Where Does <em>Hygge</em> Come From? - Hygge: The Danish Art of Happiness (2016) 

Hygge: The Danish Art of Happiness (2016)

Where Does Hygge Come From?

A Short Look into the Culture and History of Hygge

Different nations have different key values that underpin the way they understand and characterize themselves. The Americans are fond of individual freedom, the French have their gloire and the Germans favour order and precision. Among the people of Denmark, hygge would certainly be one of the key values.

The phenomenon has evolved in a melting pot consisting of the Danish climate, a history of being small, a home-orientated culture, the welfare state and equality, according to Professor Jeppe Trolle Linnet, who has studied the nature of hygge.

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Viggo Johansen, Merry Christmas, 1891

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The Nordic climate features great contrasts between warmth and cold, light and darkness. We have long, light summer nights, but in winter the light hours fade away, and during the darkest time of the year a day has only between seven and eight hours of daylight. ‘Grey and cloudy’ is a frequent message from the Danish meteorologists when they forecast the next day’s weather on TV. It rains approximately 171 days a year while the average temperature is around 17 degrees in summer and just above freezing point in winter. The slightly depressing weather forecasts have given Danes the urge to seek for warmth and comfort, which we mostly find at home, where we create room for companionship with our family and closer relations. As Jeppe Trolle Linnet, professor of hygge, explains:

Our unsettled climate has been a contributing factor as to why the Nordic cultures to some extent romanticize the home as a ‘safe haven’ where families get together and gather new strength to once again face the outside world. Home is the physical part of hygge, what the family is for the social part: the hygge in its proto form. When we seek hygge outside of our homes, it is mostly in places that have home-like features: limited view from the outside and in, dimmed lighting and comfortable furnishing.

Hygge is also rooted in the Danish history of being reduced in size. Once, areas of Sweden, Germany and Norway – even occasionally parts of Britain – were Danish, but gradually we lost it all, piece by piece. Losing Norway in 1814 meant losing the epic mountains, and Denmark became as flat as a pancake, while an escalating conflict between a belligerent Prussian Bismarck and a naive Danish government with megalomania resulted in a loss of one-third of the population and most of our national pride in 1864.

What could we do then? The only solution seemed to be to get the most out of the small and flat country that was left and our national saying became: ‘What is lost on the outside shall be won on the inside,’ a quote from the Danish poet H. P. Holst, meaning: Let’s cultivate our land and enlighten ourselves.

We fostered a strong sense of community by forming groups and associations for people with shared interests or aims and we founded a new kind of school that was meant to enlighten the broader part of the population. These schools are known as Danish Folk High Schools.

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In the nineteenth century the first thoughts about the values, that later became the foundation of a modern welfare society, began to spring up:

In wealth, we have come far, when few have too much and fewer too little.

N. F. S. Grundtvig (1783–1872),
pastor, poet, philosopher, historian, teacher and politician

This quote is said to have been the credo behind the Danish welfare policy for more than a hundred years. Denmark is well known for its welfare system and is considered to be one of the most egalitarian societies in the world, since the redistribution of resources evens up the gap between rich and poor. The provision of free education, healthcare and unemployment benefits gives Danes a feeling of economic security. When the basic needs are met, there is more room for one to explore the social, creative and personal elements of one’s life – and it is easier for hygge to thrive.

The economic equalizing and a morality that emphasizes the subjective happiness of the individual, gives people the possibility, space and freedom to take a hygge-break and strive a little less. We don’t have to struggle all the time.

The characteristics of hygge as being peaceful, intimate, introvert and equalizing correspond with the self-image we have as a nation: a small and peaceful country that does not harm anyone and where everyone is equal, Jeppe Trolle Linnet concludes:

Hygge is universal and accessible for everyone. It is an integral part of being human and not exclusively Danish. But there are elements within hygge that correspond particularly well with the Scandinavian welfare state and with the Danish national self-awareness of being a small country.

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On a film set, it actually becomes very clear what it is we carry with us. An equal structure, first and foremost. I see this as something very Danish. We do not sit and hide inside our trailers or walk around and think we’re special because we’re actors. We are used to seeing ourselves as part of a team and we walk around chatting with everyone. Community lies very deep within us. Much deeper than most people realize, I think.

Danish actor Lars Mikkelsen, known from the TV series House of Cards and The Killing, in an interview in Ud og Se magazine