COPENHAGEN, Dec 25 — As soothing as a video of a basket of baby sloths, and borne on a raft of lifestyle books, hygge is headed for your living room.
Hygge (pronounced HOO-gah, like a football cheer in a Scandinavian accent) is the Danish word for cosy. It is also a national manifesto, nay, an obsession expressed in the constant pursuit of homespun pleasures involving candlelight, fires, fuzzy knitted socks, porridge, coffee, cake and other people. But no strangers, as the Danes, apparently, are rather shy. Hygge is already such a thing in Britain that the Collins Dictionary proclaimed it one of the top 10 words of 2016, along with Brexit and Trumpism.
Denmark frequently tops lists of the happiest countries in the world, in surveys conducted by the United Nations, among other organisations, consistently beating its Scandinavian cousins, Sweden and Norway — as well as the United States, which hovers around 13th place. While all three Nordic countries share happiness boosters like small populations and the attendant boons of a welfare state (free education, subsidised child care and other generous social supports), what distinguishes Denmark is its quest for hygge.
At least, that is the conclusion of Meik Wiking, the founder and chief executive of the Happiness Institute, a think tank based in Copenhagen dedicated to exploring why some societies are happier than others.
“We talk about it constantly,” Wiking said. “I’ll invite you over for dinner and during the week we’ll talk about how hyggelig it’s going to be, and then during the dinner we’ll talk about hyggelig it is, and then during the week afterwards, you’ll remind me about how hyggelig Saturday was.” (The adjectival form of the word is pronounced HOO-gah-lee.)
“Danes see hygge as a part of our culture,” he said, “the same way you see freedom as inherently American.”
When we spoke, Wiking — pronounced Viking — was home in Copenhagen for a few days after a multicity tour. He has written The Little Book of Hygge, which is already a best-seller in Britain and will be out next month in the United States. It is the most engaging of what is becoming a full-fledged lifestyle category. More than 20 how-to hygge books were published here in 2016, although the Marie Kondo of the discipline has yet to be anointed. Perhaps it is anti-hygge to suggest that any one of its gurus might prevail.
Also coming stateside in January is How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life, by Signe Johansen, a chef and food writer, to be followed in February by The Book of Hygge: The Danish Art of Contentment, Comfort and Connection, by Louisa Thomsen Brits, who is half-Danish and half-British and who sells Danish furniture from hygge.com, a domain name she was savvy enough to claim.
“It had the feel of the feng shui phenomenon,” said Cassie Jones, executive editor at HarperCollins, the parent company of William Morrow, which is publishing The Little Book of Hygge. “An opportunity to look to another culture for something intuitively familiar yet refreshingly new.”
Wiking is the only author to include a bacon metric in his hygge dissertation, which is embedded with charts, surveys, statistics, recipes and craft projects. Noting that candles (unscented) are a vital hygge accessory, he reports that Danes burn 13 pounds (5.8kg) of candle wax a person a year, doing so even in classrooms and office buildings. (He uses the bacon metric for context: Each Dane consumes only half as much bacon, a little more than 6 ½ pounds, although bacon itself is very hyggelig.) Where Americans see a fire hazard, the Danes see an antidepressant. The Danish word for spoilsport, Wiking notes, is lyseslukker, “which literally means, ‘one who puts out the candles.’”
In his own book, How to Be Danish, out in 2012, Patrick Kingsley, a reporter at The Guardian, wrote of his bemusement at the ubiquity of the term. His bike was hyggelig but so was someone’s table, and a walk through the Vesterbro district in Copenhagen. (These days, Kingsley is reporting from Turkey on the migrant crisis in Europe, and perhaps it is this vantage point that has made him see a darker, more insular side to all things hygge. Cosiness, he said recently, is by nature exclusionary. “It’s built on the idea of withdrawing from the rest of society and building a sort of micro-commune among a select group of friends.”)
