Why Are We So in Love With Hygge?

CC BY 2.0. Heather

Hot cups of cider, crackling fires, and candlelight: The Danish concept of coziness seems too good to be true, and it probably is.

If you’ve spent any time on the Internet over the past year, you’ve probably encountered the Danish word ‘hygge.’ If you tried to say it aloud, your tongue may have twisted into a knot and produced a guttural approximation that is quite at odds with the delightful state of being that this word is meant to evoke. Maybe it came out as “heurgh,” “hoo-gah,” or the really far-off “higgy”? Keep practicing.

Phonetical faux pas aside, hygge has made a big impression on the Western world, particularly Britain, for a number of reasons.

First of all is its meaning, which conjures images of Scandinavian coziness and comfort that seem to be innately attractive to humans.

Hygge, when depicted in pictures (and it always is), features a crackling fire, knitted socks, steaming beverages cupped in hands, groups of laughing friends or family members gather around a table that’s groaning with hearty fare, and the omnipresent soft pools of candlelight to set the mood. That’s hygge for you, and the only way it could get even more hygge-like is if there were a raging blizzard outside the windows.

living room at Christmas

© K Martinko -- I suppose this picture of my parents' living room at Christmas would be very #hygge.

The second, much less romantic, reason why hygge has caught on is because of savvy marketing.

This may come as a shock to the many Britons and others who believe that hygge caught on organically, based on merit; but as revealed by Charlotte Higgins in her excellent long-read article for The Guardian, called “The Hygge Conspiracy,” book publishers in 2015 had clever foresight. They knew that the images described above would make people weak at the knees, which is why they essentially created a hygge culture that would sell books like hotcakes... er, hot mugs of cider.

Higgins describes Danes roped into the hygge marketing project, who were astonished at the thought that anyone could write a single book on the subject:

“Hygge’s sudden popularity abroad seemed both pleasing and bemusing to most of the Danes I spoke to, as if there were a sudden craze in Germany for books extolling the spiritual virtues of British-style apologising, complete with an encyclopaedic range of helpful accessories available for purchase.”

Higgins lays out the excellent third reason for why hygge has captured the minds and hearts of Westerners: We want it more than ever.

2016 has been a rough, dark year in so many ways. Stormy seas of uncertainty surround us and there is comfort to be found in holing up, seeking fulfilment in smaller social groups, DIY projects, and a perceived return to the past, when things were simpler.

“If years can have moods, 2016 was savage in its anger and abject in its fear. In fact, the mood of 2016 could even be described as uhygge. The word does not, precisely, mean uncosy – it does not summon up sharp-angled open-plan offices with severe furniture. It means frightening; it means sinister.”

Hygge has its own dark side, too, which is a fixation on avoiding all things awkward, uncomfortable, and incendiary. The persistent quest for coziness tends to deny the existence of anything that might ruin the mood, “the place where politics are set aside” — a dangerous state of being, when you think of the many things that do need to be discussed openly in 2016.

Higgins further points that hygge has been embraced by Denmark’s far-right anti-immigration, anti-European Union Danish People’s Party. The act of shutting out the cold, dark winter snow is much the same as shutting the country’s borders to newcomers. She cites Dorthe Nors, a murder mystery writer, who says,

“Promoting a popular image in which being Danish is about sitting round a table and eating cake – or pork. And, they imply, everyone outside that is not Danish – and it taps into a fear that globalisation and refugees will destroy everything.”

These are un-hygge-like thoughts for the start of the holiday season, but interesting food for thought. I don’t want to ruin your Instagrammed #hygge pictures of Christmas lights and fluffy blankets — indeed, I’m all for at-home entertainment and connecting with family — but let’s keep in mind that our craving for the feeling of hygge should not come at the cost of denial or ignorance at what’s really going on in the world.