The Hygge Hype: What Can We Learn from Danish Living?

Hygge has been touted as a beneficial lifestyle approach—but to what end?

Posted Sep 22, 2019

Since 2016, numerous mainstream media outlets and lifestyle magazines have hyped the concept of hygge, a Danish word pronounced “hoo-gah” that roughly translates to coziness in English. The simplest idea behind hygge is a way to keep comfortable during the notoriously long, dark Scandinavian winters, using everything from warm drinks to soft pajamas.

However, according to these articles, hygge extends beyond simple coziness to an entire existential philosophy and raison d’etre, where one’s general approach to daily activities prioritizes creating a zone of personal comfort and convivial well-being. While on some level, these articles seem to be twisting a lower-key idea into an Instagram-friendly overcommercialized trend that bears little connection to the original definition, there are some aspects of hygge culture that may indeed be helpful for self-care and parallel other mindfulness concepts.

Having been stuck in a recent mental rut, I went on a recent work trip to Copenhagen with minimal expectations. I had even visited the city briefly once before on a whirlwind post-college tour of Scandinavia in 1996, but in a superficially touristy way where all I did was glimpse the underwhelming Little Mermaid statue on a bland harbor tour and visit the Carlsberg brewery. This time, I was able to more fully explore the day-to-day lifestyle of the innovative city, including its popular design shops, delicious restaurants with new Nordic cuisine, and modernist outskirts teeming with newly planned residential neighborhoods. One trend that was present and had grown from 1996 was the use of carbon-friendly bicycles: I saw literally hundreds of them parked outside on some city blocks and had to be super-cautious around busy bike lanes.

The emphasis on design is famous in Denmark and seems to be central to the hygge concept: making one’s surroundings and even objects of daily use as balanced and harmonious as possible, while maintaining a sense of future possibility and optimism. Everything from coffee mugs to bookshelves to lighting conveys a steady poise between the clean spare minimalist lines of modernism and the warm colors and textures of nature. Quirky sculpted angles mesh with honey-colored woods and ornamental greenery. Entire trees provide canopies within restaurants; green living walls adorn spaceship-like hotel lobbies. The effect is incredibly pleasing: I often felt at ease wherever I went, even at places that might be considered expensive or formal like a restaurant or museum. Their coffee chain equivalent of Starbucks felt like soothing libraries to curl up and read books in. A minimal afternoon break with a strawberry tart and a rhubarb soda felt like the best thing ever. The atmosphere at all these places was still modest and approachable, not cold and brutalist as some contemporary settings can feel. Another idea behind hygge per Anna Altman’s New Yorker article “The Year of Hygge” from December 18, 2016, is to foster a sense of community togetherness, but within close-knit settings, although ironically this can create some Scandinavian insularity at times.

I returned from Copenhagen with a renewed sense of internal peace, and a newfound appreciation for incorporating little pieces of nature and beauty and fun into my daily routine. The mindfulness aspect of hygge can be a helpful one; the idea of creating a comfortable space wherever you go and focusing on and prioritizing simple things that one enjoys is important. It may be too simplistic though sometimes to say that decorating with candles and eating pastries is all one needs to combat serious life stressors, poverty, and major depression. Although the general approach is appealingly accessible to all. 

The underlying philosophy of hygge is one basically like other similar mantras that boil down to enjoying the simple pleasures of life, but perhaps does rely, somewhat like the recent American rustic chic trends, on a basic assumption of financial stability and means to attain these deceptively humble items. The other things I noticed in Copenhagen was the high price tag on everything; even cute little animal carvings could cost $75 or more. But at least in Denmark, all its citizens are entitled to health care coverage and university education.

It remains a controversial notion up for debate as to whether high taxation leads to higher general prosperity (as some have argued to be the case in similar European countries) or can still be exclusionary to people who do not fit into their social net or homogeneous cultures. Or if the alternative is even worse: other socioeconomic approaches like ours that ultimately deny access to any hygge-like lifestyles at all (or any adequate health care) for more people as the wealth gap continues to widen and the middle class continues to disappear. We can certainly still advocate for the active practice of self-care and mindfulness, but we cannot deny that it is easier to do so when people have basic psychosocial support systems in place: an ongoing dilemma behind mental health initiatives in America.