How to get hygge? Go home and stay there, preferably in your hyggekrog — aka “cosy nook” — wrapped in a blanket, drinking a cup of coffee and watching a Danish police procedural about a serial killer with your friends. (In his book, Kingsley speculates that the Danes elevate home life because eating out is so expensive — the food at Danish restaurants carries a 25 per cent value-added tax.)
Scary stuff, if it’s fictional, can increase your hygge, as can a raging storm outside, said Wiking, who notes in his book that, on average, there are 179 days of rain annually in Denmark. Actual scary stuff, like the news, is not advised.
The avatar of the Danish procedural is The Killing, popular in Britain but available only on DVD, although not in whatever format it is the American DVD players run on. But you can find Borgen, the Danish political drama that has been compared to The West Wing, on iTunes. The show features some very attractive interiors embellished with iconic Danish modern designs, like Poul Henningsen pendant lamps, which Wiking explains are a sine qua non of hyggelig décor. To observers like Kingsley and Wiking, these shows were the Trojan horses of all things Danish in Britain, with the chunky, star-patterned sweater worn by the main character on “The Killing,” the detective Sarah Lund, becoming a particular fetish item (you can see it on a tribute website, sarahlundsweater.com).
The question posed by Johansen, the chef, in her book, How to Hygge is largely answered not by furniture or clothes, but in recipes for glogg, muesli, fruit compote, salt cod fritters and roast lamb, her own versions of the highlights of the New Nordic Cuisine.
For her part, Brits, the author of The Book of Hygge, eschews recipes and goes in hard for a moody, meditative approach in which she extols the virtues of wooden bowls, cuddling, brushing your teeth while your partner brushes his or her teeth and stands next to you, being naked, vintage textiles, pendant lights, circular tables, burned spatulas, old shoes, honking geese and line-dried laundry, among many other wholesome items and behaviours. You may find yourself agreeing with her when she writes, “Hygge is a fragile bloom that can’t be forced.”
You can see why hygge is ripe for parody. As is the Danish language, which Wiking describes as sounding like a dead seal choking. The writer John Crace, in his column for The Guardian, found The Little Book of Hygge an easy mark. “One of the reasons the Danes are so much happier than anyone else is because there is very little to do in Denmark, so we have got used to having very low expectations,” he wrote in September, when Wiking’s book was published in Britain. “For us, a bike ride in the pouring rain with a candle on our heads or sitting on the beach in the pouring rain eating cake can be pure hygginess.”
As Jacob Gallagher, men’s fashion editor of The Wall Street Journal, posted on Twitter recently, “Hygge is the wabi-sabi of 2016 which was the sprezzatura of 2015.”
Indeed: Why hygge, why now? Lucie Greene, the resident futurist at J. Walter Thompson, said she thought it was a reaction to “the well-being movement,” noting the elitism of a lifestyle predicated on US$100 (RM449) Lululemon leggings and US$10 bottles of cold pressed juices.
“Hygge is an easier trend to adopt because it’s so personal and so accessible,” Greene said. “You’re not just indulging for the sake of it. You’re supposed to savour it. It’s no surprise it came from a nation seeking comfort from the dark winters. It lends itself quite naturally to these uncertain times.” As for how it might play out on a retail level, she said she imagined “a massive emphasis on textiles and home wares, from affordable cashmere to candles, kind of like the cocooning thing in the ‘90s.”
Cosy as an ideal is showing up in other unlikely arenas, like the preamble to a mixtape by ASAP Mob, a rapper collective, called the Cosy Tapes, a kind of Christmas album. A paean to boxer shorts, terry cloth and old man socks, the group debates who is the cosiest of them all, with phrases like: “I was so cosy I fell asleep before I left the house.” (Speaking of cosy invasions, you will recall that the Russian hacker “Cosy Bear” and his or her colleague, “Fancy Bear,” have been wreaking havoc at the Democratic National Committee, among other organisations.)
Meanwhile, Hyggelife.com sells soft, furry Nordic home goods like reindeer skins, goat and sheep skins, startlingly adorable suede and sheepskin baby bootees, and an assortment of candles and candle holders. Its owners, Alexandra Gove and her fiancé, Koen van Renswoude, based in Colorado, were working in the hospitality business a few years ago when they took a trip to Copenhagen, Gove said, and had a hygge epiphany, something about the candles in all the cafes.
