The True Meaning of Hygge

When popular culture gets it wrong

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve most likely seen or heard the word ‘Hygge’ at some point over the last 18 months. But in case you haven’t, Hygge is a Danish word for cozy, intimate, and fun, and it has, for some bizarre reason, landed with a thud into the English vernacular.

Indeed, last winter there was hardly a department store, a blog, or a magazine that did not run a feature on ‘Hygge’. I began to hear Hygge dropped into casual conversations on the tube. Hygge was the look. Features on Hygge displayed images of candle lit rooms decked with scandi-minimalist furniture, Royal Copenhagen china, and shiny lamps. When browsing amazon for seasonal presents, I noticed a large number of titles that were, essentially, variations on Hygge for Dummies. Christmas advertising seemed chock-a-block with references to Hygge. There were Hygge candles, Hygge blankets, Hygge bed sheets, and Hygge socks. I even saw a website selling ‘Hygge’ underwear while doing my research for this piece.

As a Dane, it’s really quite curious to me that an everyday word in my language could become a cultural phenomenon outside of my small and unassuming country. So when I catch sight of adverts using Hygge to sell everything from cashmere blankets, to scandi-style crockery, to Faroe Island sweaters, it’s difficult to know how to react. Its all, frankly, slightly puzzling.

Hygge is a reality check. It prevents us from being unbearably superficial and vain.

If I’m being completely honest, the widespread popularity of ‘Hygge’ makes me faintly uneasy. I cringed ever so slightly when a friend, walking into our flat, exclaimed “Hygge!”, as she smiled and gestured at my fairly Scandinavian aesthetic.

It seems that, through absolutely no fault of their own, non-Danes have slightly misunderstood. It’s just been marketed incorrectly, and as such I worry that people are being deprived of (forgive the awful cliché), the true meaning of Hygge.

Let me try to ‘Dane-splain’.

Firstly, let’s address candles, lighting, tableware, and furnishing (as well as any and all beautifully designed homeware).

These things are important, and they are part of the picture. Denmark has a culture of design, and Danes therefore strive to create warm, beautiful and stylish homes.

Author Helen Russell points this out in her warm and funny novel, the ‘Year of Living Danishly’. She observes and notes the strong cultural current that runs in Danish society to keep things looking beautiful. Danes are born in beautiful hospitals, live in beautiful homes, go to beautiful schools, walk on beautiful streets, and commute on beautiful bicycles. It is recognised, by the government, and just generally people everywhere, that workers are more productive, citizens are more cooperative, and people are friendlier in light filled, comfortable surroundings than in dark, cheap, crumbling buildings.

To that effect, a large proportion of your salary will be spent on getting that vase that everyone is talking about, and that set of glassware featured in last month’s design publications, and it’s not considered tacky to talk about how much you spend on your vase or glassware. We want our homes, and therefore our lives, to be aesthetically pleasing. We know that this adds to our quality of life.

But the reason for the confusion, I believe, is this: the cultural current for aesthetic perfection in Danish design exists in spite of, and not because of, the existence of Hygge.

Hygge is a reality check. It prevents us from being unbearably superficial and vain. Equating Hygge, therefore, with things that you buy, and how things look is a gross oversimplification of a much deeper cultural concept.

As a healthy balance to the culture of Aestheticism so prevalent in Danish society, Hygge recognises that the inherent importance of life is not perfect presentation, but relationships, mess, intimacy, and vulnerability. Too much planning is not hyggelig. Events that require military precision and enormous energy are not hyggelig. Beautiful, pristine homes where you can’t touch or use anything, are very, very unhyggelig.

Hygge has its roots in Denmark’s egalitarian culture. It’s easy, unpretentious and inviting. Its easier to feel at even keel with your neighbours when the fancy lord will gladly and comfortably get rip roaring drunk in his tenant farmer’s hay strewn kitchen.

When I was at university, my most hyggelig times were when my flat mates and I all stood around preparing our paltry meals together in our drafty house, sharing jokes, with re-runs of Jonothan Creek crackling in the background. The other night, I had Hygge while sitting out late around a messy, un-cleared dining table in a light garden, snuggling together for warmth.

Hygge will never be, and should never be, challenging. It’s most naturally found in a relaxed attitude to entertaining, and the gentle, non-contentious, conspiratorial ebb and flow of conversation. At the dinner table, everyone is equal, and on the same team.

Mostly, Hygge is recognition that while beautiful things are a nice to have, they are not a need to have. So please, buy that lamp or that vase if they make you happy. It’s important to surround ourselves with beautiful things.

But my plea is this: We must recognise that true Hygge is most likely to occur when you forget about the things you’ve bought to fill your space, and you focus, while getting pleasingly drunk, on the people who have been invited in.

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  • Dear Gwen, a fellow Great Dane living in the UK, I have been “interrogated” about this phenomenon, over the last many months, and you have so just nailed it, as it has been so much linked to having the “right” interior, which is the furthest from its meaning. thanks for this piece x

  • Thanks for this informative piece. I found it really interesting. Though I can’t quite help feeling a little mislead at times, not just from the UK highstreet that I would expect, but from hygge books written by Danish authors which play more into the stereotypical and misplaced dialogue you describe. I wish I’d been made aware of this sooner. Thank you ❤️

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