Hygge: Find happiness by living the Danish way

It seems the zeitgeist has shifted from mindfulness to hygge this autumn, with a series of books celebrating the Danish way of living. But lighting candles aside, what exactly does hygge involve and how will it make us happier? Johanna Derry finds out…

This autumn everyone’s talking about ‘hygge’, the Scandinavian word roughly translated as ‘cosiness’ into English. But there’s more to hygge than wearing The Killing style jumpers and lighting a couple of candles. Here The Early Hour asks the authors of the books, and some Danes living in the UK, what hygge means and whether living Danishly is the key to happiness.

The Danes regularly top the polls of the world’s happiest people. But how do they do it? Some would argue it’s down to this one little, untranslated word: hygge. Pronounced ‘hoo-geh’ where the oo sounds like it’s stuck in your throat, it’s not just a concept but a way of living that’s central to the Scandinavian, and particularly the Danish way of life.

Alex Hely-Hutchinson, founder of 26 Grains, a ‘porridge cafe’ in Neal’s Yard near Covent Garden, discovered the concept of hygge when she lived in Copenhagen as a student.

Rather than giving you a sense of achievement, or an Instagram moment, it’s about taking time for yourself and the ones you love

‘It’s hard to define because it’s so personal, but hygge is about a sense of contentment,’ she explains. ‘Danes are incredibly modest, so hygge isn’t ever showy or selfish. It’s about taking time to cook something lovely, or to savour a bath. Rather than giving you a sense of achievement, or an Instagram moment, it’s about taking time for yourself and the ones you love.’

Her book of recipes 26 Grains is almost a memoir of recipes linked to meals she’s shared with people she loves over the past few years, all centred on different grains. ‘The moment that’s shared with someone else, always gives you a hygge sensation,’ she says, ‘which I hope comes through the recipes. Those memorable, but simple moments.’

While you might associate hygge, if you’ve come across the concept before, with hot chocolate and candles on a cold winter’s night, it’s actually a year round thing, a feeling that you might have experienced sitting outside on a summer’s night with your friends after a barbecue, or with purple fingers from picking blackberries with your kids.

‘Winter is peak time for hygge,’ explains Elias Larsen, co-author of The Art of Hygge, ‘but it’s definitely a year-round thing. In Denmark we really like to make the most of the long summer days and be outside as much as possible. Summer hygge means beachcombing, walks in woods, meals outdoors with friends, sitting around a fire pit and stargazing.’

Relaxing about things having to be just so, and finding more time to be together might well be enough in itself to be beneficial. Hygge is a good antidote to the business of every day life

Hygge is a sensory experience and a communal one, and this is where it differs from other practices that might urge us to bed into the present moment, like mindfulness.

‘What’s interesting about hygge is that it touches on a lot of the lifestyle trends,’ says Charlotte Abrahams, a design journalist who was so intrigued by the concept she wrote a book called Hygge: A Celebration of Simple Pleasures. ‘Clean living, mindfulness and so on. But it does it in a much gentler way. Hygge does require you to be fully present to whatever you’re doing, which is a mindful concept, but it doesn’t ask you to meditate or take it any further. It’s just, for example, if you’re having a glass of wine with a friend to put your phone somewhere else, to be properly there in that moment. You can’t fail at hygge.’

Hygge isn’t anything new to Scandinavians – it’s been a part of the culture in Denmark for the last two centuries – but it’s definitely becoming a trend in the UK. Perhaps it’s austerity that’s driving us to look towards the simpler pleasures of life, or maybe in looking to our Nordic neighbours for inspiration in how to become a more progressive and egalitarian society, we’ve uncovered hygge as a key ingredient. Arguably the philosophy of hygge is to the Danes, what freedom is to the USA, and perhaps duty is to us Brits.

The house doesn’t need to be spotless and the food doesn’t need to be perfect to have people around

Certainly Nicoline Falmer-Nielsen, a Dane living in Britain and founder of Pipii, a website selling decorations and accessories to hyggelig-infuse your home, noticed our need for hygge when she moved to the UK from Denmark 30 years ago. For her the most obvious difference was in the way Brits only let people into their homes if they were immaculately clean and tidy, preferring to hang out in the pub instead.

‘My (British) husband used to get so worked up and anxious when I invited people to the house,’ she says. ‘Now he’s more chilled out and knows that the house doesn’t need to be spotless and the food doesn’t need to be perfect to have people around.’

She believes that while hygge might not be the answer to all our personal and societal ills here in the UK, a good dose of it wouldn’t do us much harm. ‘Relaxing about things having to be just so, and finding more time to be together might well be enough in itself to be beneficial. Hygge is a good antidote to the business of every day life.’

So maybe letting ourselves off the hook every now and then could be good for us. There’s no questioning the happiness of the Danes, so for us stressed out Brits, it’s definitely worth giving hygge a try.

Four ways to live Danishly

Allow yourself to take some time out a few times a week, and REALLY enjoy that time. ‘Whatever you choose to do, enjoy it and recognise it,’ says Charlotte Abrahams. ‘Whether it’s having a cup of tea with a friend, lying in one morning, or going for a walk. Notice it rather than just letting it go.’

Don’t worry about being perfect. ‘Hygge tends to happen by accident,’ says Alex Hely-Hutchinson. ‘It’s in those moments when you haven’t tried. Often the simplest things are the most delicious things and hygge isn’t about creating the perfect thing.’

Be in the moment. ‘Notice the beauty in everyday rituals,’ says Elias Larssen. ‘Make the most of simple pleasures, and really appreciate the time you share with friends and family.’

Prioritise togetherness over perfection. ‘We have an open-door policy which means we’re often having impromptu get-togethers,’ says Falmer-Nielsen. ‘I can always stretch meals to include one or two more, drumming something up from the cupboards so that we can catch up over a beer, laugh and enjoy each other’s company.’

Books on Danish living:

The Art of Hygge: How to Bring Danish Cosiness into Your Life by Jonny Jackson and Elias Larsen published by Summersdale £9.99 

HYGGE A Celebration of Simple Pleasures, Living the Danish Way by Charlotte Abrahams published by Trapeze (Orion) out October 19 
26 Grains by Alex Hely-Hutchinson published by Square Peg 
Do you subscribe to the hygge way of living? Perhaps you’re already living this way without giving it a name? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below…
Picture credit: both images from Designspiration