Last month the Oxford Dictionary added over 600 new words and phrases to the English dictionary. These quarterly updates never really catch my attention – the last word I remember being added was “bootylicious” in 2004. However, in this latest helping of nomenclature, Oxford threw in a Danish word that I recently added to my vocabulary in heavy rotation – Hygge (pronounced “HUE-gah”).
The definition of this new word is “A quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being (regarded as a defining character of Danish culture).” For Danes, hygge can be a noun, adjective or verb – it’s a mad lib wet dream – yet it’s actually hard to translate or comprehend.
Entire books have been written about the concept and the US media has covered hygge in bubble gum segments for the last few winters. After living in Denmark I can tell you this – hygge just doesn’t translate to American culture despite its newly minted Oxford Dictionary definition. I’ll explain why and what you can do to up your hygge street cred and get closer to the secret of Danish happiness.
Everyone knows that for most American’s, work-life balance is often askew. In Danish culture, the idea of a work life balance is foreign. This isn’t because they’re great at balancing the two, it’s because the two are never involved with one another. Like portions of Thanksgiving dinner on one of those divider plates, the two never touch.
For American’s work and life make more of a casserole – you leave your job and never really turn off work. For the worst victims, leaving work is just a 12 hour dinner break. The majority of us at least have work email on our phone and think nothing of firing off a reply at any point of the evening. This is not hygge at all! And it’s not as easy as just giving up technology for an hour while you eat, hygge is an entire lifestyle.
The main focus of any hygge night is getting together with friends and simply enjoying the pleasure of each other’s company. In Denmark an evening of hygge would be lighting some candles, pouring some wine, beer or gløgg (an often-spiked cider or mulled wine) and playing some board games. Notice there’s not much technology involved and it’s simple.
Americans don’t really do simple, especially when entertaining. Whether it’s conscious or subconscious, we like to set and then raise the bar when it comes to hosting. Food spreads, elaborate drinks, long guest lists and planned activities – for Americans, entertaining guests can be more work than our professional job. A hygge host keeps the gathering simple, the crowd small and everyone has more fun.
In essence, Americans care a lot about status. This is why Americans work so hard and part of why entertaining can be exhausting. It’s not easy keeping up with the Joneses and it’s not always fun -and it’s not hygge at all. The Danish people realized this generations ago and live by Janteloven or the Law of Jante. Janteloven has a literary origin. It is from a 1930’s novel set in Denmark and it states “the we is greater than the I.”
For Danes, celebrating individuality is looked down on. It’s great to be successful, but it’s shameful to celebrate or flaunt that success. Some people (usually Baby Boomers) say that the American Millennial generation was done a disservice because growing up, they got a trophy whether they won or lost. Well in Janteloven NO ONE gets a trophy – how’s that? Well, whether you agree with the concept or not, it’s actually pretty hygge.
Denmark is a very homogeneous society and you notice this almost immediately. Danes like to blend together. A Danish wardrobe is black jeans and a black shirt or blouse, if you want to be flashy you can mix in some gray.
I’m friends with a couple here in Denmark; another expat, from France and her boyfriend, a native Dane. She often prods him about his wardrobe (not uncommon for couples) but I find it particularly funny to hear his defense of the black Danish attire: “I don’t only wear black, in the summer I also wear white.”
Do you dye your hair or wear makeup? You’d never fit in here under Janteloven, but it makes for a very hygge environment. Not caring what your wear or who sees it can be a weight lifted off of your societal shoulders, America!
Maybe you aren’t ready to give up bold fashion choices or to forgo throwing impressive cocktail parties for your circle of friends, but here are a few tips to bring some hygge into your life:
1. Indulge – I’m not saying get hammered and eat yourself into a food coma, but stop caring so much about what you eat and drink when you’re trying to be hygge. Live a little and have an extra cookie or open that second bottle of wine at dinner. You can always run a little the next day or put the cork back on.
2. Be Present – Turn off technology when you’re making a point to spend time with the people you care about. If you’re with your friends and family, emails can wait and so can unimportant texts or calls. The most hygge thing you can do is be there.
3. Stay in and Keep it Simple – There’s nothing more hygge than having 4-6 friends over to spend quality time and there’s no need to go to extremes when you’re hygge. If you can brew coffee, you can be hygge! If you’re going to cook, use a crock pot so you’re not chained to the kitchen and let people help themselves. Overall, you don’t have to impress anyone, so don’t try to – just hygge.
4. Candles – Denmark burns more candles than any other European country, it’s because candle lighting is hygge AF. Turn off the lights and burn some candles the next time you entertain. Don’t use scented candles either, for authentic hygge you only need the light and your company.
5. Get cozy – When you hygge, put on some comfortable clothes and encourage those you’re with to do the same. Put out lots of blankets and make things as relaxing as possible. Maybe even consider hygge robes!
So while American culture doesn’t lend itself directly to the hygge nature of Danish happiness, you can get a little closer just by being aware. Slow things down and keep it simple like you’re in Denmark. It’s not the happiest country on earth for no reason.
How can you be more hygge?