Voted one of the happiest countries in the world for over 40 years straight, many have wondered how Denmark — a place with depressing weather, a soaring divorce rate and astronomical taxes — could possibly be to home to such happy people. The answer lies in high levels of trust, a vast social safety net, work-life balance, as well as a distinct way of parenting and an overall positive approach to life. But one aspect is especially important for cultivating such contented people — in short, the Danish art of hygge.
Cosiness of the Soul
“Danes do “cosy” like no other nation. Your average home will look like something out of an ideal home supplement: lots of natural materials like wood and leather, lamps artfully positioned to create soothing pools of light.”
– journalist and author Helen Russell
Pronounced “hoo-gah” and originating from the Norwegian word hugga — meaning “to comfort” or “to console” (similar to “hug” in English) — hygge is a bit difficult to pin down. It’s a sense of togetherness and comfort, or as blogger Anna Lea West says, hygge is about “cosiness of the soul.” Think a small gathering of friends, enjoying a home-cooked meal, good conversation and candlelight. Curling up with a book under a duvet while a storm rages outside. Or warm cinnamon pastries and a mug of hot tea. These all fall under the classification of hygge — but it’s also much more.
Writes Helen Russell in Get cosy: why we should all embrace the Danish art of ‘hygge:
“The best explanation of hygge I’ve encountered during three years in the land of Nord is: “the absence of anything annoying or emotionally overwhelming; taking pleasure from the presence of gentle, soothing things”. Candlelight is hygge (Danes burn more candles per head than anywhere in Europe, according to the European Candle Association). Bakeries are hygge. Dinner with friends is hygge.”
Signe Johansen, author of How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life, believes hygge is closely linked to “comfort food” like cardamom buns, muesli and triple cherry gløgg — a type of mulled wine with star anise and cardamom pods. Louisa Thomsen Brits, who wrote The Book of Hygge: The Danish Art of Contentment, Comfort, and Connection adds that it’s “a practical way of creating sanctuary in the middle of very real life.”
Hygge – A Danish ritual
The Danes are ranked as the world’s happiest people. Hygge may have something to do with it. Difficult to sum up in one word, “hygge” is a Danish ritual of enjoying life’s pleasures.
Meik Wiking, CEO of The Happiness Research Institute in, you guessed it, Copenhagen, says “We are hygge fundamentalists. You hear hygge being talked about all the time – by everyone, no matter who they are. It’s like a form of Tourette’s.” Whether it’s an event that you’re looking forward to, something happening right now or a past get together, if it’s hygge, the Danes are talking about it.
This (seemingly continuous) acknowledgment and appreciation of “hygge moments” leads to high levels of contentment among the population, which in turn cultivates a feeling of happiness. Hygge is about experiences, instead of accumulating a bunch of “stuff.” It’s the opposite of a consumer-driven society.
“Danes have been proven to be less materialistic than other cultures – and we appreciate low-cost activities and the simple things in life, like having a coffee and lighting some candles to create a cosy atmosphere,” notes Wiking.
Another key point to hygge is lighting — Danes are obsessed with creating a perfectly soft and relaxing warm glow. Candlelight or the classic Danish pendant lamps that pool a diffused circle of light, where friends gather around the dining room table, are considered very hygge. Candles are always flickering in Danish homes, offices and even in a camper van on the motorway with lighted candles in the windows. Don’t forget the crackle, warmth and glow of a fire in the fireplace, which also falls into the realm of hygge.
While hygge is generally associated with the brutal months of winter — where darkness reigns for up to 17 hours a day and temperatures drop below zero fahrenheit in Denmark — summertime also has its own hygge language. A rustic cabin on a lake where friends gather for times of good cheer, an ice cream cone enjoyed on a park bench with a child, or spreading a blanket on the grass to take pleasure in a family picnic. Relaxing in a hammock with your partner is also quintessentially hygge.
Interestingly, there’s been an explosion of hygge enthusiasm outside of Denmark in the last few years. In 2016, no less than six books were published about it in the U.S. — and there are more to come this year. The U.K. is also experiencing a hygge publishing craze.
However, it’s not just books, the concept is used to sell everything from blankets to water bottles and cozy homeware. Apparently, both Americans and the Brits are hungry “for closing the door to the world, for retreating back to the hearth.” Honestly, who can blame us with an uncertain world gone mad, just beyond the threshold?
But hygge is also about mindfulness and appreciation of the small joys in life — which often go unnoticed as we rush through our days. It’s slowing down and enjoying good friendship and family. And yes, it’s about savouring that mug of hot chocolate on a blustery winter’s eve in front of the fire too.