Hygge: The Danish Art of Happiness (2016)
Many of the researchers who have dug into why Denmark is one of the happiest countries in the world have pointed at hygge as a contributing factor.
Personally, this is what makes me happy:
● Spending time with my boyfriend, family and good friends
● Working on inspiring and immersive projects
● Eating fantastic food in good company
● Enjoying a good book or small handiwork project
● Taking dancing classes
● Travelling with people I love
When I look at my list, togetherness seems to be central. In the time spent with family and friends, hygge plays a major part. I meet my friends and family with the express purpose of hygg-ing and I feel that sharing a sincere moment of hygge brings us even closer to each other.
“It is through hygge that we find and build really strong relationships with other people. There is an effortlessness in hygge, which means that we can be together with friends and family without having any plans besides relaxing and enjoying a good time together. We dare to be who we are in each other’s company, and this affirms us that we have stable relationships in our lives, meaning we will never stand alone. This is a social security of great value, and one of the most important sources of our happiness.
In hygge we also find a sincerity and comfort that means that we dare to express ourselves when we disagree. And when we, in a respectful and relaxed way, dare to discuss the bigger questions in life, we get the opportunity to see ourselves and the life we lead with a new perspective, becoming more aware of what makes us happy. At the same time this new perspective opens our eyes to what we are able to change in order to improve our wellbeing.
It is not in hygge that we find ecstatic, and often momentary, happiness, but we experience a kind of everyday happiness. Hygge contributes to a general contentedness in the long run.”
Christian Bjørnskov, Professor at Aarhus University and author of Lykke (Happiness)
Having strong relationships is vital for our health and happiness, and hygge definitely helps us to do this by focusing our mind on time spent with loved ones. When we feel safe and comfortable with other people, the hygge becomes relaxed and authentic. Some people are exceptional at hygg-ing around other people and making them feel at ease. Meet twenty-eight-year-old Marendine Ladegaard and ninety-two-year-old Anna Elizabeth Gonge …
– I want my guests to feel at home
Marendine Ladegaard enjoys hygg-ing around her guests when they visit her at home. And she’s good at it. Her circle of friends agree unanimously that she manages to create an informal atmosphere, where even though you’re a guest, you feel at home, but at the same time you feel pampered. According to Marendine, it’s about being a sincere and attentive host.
“Most importantly I want my guests to feel at home. I take it as a great compliment, for example, if they go into the kitchen, look in my cupboards and take what they need. It may be stepping over the line for some, but for me it’s a sign that my guests feel comfortable.
When guests step inside, I try to sense where they are mentally and what they need. It is quite simple. If I can feel that they are tired after a long day at work, I’ll ask if we should just curl up on the sofa and watch a TV show. If they come in from the cold, I’ll offer them a blanket and a pair of home-knitted socks. I also often ask my guests if they would like to choose a cup, if we are to have something warm to drink. Then they may end up having a favourite cup here, and that helps them feel at home, I believe.
Sometimes guests can be in doubt about what to do with themselves when they come into someone’s home, but if I say, ‘Here’s a glass of red wine, now sit down on the sofa,’ then there’s no worry, and it’s easier for me to hygge around them.
Having energy for my guests is a main priority. Therefore, I lower my expectations for what I can manage to prepare for them, if I can see that I am short on time. I’d rather change the menu from a huge dinner to cheese and wine or sandwiches.
I’d also much rather invite friends and family home than meet them at a café in town. At home it’s easier for me to set the framework of togetherness and, therefore, it is easier to create a relaxed, hyggelig and informal atmosphere. I throw my legs up on the sofa to indirectly show my guests that they are welcome to do the same, and I will tell my guests about a mistake I made at work, or that I am going to do a kayak test tomorrow, and I’m really nervous about it because I failed it the first time. It’s about daring to share something about yourself and show that you’re not infallible.
My guests need to have an unspoken knowledge that if they drop a cup and it breaks, then it’ll be something we laugh at, not something we cry over.”
‘I find that my guests and I achieve a familiarity and closeness much quicker at home than at a café. When I invite people home, I invest myself in them,’ says Marendine Ladegaard (right photo)
– I’m a bit of a people person
Anna Elisabeth Gonge is a Visiting Friend for many of the elderly people in her local area who are having a hard time, either because of illness or because old age has taken hold. While she is well and both health and mind are in top form, she feels she might as well pass some of the care that she has received during her life on to others.
