Ahhh hygge, that new “trending concept” fresh from the shores of Denmark that we are all buying into. Now that the weather is turning and we realise that we’ll have to spend more time indoors with our crazy, quirky families (God love them and God help us), we are looking for a distraction and a cure-all.
I have been amused to see a mass publication of books and column space in the broadsheets this year on the subject of “hygge”. Meik Wiking and Helen Russell have both done a great job in explaining a seemingly untranslatable word. Hygge is a "feeling" that comes straight from the bosom of the happiest nation on earth, Denmark, and it's about time they started sharing. Though they can keep their rain, we have enough of that in England.
Social media 'influencers' (I use that term ironically) are ablaze with hygge right now and everywhere you look people are striving to “get their hygge on”, following suggestions to light church candles and pulling on woollen socks like their lives depended on it. Hygge has become the "in-thing", a buzzword, but what does this concept actually mean for real life? How can we fuse this cultural lifestyle into ours? If it's meant to make us happy, shouldn't we focus on keeping hold of it long term rather than just treating it as a trend?
Why are we buying into it so much and is hygge really the holy grail of happiness? Is it something we can actually create, or is it ethereal? Propping books on the shelves and posting (curated) hygge moments on our social feeds is all well and good but what about getting under the blankets and putting in the actual work to feel it?
From observation, I think the root of the desire for hygge outside of Nordic culture demonstrates that we are looking for something to believe in and do that will make the daily humdrum bearable. It shows that we are still looking for our happy-ever-after, despite the fancy cars, weekend getaways, perfectly manicured nails and the Annie Sloan slapped furniture. Do we put aside our up-cycling or mindfulness colouring and crochet and hot foot it down to our local Ikea to stock up on candles, then come home to cook some comfort food in order to magic up the spirit of hygge instead? Or is it a little more complicated than that?
Personal concern over our mental wellbeing ripens at this time of year. Both the onset of seasonal affective disorder and the impending doom of realising there is nothing but a few months of awkward time spent with family with a total lack of things to do makes us all feel a bit itchy to get on with making things "feel right" at home. Though Christmas will provide respite and a welcome relief from the monotony of winter depression, it won’t last forever, and we’ve pretty much all figured out by now that happiness cannot be found in endless series of reality TV, or at the bottom of a tub of Celebrations or Hershey's Kisses.
Straight talking for the moment – we all just want to feel a bit happier, don’t we?
So how can we all carve out little moments of hygge for ourselves, and make it feel genuine?
How to create real Danish hygge in your own home.
Denmark is a nation I am proud to call my motherland. I was born in England in the 1980s to a single Danish mother, and according to Danish law that meant I automatically inherited her nationality. It will forever be an identity I am fiercely proud of, and for good reason, I can enjoy the best of both worlds! Being a half-breed means that I have been in prime position to bear witness to the differences in English and Danish culture and as I will explain, growing up with within the culture of "hygge creation" makes you realise that it runs so much deeper than a simple evening of lit candles. Pure-bred Danes find it hard to translate it into other cultures, because they have been brought up in the land of “hygge just is”. It's as deep-rooted in their DNA as their love for Pølse (hot dogs) and Weinerbrød (they don't actually call them Danish pastries in Denmark). Even my Mormor still finds it hard to put the very concept of hygge into words, despite her perfect English. Trying to find the right adjectives leaves her exasperated.
Hygge "just is", just like you are just you. The magic lies in the realisation that you have the power to create the goodness in both.
I am going to attempt to describe the indescribable so that we can all find a quicker road map, or recipe to this thing we call hygge and carve out a new happiness culture for ourselves in non-Viking lands. From an Anglo-Dane to the rest of the world, here are my three top tips for creating that hygge feeling in your life every day.
1. It’s not the candles that make things hygge, it’s you
A great suggestion for obtaining hygge is that you light some candles, and I echo that, but not just for aesthetics sake. Danes burn more candles per head than any other nation in Europe and it certainly adds some hygge to the home, but while candles may be touted as the answer, the reality is the atmosphere and “situations” in which you light them is actually what makes you feel happier.
