Stories about life in Denmark

What hygge is and isn’t: Thoughts on a misused word

It’s unusual for us Americans to miss a business opportunity – it feels a little unnatural, to be honest – but for some reason, I have never before written about hygge.

Hygge is big business. Hygge housewares catalogues offer candles, soft blankets, earthenware coffee mugs, and warm socks that will help you, too, experience hygge. Hygge tours are offered in major Danish cities.

And authors who do write about hygge are richly rewarded. They’re interviewed by glossy magazines, their books are arranged in elaborate piles in the shops at Copenhagen airport, and they speak to adoring audiences in London, Paris, and Rome. Meanwhile, my next exciting engagement is at Holsterbro Gymnasium. (I really am excited, kids – see you there!)

Selling hygge has become an industry. But hygge, like love, is not really something you can buy.

You can’t show it off
It’s also not something you can show off, which doesn’t mean that people don’t try.

At last check there were 5.4 million images hashtagged #hygge on Instagram, featuring mostly the winter version of hygge, experienced indoors near a cozy fire with tea in an expensive mug and carefully arranged decorative items. (Women’s magazines also sometimes run the summer version, featuring models in light makeup setting their picnic tables with wildflowers and flawless red strawberries).

This type of hygge seems exhausting to me.

Real hygge is enjoyment without ambition, a contented celebration of what you already have. Hygge means you’re together with people you already know and like, so there is no one you need to impress. If you’re trying to show off how well you hygge, you’re doing it wrong.

Time is precious
Drill a little deeper and hygge is really about time. After centuries of preparing to survive long, dark winters, Danes are productive and practical people who like to get stuff done.

That means time is sacred in Denmark, more valuable than money or prestige. (It also, conveniently, cannot be taxed.) The best way you can show you care about somebody is to spend your free time with them. And you don’t have to buy anything to do that.

My favorite example of hygge is the nature walk many Danish families take on the day after Christmas. Off they go through the wintery forest, or wintery parks in the big cities, kids and parents and grandparents and sometimes great-grandparents, looking for birds and picking up pinecones.

Granny is a shark
Also hyggelig are the hours families spent inside on chilly afternoons playing board games. The game itself isn’t that important: nobody ever seems to remember who won Ludo or Scrabble or Monopoly last month or last Christmas. It’s just an excuse to spend time together, and perhaps discover hidden aspects of each other’s personalities. Who knew granny was such a shark?

Time with friends can be hyggeligt too. You can go out in town and have a gløgg or some beers, or go to a movie or a museum. You can also play on a “hyggehold” for football, volleyball, or handball, in which winning or losing the game is less important than the friendship between the team members and the beers they share afterwards.

A hobby business
Or you can run a “hygge business”, in which you will never get rich selling handmade jewelry or raising chickens, but just cover your costs (if you’re lucky) while you indulge your creative side and enjoy yourself. This is so common that SKAT even has a classification for it, although they call it a “hobbyvirksomhed.”

The common denominator is fun and enjoyment and a total lack of agenda.

My own favorite form of hygge is trying out various recipes in the kitchen, either on my own or with my daughter, perhaps with my favorite podcast in the background.

Unlike the ladies in the magazines, I do this without makeup, without Instagram, and without a pair of expensive socks.

This article originally appeared in Danish in the newspaper BT on December 3, 2019.

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  • Avatar
    Reply aude December 11, 2019 at 1:00 pm

    Thanks for this article. My husband just sent me the article that was in Berlingske and so here i’m now! Since living in Denmark i’ve been feeling that the hygge i was living was different of the ones in blogs, articles, pictures (well the cocooning version is just a part of the Danish hygge). And for me hygge is an “art de vivre” that you can’t always represent through a picture. Your article ring the bells with it’s truth of the way of describing hygge, so thanks for that!

  • Avatar
    Reply Michael Nielsen January 29, 2020 at 5:26 pm

    Here on the university library, I have now read most of your book “How to live in Denmark”.

    As a Dane, I am always interested in how people from other countries perceive us. From what I have read so far, I have to say, that it is spot on! Including the little criminal inside every Dane. And yes, on the bicycle lane, we still have a glimpse of the insane Viking mentality. Or perhaps, rocker mentality?

    If you have any time or interest, you should read some Danish history, going back just two three hundred years; lethal feuds every summer. Almost no hygine. The ongoing wars against Sweden, accumulating to almost four centuries of war. The Kings tax collector, ambushed by the locals, chained, tortured and killed. This in the period, when torture was legal. A completely different society. Pople living brutal and short lives.
    At the local city museum in Hillerød, just across the castle lake, they still have some drawings of the old torture instruments.

    In regard to the concept of Hygge:
    Some of my best childhood moments, was when my close family, took the old ferry from Dragør to Limhamn. We sailed to Limhamn, stayed onboard the ship, and then sailed back again. While onboard, we would drink some hot cacao, tea and perhaps some coffee. We would eat biscuits, rugbrødsmadder or candy. We didn’t talk so much, enjoyed the trip, the ocean and each other.

    But my best moment of having a hygge time, was at this little groove, near the sea Vadehavet, not far from Mandø. During this summertime weekend, I and two other højskole friends, we bicycled to this little groove. Equipped with blankets, tea, biscuits, rugbrødsmadder and books. We stayed there for, i am not sure, 3 – 4 hours, perhaps more, and then we went back to the school. We didn’t talk that much, read our books, and enjoyed to spend the time together. Even today, so many decades later, those few 3 -4 hours, at this little ordinary groove, still stands out as a special moment. Real down to earth hygge.

    In my experience, there are different types of hygge. Familyhygge, hyggw with your friends, colleagues and so on. Regardless of their differences, they share one common factor; common relaxation.

    A great read, thank you.

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