“I bring rolls and coffee with me when I go visiting, and I almost always start by asking how they feel. It is essential that the visit is on their terms, and it is important to listen. If they spend a large part of the day alone, they often have a lot to say. We talk about their health and how their family is doing and what the grandchildren are up to. Sometimes we sing together – songs they remember from their youth or evening songs. If they are in pain, we sometimes say a prayer for them. On the whole, it is about being present. When I feel that they are getting tired, I go home.
Sometimes I bring cake, and then it’s best if it’s apple cake, because everyone can chew that. We don’t have so many teeth left – though the ones I have are my own, and they’re quite secure! The coffee is the most important thing though, because then it doesn’t matter if the conversation stops. Then we take just a sip of coffee and enjoy the silence for a moment.
I am a Visiting Friend because I am grateful for everything I’ve got over the years, so I think it’s nice to give something back. And then I’m terribly fond of coffee and a bit of a people person.
To hygge yourself and feel good with others, that’s life. It helps you retain a sharp mind. I’ve lost two daughters and my husband to a hereditary disease, and you need time to deal with that. But there comes a point when sorrow can’t be allowed to fill your days and, instead, you have to be happy for all the good times you had together. I think that with a sharp mind and a little hygge every day, you can live a happy life in spite of what it throws at you.”
‘I make sixty-four rolls at a time, and I make more when the last roll has been eaten. That way I always have something to share when I go visiting, and something to offer guests who come by. Sometimes I’ll hang a bag of rolls on my neighbour’s door handle, if I can see that he is home,’ says Anna Elisabeth Gonge.
Why Children are Brilliant at Hygging
“We had taken six months off from work, bought an auto camper and headed out in the world to be together as a family. The children were three and four years old at the time. After camping down through Europe and Morocco, we came to Greece, where we settled on the beach for a while. One day we saw a tortoise on its way down to the water. The children followed the tortoise’s journey hour by hour; curiously observing its breaks, how it sought the shadow and routes through the sand.
When the tortoise finally reached the water, it dipped its feet, paddled a little, and chose to go back.
Astounded, and with sand on their knees, the children reflected on the tortoise’s decision, while they – happily wondering – continued to follow the footprints of the tortoise back to where it came from. A whole day went by this way, and we were thrilled to have time to let them just be.”
Ole Viby, Sønder Nærå, Funen
Children are in many ways natural hygge experts. They experience the world with inspiring enthusiasm and wonder and they manage to create hygge: seeking out hidey-holes and places to play. They inspire us to just be in the here and now. It is hard to predict anything when we are with children.
“Hygge is when I read bedtime stories to my children. That is a ritual in our family – it is something we do every evening and that has always been a hyggelig moment, where we are drawn into fairy-tale universes together or gain knowledge about all kinds of things; from how the bees make honey to miscellaneous facts about Star Wars figures. It is a moment with presence, when we sit closely together. This closeness is for me the quintessence of hygge.”
teacher and mother of three, Randers
Danish Children are Brought Up with Hygge
Danish children learn the value of being part of a community and gain trust in themselves and others in their hygge-hours with Mum and Dad, says psychologist and author of The Danish Way of Parenting, Iben Sandahl.
What function does hygge have in Danish families?
“For many families hygge is the ‘glue’ that holds the family together. It is in the hygge that we feel each other’s presence, feel connected, and it is where each individual family member sees themselves again. Today, the everyday lives of Danish children are so packed with activities that planned hygge-time is mostly for the weekends. But some manage to integrate hygge during the week by putting small moments of it into the rhythm and routines already in place. It may be singing a song on the way home from kindergarten or telling jokes over dinner and laughing together.”
Are Danish children brought up to hygge themselves?
“To a great extent. Children mirror and soak up everything from the moment they are born. They copy their everyday behaviour from Mum and Dad, kindergarten, friends and the people and the modern influences they interact with. A newborn is dependent on body and eye contact, care, attention and essential cognitive stimulation – this need and this human contact can be equated with the satisfaction and joy that results from hyggelig contexts; we feel stimulated, seen, heard and recognized. In most cases, hygge for kids is centred around the home – where they feel safe and secure, but have free space.”