The correct time of day is usually at dusk as you head into the evening to wind down and shed the concerns of the day. We are home, safe. A candle is a guiding light to take us away from the ugly sides of life. More than a match, wax and wick, that candle actually has some magic to it.
Low levels of light from candles trigger the brain into releasing melatonin, which relaxes your body and prepares it for sleep. Think back to when you felt really relaxed and what the scenario was. Chances are it was quiet and calm, you felt safe and could have slept for hours. The secretion of melatonin numbs the brain from worry and takes away concern. Burning a lot of candles also affects the levels of oxygen in the home causing us to breathe deeper – a relaxation method used in many forms of alternative therapies. Deep breathing triggers that feeling of contentment you get from slowing the pace.
People also look and act better by candlelight. More considered in their movements (for fear of knocking over a candle and burning the house down), slowing down speech and body to a snail's pace, being more tactile, more willing to speak about deeper subjects, making better eye contact, paying attention to their kin, dishing out more smiles. They are more 'in the moment' because their brains aren’t quite as wired, thinking about something outside of the situation they are currently in. Candlelight makes you focus on the moment and illuminates love and togetherness.
While it's true that lit candles provide an ambience and a pleasant atmosphere, it is the science and learned behaviour that really does the work for creating hygge. So how can you translate this feeling and therapy into the cold light of day when lighting candles might be inappropriate?
Slow down. Take the time to relax and consider what you are going to do or say. Were you born to rush? Rushing and hurriedness is a culture that has been created by modern society, but it is not something that you have to buy into. Slow down your life and savour every moment, both good and bad, because you grow from it. The Danes work very few hours because they realise that life at home is more important. They slow down and take time to be with the people they love.
Take deep breaths. Learn to control your breathing and anxiety and worry will melt away. Thoughts cannot harm you, realise that fear is created in your mind and the things you worry about will never really come to fruition.
Create a timetable for your day. Lighting candles at home signals that it is time to shift down a gear. It demonstrates that one part of the day has ended and now is the time to relax. Create rituals throughout your day to signify to yourself the progression of the hours. Have morning tea, or take an afternoon walk every day. Familiarity fosters contentment.
2. Be predictable, hygge likes routine
Speaking of familiarity, another thing the Danes are is a little predictable. A sweeping statement perhaps but they do like things that remind them of home, and those things are predictable. Maybe it is a familiar scent, like fire roaring in the wood burner, coffee percolating in the kitchen, a familiar chair or set of dishes that dinner is served on every night. Step into any Danish home and you will find a familiar sense of atmosphere and homeliness. Much of their furniture is the same, as well as the products and pieces within the home.
Many Danish households have these things in common. Candles lit almost every night, a cosy corner to snuggle and read books, things made from natural material such as wood, wool, copper, cotton and linen. Well-made furniture from notable Danish designers, lamps take precedence over ceiling lights creating warm pools of light in specific areas of the home, inviting you to bask in the glow. Food is familiar, they like their sweets and they like comfort foods that are simple to prepare. The Danes appreciate vintage or handmade things, specifically from local artists, they like natural products made out of things that came from the earth and they wear things out before they replace them. Their interior design is made up of limited neutral palettes and open space, creating a sense of calm and harmony. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner on their favourite (mostly Royal Copenhagen) china, (dinner candles a must), just as their Mormor and Oldemor used to. They are fiercely proud of their country and heritage, no home is complete without a Dannebrog (mine included). They value traditions and uphold them. They don’t save things for “best” because everything around them is “best”. Their wardrobe is simple, predictable, monochrome and practical, concentrating on the function rather than the fashion. They spend time in nature just "being". How can your life be more predictably happy?
