversation and company.
How does hygge impact happiness?
Perhaps Benjamin Franklin said it best: “Happiness consists more in small conveniences or pleasures that occur every day than in great pieces of good fortune that happen but seldom.”
More and more people around the world are questioning what defines happiness. It’s a difficult thing to measure and to explain.
Research suggests that an increasing number of people feel unhappy and “left behind,” particularly when there is talk of their country moving forward.
The great thing about hygge is that it’s available to everyone and doesn’t cost much money at all. In fact, happiness experts like Wiking hope that hygge can help people better understand that wealth and well-being are not always closely tied.
According to research findings, after our basic needs are met, more money doesn’t lead to more happiness, and instead, we can focus on what brings us a better quality of life.
We know from many studies that things like close relationships, gratitude, sharing conversation and food, and presence contribute to happiness in various ways, such as by:
- Decreasing loneliness by increasing feelings of connectedness, security and kinship
- Helping us cope with seasonal active disorder and side effects of stress
- Improving relaxation, which can assist in getting better sleep
- Decreasing distractions so we are more productive
- Increasing feelings of contentment, which helps counteract anxiety
- Lowering the risk for unhealthy coping strategies, such as drinking too much alcohol or using drugs
- Improving quality of life, even among those who are in difficult situations
- Potentially increasing physical activity if it involves going outside skating, bike riding, hiking or walking — all of these can help lower stress levels and increase in self-esteem
- What is the concept of hygge? It’s a lifestyle practice that includes elements of togetherness, relaxation, indulgence, presence and comfort.
- Hygge is all about creating warm, cozy and comforting feelings that can contribute to greater meaning in life, close relationships and happiness.
- To create more hygge in your life, burn beeswax candles in your home, snuggle up with blankets to stay warm, indulge in clean comfort foods, read books by the fire, and spend a lot of time together telling stories and appreciating the small moments in life. The goal is to focus on being present in the moment.