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  • Writer's pictureDustin Nelson

Hygge: The Danish Secret to Happiness

Burning logs crackle.

The aroma of coffee drifts through the room.

You’re warm and cozy, surrounded by your friends and family.

You’re living in the moment;

Not worried about the future and not fretting the past.

That’s hygge.

A crackling fire in a stone hearth.
Every hygge home needs a fireplace.

How to be happy – The Hygge Life

In Copenhagen, Denmark, there is a think tank called the Happiness Research Institute, which exists solely to study human happiness. They seek to answer difficult questions like – where does happiness originate? Why do some people experience happiness more than others? How can we create happiness in our daily lives?

The founder of the Happiness Research Institute, a Danish man by the name of Meik Wiking, was inspired to study happiness after reading the United Nations’ 2012 World Happiness Report; the first of its kind. In that report, Denmark was found to be the happiest population in the world, and Wiking was determined to find out why.

He dissected the World Happiness Report’s methodology and discovered a few explanations:

  1. Denmark is a high-functioning welfare state that offers universal healthcare and free education.

  2. Its people hold strong egalitarian values, popularly expressed as “democratic socialism”, which promotes low levels of inequality and crime.

  3. Its economy has grown steadily for decades, giving it one of the best GDP per capita rankings in the world.

However, there were other countries that ranked as high or even higher in these metrics, especially Denmark’s Scandinavian cousins like Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Iceland.

"There must be more to Denmark than meets the eye," thought Wiking.

Through years of top-notch, quantitative and qualitative research, the Happiness Research Institute made a fantastic discovery. They found that the quality of an individual’s social relationships is the greatest determiner of happiness in a person’s life. Essentially, a life full of rich friendships and close family yields peak levels of happiness.

But real life isn’t that simple.

Building and maintaining social relationships is difficult, especially for busy adults. Luckily, the Danes have the answer to that too.

The Danes have a unique custom called hygge, and it may just be the secret to happiness.

A beautiful waterfront view of Danish colonial townhomes in Copenhagen.
Denmark consistently ranks as one of the happiest nations in the world.

Hygge Pronunciation

"How to pronounce hygge?"

It’s the most googled question that people ask when they first see the word, but it’s easy to answer. Hygge is pronounced like hoo-gah.

The etymological origin of hygge comes from the Norwegian word for “well-being.” It first appeared in Danish writing in the early 1800s. Since then, hygge has grown into a complex idea that can best be described as a recipe for happiness.

This word doesn’t have a direct translation into English, so we will have to find a roundabout way of describing what it means.

Before doing that, we should first point out the value of the lessons we learn from different cultures worldwide. At ReDefiners World Languages, we believe in the power of language. A single word can teach a lesson that changes lives: like hygge.

For a great supplemental read, check out Meik Wiking’s book The Little Book of Hygge.

What Is Hygge

The most common English translation of hygge is coziness. A warm blanket and a good book, tucked into your hyggekrog (hygge corner), is cozy indeed. However, there’s so much more to hygge than that.

It is a noun: “Did you enjoy the hygge?”

A verb: “Let’s hygge tonight. Come over to my place – there will be food, drinks, and board games.”

An Adjective: “I loved the atmosphere of that restaurant. It was very hygglige.”

The goal of hygge is to foster happiness through a warm and inviting environment. To understand how the recipe works, we’ll have to look at each one of the ingredients individually.

1. Hygge Aesthetic and Atmosphere

Having the right atmosphere is essential to hygge. Most often, hygge takes place in the home – it could be your home, a friend’s, or a family member’s. To achieve a hyggelig abode, start with lighting.

Hygge lighting means warm, dim pools of light. The Danes prefer candles to achieve this effect. Lots and lots of candles. If you’ve ever visited Denmark, then you know that it’s true – the people are obsessed with candles.

The best candles for hygge are unscented because they leave room for the aroma of coffee and chocolate and wood-burning fires. That is why the oldest producer of candles in Denmark, Asp-Holmblad, does not offer a scented line of products.

The Danes have deemed fireplaces hygge too. The warm light and dancing shadows, the crackling and popping of smoldering logs, the connection with nature, and the smell of a wood fire on a winter day embodies “coziness.”

For a hygge environment without the fire, Meik Wiking suggests using PH lamps. These lamps were designed by Danish architect Poul Henningsen in 1924. Henningsen was fascinated with the aesthetic of lighting. He grew tired of the fluorescent bulbs he deemed too bright, preferring a light source closer to the soft oil flame he had so often experienced in his childhood. So, he devised a lamp enclosed in a way that it provided a warm, soft light and looked futuristically stylish. Very hygge.

After lighting is added to the mix, the next ingredient is furniture. For hygge, the Danes prefer wood furniture to plastic, and old furniture to new. Handcrafted is also better than mass-produced. The reason for this is because of the grounding effects of natural materials. Nature helps us feel calm, content, and at peace. Bringing nature into a space via furniture satisfies those requirements of hygge, hence the connection to wood furniture.

There is also a tactile aspect to hygge. The space must look hygge and feel hygge too. Danes like to add soft sheepskin blankets and reindeer hide mats to their homes for the hygge feel. Wood furniture is another great way to incorporate a surface that is satisfying to the touch.

Couches and chairs should be adorned with ample blankets and cushions, which are essential to hygge.

Short, white candles giving off a warm glow.
In Denmark, the most popular hygge candles are scentless.

2. Hygge Clothing

Clothing is very important to hygge. Remember, the weather in Denmark is wet and cold in the winter and wet and mild in the summer. The highest point in the country is 650 feet above sea level, and the Baltic Sea surrounds the country on three sides, so fierce gales of wind are not uncommon. This calls for warm and cozy clothing.