Create daily pattern and familiarity. Tradition plays a big part, keep Friday nights for family dinners where everyone is expected to attend. Sunday afternoons are for a good walk in nature followed by popcorn and a movie. If you don't have traditions, create some. Surround yourself with things that you love but are also practical. Pick a pattern of china, love it, cherish it and build upon it over the years and then pass it on to your children. People will always know what to buy you as a gift! Make your friends and family food that isn’t trendy or in vogue, instead serve them food that is nourishing and comforting. Value time over "event", simple suppers with schnapps and good conversation that go on long into the night are far better than elaborate five-course affairs that feel stuffy and contrived. Simplify your surroundings, as William Morris said, "have nothing in your home that you do not consider to be useful or beautiful". Boycott Ikea when it comes to furnishing your home (except for those candles), instead collect heritage and vintage pieces or invest in things to last in your home for a lifetime. Remember what you loved about your home as a child and strive to replicate that familiar feeling in your own home. If you didn’t find it in your youth, create it now. Your home is your castle and your haven from the world – treat it as such. Above all keep your home and your life simple, free from negativity and nonsense because the outside influences of your world are complicated enough.
3. Stop thinking you are special, hygge doesn't care
In English culture, and I know from speaking to girlfriends that America is much the same, we have this in-built desire to constantly show off to each other, and it does nothing but breed discontentment and envy. This materialistic and unsatisfying culture is demonstrated everywhere, from advertisements persuading us that buying XYZ will make us appear successful or beautiful, to the culture of posting hundreds of nicely filtered and very staged selfies on Instagram for validation. We just want to be better than our neighbours, and for them to know it. The game of keeping up with the Jones' is a fierce one reserved exclusively for certain first world cultures.
This culture doesn’t really exist in Denmark. Despite operating a somewhat capitalist society, their culture and ideology is very much firmly rooted in a communist mindset. The idea of togetherness is promoted above the concerns of the individual. They build communities and belong to clubs, they are proud to be Danish, they are proud of their heritage and their culture. They know and nurture one another rather than look down their noses at those "beneath them", because no one really is. This convivial way of living and playing out daily life actually goes way back in nordic social culture, and is known as “Jante’s Law”.
Jante’s Law is a description of a pattern of group behaviour within Scandinavian communities that outwardly criticises the expression and self-promotion of the individual. Preferring instead to foster and emphasise the collective achievements of your family, social group and society. The Danish (and other nordic countries) actively discourage bragging, flaunting wealth and boasting achievers. What good does it do for your own and the collective wellbeing of a group to make people feel rotten about their situation or lives anyway? You certainly wouldn’t want to spend good quality time with a show-off, so why tolerate it?
This, I believe is the absolute marker of what gives you the ability to feel the “hygge” in your life. A firmly rooted identity, total acceptance of who you are, and a consistent feeling of belonging and security. You should know you are a beautiful person, be forever good to those around you and always operate from a place of kindness and love. So why spend your time trying so hard to prove yourself to the outside world with flashing your achievements, wealth, sexuality or possessions?
Put away social media for shameless self-promotion purposes. By all means, share recipes, great sunsets, good quality things, nice places to go, fun holiday snaps and all the hygge you can lay your hands on, but the pouts, cleavage and bling needs to go. Your “highlight” reel should be meaningful, not a warped version of reality. Not everyone is that pretty all the time, or constantly #blessed with new designer handbags and diamond rings. What good is your latest post doing? What energy does it send out to the world? What does it say about you?
We’re all in this together. Social structure and high taxes in Denmark means that there aren’t huge gaps in wealth. Pretty much everyone rents their homes, either privately or through the social system and they realise their possessions don’t define them. The Danish appreciate well-made quality items that are built to last, they don't buy "cheap quantity" just to be seen to have it, as should we. They are responsible caretakers of the environment and appreciate cleanliness and order. While we can’t easily make huge changes to our governmental structures we can change ourselves in realising what is important, and it isn’t money in the bank, it’s moments.
Strive for the hygge in all situations and put away the idea that hygge can happen only in the home. Candles, cosy suppers and time spent around the fire is all well and good but I believe the epitome of “hygge” is feeling good about who you are and where you are, right now.
Hygge really means feeling content and happy in your identity. Knowing that you are loved, that you are surrounded with and blessed by the things you need to survive (not the things you want) and that life is made up of moments, not material possessions.
Knowing your identity is the first step in feeling hygge every day, whether a candle is lit or not.
Ladies Like Us, my book on creating a personal sense of hygge, is available to buy now on Amazon.