What does it mean to children that hygge is included in their upbringing?
“It means that they know the significance of community and being present. If they have experienced their parents’ presence often during their childhood, they know what it feels like to feel confirmed in a purely existential way – I have been seen, heard and met. They feel fundamentally safe, and if you feel safe as a human being, it is easier to deal with the external demands and expectations of everyday life. At the same time, hygge being part of a child’s upbringing means that when children interact with other people, they find it easier to tune in to when relationships feel trustworthy and safe. This ‘we-culture’ is created in hygge; ‘we find safety in each other’ and ‘we share this experience’ is what we build our society on – a community-orientated society.”
Making Hygge a Priority
The demands of everyday life challenge daily hyggelig moments in the family, but it is possible to plan for more time together, according to psychologist Heidi Schøitz:
“Involve your children in practical tasks – assign chores to each of them. Let them help prepare food and try to eat together as often as possible. We often end up doing everything ourselves based on the idea that ‘it’ll be faster, and then we can hygge afterwards’, but it can be very hyggelig to do practical things together. When we involve our children in everyday chores, we are also teaching them to take care of themselves. This strengthens the children’s self-confidence, self-esteem and independence.
Look at your time-budget too – what are you actually spending your time on? Electronic paraphernalia are often significant time-wasters, so try to put the phones away and turn off computers, TVs and iPads when the family is gathered around an activity or during dinner. Lower your ambitions too, make a meal plan and do a food shop once a week.”
In my nephew’s kindergarten, this sign was put up just before the Easter holidays:
“Don’t forget to have some potter-time. It is important for the children to have time to potter around in slippers without all those well-meaning plans of going to the zoo, the cinema or all kinds of other doings.”
‘Pottering’ means walking around with little effort or purpose, and it is about winding down and seeing that the hygge simply can hide within a pair of slippers.
The Unexpected and Spontaneous Hygge
Hygge can be stimulated, facilitated and prioritized but it can also evolve when we least expect it. Something is cancelled, the metro stops, there is no electricity – we have to wait, and waiting time can become a chance to spend time together.
My boyfriend and his parents and three sisters once got caught in a snowstorm when he was a child. And what should have been a nice two-hour evening drive home from dinner with relatives ended up being an eight-hour trip in their old Ford car because of an almost blocked motorway and lines of slowly moving cars as far as the eye could see. It could have been a terrible, long and exhausting journey home, but instead he remembers it as something extremely hyggelig: the snow, the big family cramped together in the car, playing games and talking through it all – and the shared memory it has become.
When Hygge Disappears
“You can’t just say ‘now we hygge’, and then expect hygge to show up. Exactly like you can’t say ‘now I want to fall in love’.”
Iben Sandberg, psychologist,
author of The Danish Way of Parenting
You can try to coax hygge, but you cannot force it. It will not work if we demand ‘I have ten minutes to spare, let’s hygge’! It has its own ways, and it comes and goes with the good spirit and atmosphere. A planned hygge-evening which had so much hygge potential can end up less hyggelig than intended if our expectations get too high and our plans too meticulous.
“To me, hygge is a moment of letting go – a moment without limitations of time, duties, stress or distractions. A moment of love, warmth and time to gather round the small things: a card game, a book or a bath. When I look at my girls sharing a laugh or when I cuddle up in the corner of the couch with them. Hygge is that extra time I give myself to fully enjoy a special moment but at the same time something that magically happens every single day if I simply open my eyes.”
mother of two, Nørrebro, Copenhagen
Hygge Then and Now
Does age mean something to our understanding of what hygge is and is there a difference between hygge today compared to sixty years ago? Twenty-seven-year-old Lea Sommer was a child in the 1990s and associates hygge with listening to podcasts and a barbeque on weekend evenings, while for her ninety-year-old grandmother, Grete, hygge is enjoying the crossword and a little schnapps. They meet each other on the couch where hygge materializes, relaxing in each other’s company.
Hygge is very much a state for me. When I am hygg-ing, I am present. I let go of the past and the future and I am content. I don’t need anything other than what there is.
