“Fresh, clean sheets on a bed of down, linen and cotton, the comforting weight of a good blanket or the primal appeal of a sheepskin thrown over a chair all touch us and ask us to stop and hygge. Hygge is the comfort of soft woollen socks, the sturdy cosiness of woven fabric, the smoothness of felt. It’s the feeling of warm sun on our faces, sand between our toes, a round stone in a pocket, the warmth of a hand. Hygge is sliding into bed in the winter to find a patch of cat-warmth by our feet. Vintage textiles softened and worn with use, quilts patched with love, a basket of blankets arranged so that anyone can envelope themselves in warmth. The portable, sensuous luxury of a cashmere scarf, a wrap placed around our shoulder, the gift of a blanket to be carried from room to room or taken on long journeys.
‘Hygge’ (pronounced hue-gah’ as the book helpfully tells us) is the latest in a series of life-hacking type ideologies – you know the type: clean eating, meditation, French women don’t get fat, the art of tidying, etc, etc – this one based on the Danish ‘art of living well’. I am generally sceptical of such concepts, which tend to be faddish and commercialised, but as I’m off to Denmark on a work trip in a weeks time I thought I might as well give it a whirl. There are a few books out there eschewing the art of hygge at the moment, but I chose this one by Louisa Thomsen Brits which, it just so happened, they had a copy of in my library. I think that, in itself, is hyggelig (hugge like) in style and so I inadvertently began my journey into the idea of hygge.
The concept of hygge is based on things like comfort and belonging, intimacy, balance, equality and shelter. It evokes a warm, cosy room, candle-lit, a cup of warm chocolate and your loved ones sitting around chatting or relaxing comfortably. As we approach winter, the idea of hygge becomes extremely appealing though the book is keen to point out that hygge is a way of life not an occasional concept. It’s about what you set as your priorities, how you connect to the people and environment around you, where you place your value and how you spend your time. It is about being present in the moment, but recognising that the moment will not last. Around every ring of light, there are shadows. This is at the heart of hygge.
“To comfort each other, we acknowledge the importance of emotions. Since the dominant logic of the Industrial Revolution, incorporating sentiment and soul into the design of our lives has been dismissed as light and feminine, but Danish material culture has always celebrated both human feeling and the nurturing presence of the natural world.”
The book is split into six sections, each covering an aspect of hygge: belonging, shelter, comfort, wellbeing, simplicity, observance. Each section expands and builds upon the section before. This can make it feel repetitive, but it also gives the book a comforting feel – as in the way that children are comforted by a bedtime routine, or couples find intimacy in listening to a shared, favourite song or restaurant. Interspersed amongst the hygge advice are pithy little quotes, all of which complement and add to the sense of hygge.
“Hygge is the perfect response to the patterns of human behaviour – it accommodates the movement that springs from our desire to explore and achieve and supports our need to be momentarily held, wherever we are.
Hygge is a release and an exchange; a fusion of our sense of self, the place we occupy and the people around us. Because hygge relaxes us, it affords the possibility of fully inhabiting a place and a moment.
The world ‘inhabit’ comes from the Latin habere which meant ‘to hold’ in offering or receiving. We don’t need the same surroundings to hygge, but we do need to feel held.”
Hygge is not a commercial experience, it doesn’t require a specific place or certain type of environment. It doesn’t thrive in conflict and it doesn’t promote values like competitiveness and authority. Hygge is about making everyone feel welcome, but in an effortless kind of way. Hygge can be achieved alone or in company, with family or with strangers. This makes it sounds like there are no rules, and there aren’t rules as such but there are ideals to be achieved in order to achieve hygge. Effortless welcome is never really effortless, and it can take just one jarring note to destroy the sense of hygge you may have gone to considerable effort to achieve. It all sounds a little idealistic, and I suppose it is but perhaps that, too, is the appeal of it. It is also a flaw, and a flaw the author admits to. The Danish embody hygge as a cultural concept because, as the author states, they consider themselves a tribe. This exclusivity suggests that someone perceived an ‘outsider’ isn’t going to naturally fit into a hygge experience. Hygge, whilst aiming to be inclusive, can be extremely exclusive. But perhaps only if you’re doing it wrong.
“It is in giving value to the ordinary things that we do, in seeing them as a significant part of the greater whole, we learn to hygge. The challenges of our lives are far from simple. If we address everyday tasks in such a way that we take pleasure in doing them simply for their own sake, we move through our day as an annotation of moments, not a checklist. By listening to music while we sit in congested traffic, or enjoying the sensation of standing with our hands in a sink full of warm, soapy water, we make dignified – even joyful – work of essential tasks that we might ordinarily consider drudgery. It’s easy to miss the windows of calm that open in our daily commute from one task and one place to the next.”
As I mentioned at the beginning, I’m sceptical of these kinds of ideologies, but there’s something extremely appealing about hygge. As I read the book I found myself thinking about how I could create some more hygge in my home, in my work. Often in our drive for ‘success’ and material things, the need for emotional comfort is ignored. Perhaps it is ignored because, as a commercialised culture, emotional comfort is difficult to sell. Hygge recognises that the things that comfort us emotionally, in general, cannot be bought. They are shared experiences, domestic chores, a hearty conversation, a cuddle, lying down in the grass outdoors. I recognised some of the things I do to create comfort as hyggelig, like a candle-lit bubble bath for my daughter, or setting the table nicely for dinner, a little extra effort expended in making a comforting meal. None of these things cost me anything, but they enrich my life and the lives of the people around me. This, I think, is the essence hygge tries to capture. It asks us to remember to comfort and shelter each other, that buying each other things or working extra hours to earn more money, are not the things that really make us feel safe, happy and comforted. Making a little effort for each other, connecting, pushing aside one-upmanship and replacing it with an embracing acceptance costs us nothing but a little humility but infinitely improves our life experience. I was sceptical, I am sceptical, but I am also thinking about how to embrace hygge experiences in my daily life.
The Book of Hygge is published by Ebury Press.