“I thought, whoa, Americans need more of this and I need more of this,” she said. “Once you have a word like hygge in your vocabulary, you can’t stop using it. I said, ‘This is it, we have to start business revolving around hygge.’”
The couple bought an early 1970s Opel Blitz camper van (with plump, Herbie-like curves and anthropomorphic styling, vintage Opels are very hyggelig). They painted the sides with the words “Hygge Life” and drove around Europe in summer 2014, selling Dutch pancakes called poffertjes at campsites and farmers’ markets. Back in Colorado, they started an online store, which is now a year old. They hope to build a hygge-themed hotel in the mountains, toward which dream they have bought the domain names hotelhygge.com and hyggelodge.com.
Groggy from reading glogg and pancake recipes, and the accompanying reflections on hugging, sledding and board games by Wiking and others, I was poised to hygger here at home.
I wanted a real Dane as my guide — “cosy” and “New Yorker” being contradictory terms — so I called on Claus Meyer, a founder of the New Nordic cuisine and of Noma in Copenhagen, ground zero for his country’s slow food and farm-to-table movement. (Wiking rates Noma as one of the world’s most hyggelig restaurants, because even though it is pricey — things that are expensive are not cosy — it has the right lighting.) A year or so ago, Meyer moved with his family to New York City to roll out a number of projects. Could he show me a hyggelig time, I wondered?
A few months ago, Meyer opened the Great Northern Food Hall, a collection of hyggelig food stalls serving smorrebrod (open-faced sandwiches), porridges and craft beers, among other New Nordic offerings, in Grand Central Terminal. Designed by Christina Meyer Bengtsson, Meyer’s wife, and her partner, Ulrik Nordentoft, it has hyggelig touches like tiles laid in a mosaic that recalls traditional Nordic knitting patterns. All December, Great Northern offered a Holiday Hygge Programme, which included knitting workshops by Bengtsson’s mother, Anne Grethe; talks by Meyer on mulled wine, baking bread and vinegar; and craft classes for children.
Meyer suggested a hygge marathon in his family’s Chelsea town house. “I would go as far as to say that my wife is an authority in the discipline, and also in this field I am no loser myself,” he said. “We both grew up in families where hygge was everything. My parents then suddenly lost it, but that’s a different story that has only spurred my sense of it.”
On a recent Sunday, the Meyer family and friends convened for an extreme hygge performance. Three of the four Meyer children, Elvira, 20; Viola, 13; and Augusta, 11, were there along with Lydia Holness, a film executive, and her 12-year-old daughter, Lola Byrd. Lacking a fireplace, the girls had obligingly streamed a fire video on their television. Meyer, who is tall and lanky and speaks with a kind of barking precision, set out steaming glasses of glogg, otherwise known as spiced wine, and plates of chestnut-size balls of dough made with lemon peel, cardamom and apple and sautéed in butter.
That was the snack part. Normally, Meyer said, you would follow the pancake eating with a two-hour walk, then have dinner. Without the time for such an interlude, this being Manhattan, we bravely tucked into the next course. There was beef tartare with horseradish and pomegranates, freshly baked bread and an extraordinary “porridge” of rye, barley and black lentils, with bits of pumpkin and turkey in it.
Porridge, Meyer said, is both a hyggelig exemplar and a linchpin of the New Nordic cuisine. “But in this porridge, there is no fat,” he added. “That is the funny thing. So tonight you will digest as small angels.”
Meyer, who had clapped a knitted cap on his head that had been made by his mother-in-law, was feeding turkey bits to the dog, while Holness and I lolled in our seats. Leftover turkey does seem very hyggelig, I ventured at last.
“Porridge,” Meyer asserted crisply, “is even more compliant with the idea. Comfort food. Comfort food and hygge must be coinciding.”
Have some more cranberry compote, he urged. — The New York Times