Why All the Hype About Hygge?

Seeking the secret of Nordic well-being.

Posted Apr 17, 2018

Natalie Lucier (Creative Commons - adapted)
Source: Natalie Lucier (Creative Commons - adapted)

It’s curious how certain cultural concepts so swiftly seem to achieve ubiquity, like a film star bursting onto the Hollywood scene. Suddenly references to them appear to be everywhere, in bookshelves and magazines, TV shows and adverts.

A paradigmatic example is hygge, that apparently archetypal Nordic quality — encompassing warmth, coziness and contentment — celebrated as a defining characteristic of the region. In 2016 alone, nine English books devoted to it were published, plus countless articles in newspapers and magazines1. The Oxford English Dictionary even celebrated it as one of its words of the year2. So, why the sudden interest?

The allure of untranslatable words

Hygge is a classic example of an untranslatable word: a term which lacks an exact equivalent in our own language. A key giveaway in that respect is that, rather than attempt to translate the word — a tricky and even futile endeavor — speakers will simply adopt the foreign word and drop it into their discourse. As we see with hygge.

I’ve recently taken a great interest in such words, particularly those relating to well-being (as a researcher in positive psychology). To that end, I’ve been creating a positive lexicography of these terms, as I explore in two new books (see bio for details).

Such words are significant for many reasons. For a start, they help us notice and understand phenomena which have been overlooked or underappreciated in our own culture and language. Thus, with hygge, one could argue that it represents a quality — a state of mind and/or of our environment — that has been particularly noticed and celebrated in Nordic countries (especially Denmark and Norway).

It’s not that speakers of other languages have never experienced this quality. After all, one reason untranslatable words are embraced is precisely because people do recognize the phenomena they signify, at least to an extent (even if they do not fully appreciate how the words are deployed in their native context). The issue was they didn’t have a specific label for it, even if other words — such as ‘coziness’, in the case of hygge — do come close.

Hence their adoption of the foreign word. These are latched onto and deployed as loanwords, because they allow people to articulate experiences that they hitherto struggled to express.

Hunting for happiness

However, the above considerations don’t tell us why specific words are embraced at a given point in time. Why has hygge burst so spectacularly on to the international scene in the last few years?

No doubt the reasons are complex and manifold. But I would guess that it’s due, at least in part, to the perception that the Nordic nations have somehow got it right with respect to living. For they invariably top the happiness-ranking tables that have proliferated recently. For instance, the United Nations’ authoritative World Happiness Report — which annually ranks countries according to self-reported subjective well-being — was headed in 2017 by Norway, followed by Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Finland, Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Sweden3.

In explaining these trends, many people alight on concepts like hygge, as reflected in such titles as The Book of Hygge: The Danish Art of Living Well. However, the key to Nordic well-being does not only lie in hygge. Many socio-cultural factors contribute towards happiness, as I explore in my analysis of "positive social psychology"4.

For a start, Nordic nations are relatively affluent and socially stable, which certainly plays a role5. However, comparatively wealthy and stable places, like the UK and USA, do not share the same high levels of overall life satisfaction6, so that can’t be the only answer. In that respect, an even more potent factor may be the Nordic nations' high levels of social capital — which is both attributed to and reflected in relatively low inequality and egalitarian social policies7.

The role of hygge

Nevertheless, hygge no doubt has its role to play in Nordic well-being, even if its significance has been exaggerated by companies capitalizing on the craze — commodifying it in the sellable form of candles, cocoa, and cozy socks. But we still haven’t addressed the question: What exactly is hygge?

To begin with, as alluded to above, it vaguely pertains to coziness. You may be picturing the stereotypical scene of a gathering of attractive Danes, gathered snugly in a candlelit room. No doubt hygge does apply to that scenario. In that respect, it reflects its roots in the Old Norse hugga, meaning to comfort (and possibly also the origin of "hug"8). So, to an extent, hygge relates to a feeling of being cared for and protected, not only from the Nordic winters, but also from the cold harshness of life generally. That interpretation is strengthened when we note that its antonym (uhygge) does not mean uncomfortable, but rather frightening or sinister9.

However, the picture is complicated further, for hygge is reportedly deployed for all kinds of situations, some far removed from scenarios that usually merit the word cozy — from chatting amiably with a friend to cycling along in the crisp sunshine10. Evidently, whatever hygge denotes, it is not only coziness. Or perhaps, as one writer suggests, it means feeling cozy "in one’s heart," whether or not one’s milieu is actually warm and enveloping11. In such moments, all is right with the world, and we feel safe and at ease, caring and cared for.

In that sense, no wonder we’re all searching for a little more hygge in our lives.

References

[1] M. Booth, "Hygge – Why the Craze for Danish Cosiness is Based on a Myth," in The Guardian (London: The Guardian, 2016).

[2] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2016

[3] J. Helliwell, R. Layard, and J. Sachs, World Happiness Report 2017 (Geneva: United Nations, 2017).

[4] Lomas, T. (2015). Positive social psychology: A multilevel inquiry into socio-cultural wellbeing initiatives. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 21(3), 338-347. 

[5] Kaufmann, D., Kraay, A., & Zoido-Lobatón, P. (1999). Aggregating governance indicators. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 2195. Washington, D.C.

[6] Easterlin, R. A. (2015). Happiness and Economic Growth: The Evidence. Netherlands: Springer.

[7] Hyyppä, M. T., & Mäki, J. (2003). Social participation and health in a community rich in stock of social capital. Health Education Research, 18(6), 770-779.

[8] K. Keating. The Hug Therapy Book. (London: Hazelden Publishing, 1994).

[9] R. Orange, "Hunting for Hygge, a New Ingredient in Denmark’s Recipe for Happiness," in The Guardian (London: The Guardian, 2016).

[10] R. Orange, "Hunting for Hygge, a New Ingredient in Denmark’s Recipe for Happiness," in The Guardian (London: The Guardian, 2016).

[11] www.afroginthefjord.com