Woolen socks and sweaters are a must. The Danes even have a word for their favorite foot accessory: hyggesokkers (hygge socks). It doesn’t matter that wool isn’t particularly fashionable. The goal of dressing for hygge isn’t style; it’s comfort.

And don’t forget the sweatpants.

3. Hygge Food

Hygge is synonymous with indulgence. In the spirit of comfort and security, it is encouraged to partake in sweets, alcohol, and hearty meals.

Danes find that food you cook yourself or as part of a group is more hygge than food bought at a restaurant, although there are definitely hyggelig restaurants out there. The slow, methodical process of peeling potatoes, braising pork, and enjoying a good book as you wait is extra hygge. Cooking will also add a delightful smell which enhances the hygge atmosphere.

In his Little Book of Hygge, Wiking gives a few popular Danish recipes for hyggelig meals

  • Skibberlabsovs (Skipper Stew)

  • Boller I Karry (Danish Meatballs in Curry)

  • Gløgg (Mulled Wine)

  • Snobrød (Twisted Bread)

  • Æbleskiver (A Danish Christmas Treat)

Check out Wiking’s book for the exact hygge recipes.

Hygge foods are sweet, savory, and indulgent. This image is hot chocolate with whipped-cream on top garnished with a cinnamon stick.
Hygge foods are sweet, savory, and indulgent.

4. Hygge Company

Hygge is best enjoyed with a small group of friends and family. It’s important to choose people you trust and who you feel comfortable around. Hygge is a time of intimacy, security, and comfort. Surround yourself with people who bring out these qualities.

This is perhaps why foreigners that move to Denmark say that it is difficult to make new friends in the country. The Danes already have close-knit groups, and penetrating those groups is no easy task. But if you do, you’ll have made friends for life.

5. Hygge Activities

If you’re going to hygge right, you’re going to need some activities. In its simplest form, hygge can be sitting quietly with friends and enjoying their company after a long day hiking. Talking is hygge too, but it comes with rules. No one should dominate the conversation, and a degree of modesty and humility is expected. This means no bragging. Second, avoid uncomfortable or divisive subjects. Try to aim for topics that everyone will find pleasant.

Board games are hygge. In fact, any sort of playful activity can be hygge, although the more technology required, the less hygge it is. Monopoly is more hygge than Mario Kart. Maybe it’s because you are present in the moment, but there’s something about unplugging from electronics that creates a deeper hyggelig atmosphere. Try it for yourself – turn off your phone and spend an hour with your friends. It might be awkward at first, but after that initial feeling passes, you’re guaranteed to have a ton of fun. You’ll definitely think it was worth it in the end.

Many Danes consider TV to be hygge under the right circumstances. Curling up on the couch under a thick blanket and sipping a hot cup of tea next to a loved one is pretty hygge.

What Isn’t Hygge

The recipe for hygge can be altered, substituted with other ingredients, and spun to meet anyone’s unique tastes. But just as raisins spoil cookies (why do they look so much like chocolate chips?), so too do some ingredients spoil hygge. By identifying what isn’t hygge, we will gain a better understanding of the concept.

1. Luxury is not hygge

Leave the Rolex and Louis Vuitton bags at home. Hygge is about feeling free of judgment. Don’t contaminate the atmosphere with competition.

2. Partying is not hygge

Partying is fun, but fun is not necessarily hygge. To achieve hygge, you have to work within its cozy confines.

3. New and Novel is not hygge

As Danish researcher Jeppe Trolle Linnet notes in his “Money Can’t Buy Me Hygge” paper, vacationing in your own town is more hygge than whitewater rafting on the Mekong River in Thailand. Connecting with your community is hygge all the way. So forgo some of the new and opt instead for the tried and true.

Ideas For How To Hygge

1. Host a hyggelig night with friends and family

You can absolutely hygge alone, but you’ll find the most enjoyment when doing it in small groups. It has been proven that the quality of your social relations is strongly correlated to happiness, so use hygge to cultivate those relationships in a meaningful way.

2. Designate a space for hygge

Choose an area that is small and inviting. Visit a few hygge-specific retailers like Hygge and West to add an extra cozy touch.

3. Plan a Potluck

A potluck is an excellent way for everyone to take part in the meal preparations. Have all your guests bring their favorite dish, and be sure there's enough to share.

4. Light Up the Candles

This is a great way to hygge with your significant other. Turn off the lights, light the candles, and talk. Dedicated time for talking is a great way to reconnect after a long day.

5. Do what makes you cozy

Remember in the beginning when I said there’s more to hygge than coziness? Well, coziness is still a big part of the equation. So put on your warmest socks and settle down for a relaxing time.

A family enjoying wine at dinner.
There are countless ways to hygge. Try whatever makes you happiest.

Take Away

Hygge teaches us a powerful lesson: Despite dreary circumstances, happiness is out there. It is ours to seize, and hygge gives us the blueprint to do it. We can thank Denmark for that.

If at any point during the article you thought to yourself, “I already do something similar to hygge with my friends, but we don’t call it that,” then you have made two important discoveries.

First, you discovered how to find happiness in life. Second, you learned that all cultures enjoy this kind of community despite not having a word for it. However, there are advantages to naming it. By having the word hygge in their vocabulary, the Danes are able to conceptualize and communicate their desire for hygge, making it easier to achieve.

Visit the ReDefiners World Languages website if you are interested in learning more extraordinary lessons from languages across the world. Our communication-and-conversation approach is proven to be the most effective method for learning a new language. Each class is taught by teachers with native-like proficiency, and the small classes allow for unique curriculums that are molded to your learning speed. We offer online classes in English, Spanish, Arabic, and Mandarin.

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