You’ve hit the nail on the head there. For me, hygge can happen even if I’m alone. For example, when I sit with the Sunday paper and do the crossword. Everything is peaceful, I am present. But sometimes it is difficult to find the peace crucial for having a hyggelig time, isn’t that right?
Definitely, and when I can’t find peace, it’s because my mind is racing. I’m worrying about something that has happened or will happen. Sometimes you can do something to actively create the peace that must be present for hygge to occur. If I’m alone and would like to hygge, I can take a long bath, cut my fruit a little fancy, light some candles and put on some music that reminds me of other hyggelig moments. Other times, I can feel a peace arising in me, and then hygge comes of its own accord.
I am always more satisfied with myself on those days when I manage to do all those things I had planned to get done, and a feeling of hygge arises from that. ‘Now it’s all right to sit and hygge in the evening. It’s well deserved now,’ I say to myself.
When do you typically seek a hygge moment for yourself?
Saturday evening. I never eat hot food then. Instead, I butter some sandwiches and make a nice little salad. And then I pour a single schnapps and half a beer. It is a Saturday tradition from the time your grandfather, Hans was alive. We had a little conversation, which we often repeated Saturday after Saturday. Hans would ask if we had any cod livers for dinner. ‘Yes, indeed we do,’ I always replied. We nearly always had some in the fridge. ‘Shall we have some of them?’ he’d ask. ‘Let’s have them with toasted bread and lemon. Will we have some schnapps too?’ I’d ask. ‘Yes, let’s have two,’ he’d reply, and that was how we planned dinner on a Saturday.
Do you think about Grandad in your hygge moments on Saturdays?
Yes. I think of all the good years we had together. They are a part of my hygge. Saturday dinner is a longstanding tradition in our family. We introduced cold food on Saturday evenings when the children were small. It was so nice to have one day a week where I didn’t have to think about planning a hot dinner.
Yeah, and Dad took that tradition from his childhood and carried it on at home with us. We often ate at eight o’clock on Saturdays – rye bread and cold meats from the fridge. And we often sat on the couch rather than around the dinner table. It was a real hygge-moment. As a child it meant a lot to me to feel that my parents relaxed so much on Saturday nights. It generated in me a feeling of hygge and that was much more important than having pizza, burgers or something more exotic. It was probably also what made Saturdays so special rather than weekday evenings.
When I was a kid in the 1930s, I remember weekday evenings in my childhood home being very hyggelig. Father would sit at his desk, going through his papers or reading the newspaper, while Mother sat knitting or doing other needlework. I clearly remember the cat lying behind Mother’s back as she sat working. I often sat drawing or doing homework. Sometimes Father sat and drew with me. And at nine o’clock we had coffee. There were also nights where one of us would suggest a game of cards, and so we would play cards. We were never bored. Those hyggelig moments mean a lot to me. I felt safe.
Would you say that you are in harmony with yourself when you’re hygging?
Yes, having hygge in my life helps me to create harmony. I think that my life would be quite unhealthy if I wasn’t good at hygging myself. It’s in the hygge that I put life on pause and remember to enjoy the little things.
When we are together the two of us, we are good at hygging ourselves. Isn’t that right?
Yeah, if it’s an evening, we often end up on the couch, when I lay my head in your lap. And, at that moment, we don’t focus on anything else.
Yeah, that’s hygge.
A female commander-in-chief in the Danish Security and Intelligence Service, a man who dresses as a woman, old friends and friends who haven’t yet decided whether they want to be more than friends; everyone meets in the pub. The pub is an all-embracing cave, where the hygge settles in with the crackling of a candle, the regular waiter’s nod of recognition and the lowering of barriers.
Every evening at 6 o’clock 150 to 200 people meet to dine together in a disused church in Copenhagen. Sitting shoulder to shoulder are tired families with children, smiling grandparents, and neighbours who want to get to know each other but don’t have space in their own apartments. It is the founder of the Tiger store chain, Lennart Lajboschitz, who bought the church in 2014 and turned it into a modern community centre, which, besides communal dining, also holds yoga classes, board game competitions and talks. ‘This is an extension of your living room. Let the hygge begin,’ says Morten, the chef, when he introduces the menu of the evening.