There is a place where winter lasts from November through April when days are short on sunshine. Nights too long and cold, weather dark and dreary. No, it is not the Catskills. It is where the …
There is a place where winter lasts from November through April when days are short on sunshine. Nights too long and cold, weather dark and dreary. No, it is not the Catskills. It is where the happiest people call home. No, it is not Arendelle, the Frozen land of Elsa, Anna, & Olaf, but close! The real place is Denmark, where they rank highest in happiness world-wide. Their secret is a thing called hygge (pronounced hoo-ga). No, it is not marijuana. It is not a danish. It is not a marijuana danish.
Simplistically defined, hygge means maximum coziness. I discovered the word only a few years ago, but the idea has been essential to me always. Once when working on a goal-setting exercise with friends, we needed to identify our core values. “Is enchanting a real value?” I asked. I was unsuccessful at specifying something that felt very real to me. I have my dad to thank for that (and for a lifetime of great theme parties). Mostly, he afforded me the senses of creativity, sociability and design—especially for cozy interiors. The shops we once had in Narrowsburg—Nicolina Country Place and Kizmet, exotic home décor—seem to me manifestations of hygge essence. Now I tend to judge everything by this quality. When asked why I had quit Blackjack school, I had no idea how to explain that working in a casino compromised my high hygge standard. I much prefer working at Rafter’s Tavern in Callicoon. Old taverns are hygge; so are window booths by the train tracks. A good burger and a glass of ale are hygge. Hygge is sort of romantic, but without the romance. Kind of like love, but more casual.
Quite by chance, I recently stumbled upon “The Little Book of Hygge” by Meik Wiking, who is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. Published pre-pandemic, his description of hygge, “like a hug without touching,” screamed wisdom for the ages. Wiking attributes this particular Danish characteristic as mainly responsible for the highest levels of well-being reported by people who still endure their share of lousy weather, miserable traffic and jobs they don’t entirely enjoy. Despite everything, for Danes, hygge is all that makes life worth living. Often described in terms of “togetherness,” hygge indicates smaller and more intimate gatherings with close friends or family. While so many social opportunities are currently challenged, it may be best to now focus on the hygge we can cultivate for ourselves. Maybe casual non-romantic love is self-love.
Hygge originates from a Norwegian word meaning well-being, but it is also associated with other stem words for comfort, mood, consider and, fittingly, hug. This cultural value is so precious to Danes, it is comparable to the relationship Americans have with freedom. That can be lethal. Despite the Danish being the most “calm and peaceful” population, the power of hygge is not to be underestimated. It is a way of life upheld fervently, as if life depended on it. Like love, hygge is a noun, a verb and an elaborate concept that is best described as a feeling. Like love, hygge is exemplified by emotions that are soothing, soulful and pleasurable, and experiences that are comfortable, familiar and memorable. Wiking’s book illustrates hygge nuances that run deeper than a prevailing lifestyle. It permeates through language and all physical senses. The Danish language is rich with compound words and hygge has a seemingly infinite lexicon. The nook where one enjoys hygge at home is called a hyggekrog, which must be outfitted with comfy cushions and cuddly blankets. Accouterments that define hygge consist of many candles, wooden items, ceramic mugs, plush textiles and ambient lighting. Reportedly, the natural qualities of these elements are akin to a primordial sense of safety. They are a throwback from primitive cave-dwellers who enjoyed dimly lit dens, warmed with animal skins; a long-standing design feature in hygge yet today. Not taken “lightly,” the illumination factor is established by a measurable standard, precisely 1800 K. No coincidence this kelvin measurement is the same for sunsets, burning wood and candlelight. Danes are known for their lighting design, candle consumption and, certainly, danishes! Home-baked goods are always better because a relationship with food is exponentially hygge—like the local chicken I roasted, later rendered into stock and, ultimately, resurrected as cream of hygge soup shared with loved ones. Grandma’s peach pie, homemade jam, raw honey, small-batch whiskey, local brew—it all sounds like country living, which is hygge. Hygge clearly encourages sugar and alcohol consumption: good chocolate, cake from scratch, Irish coffee, warm brandy in snifters. Hygge is healthy for the soul. However, hygge demands temperance because it feels good. Nothing is less hygge than a hangover.
Although hygge is mostly about savoring the present moment, it is also about nostalgic memories and making future plans that eventually become nostalgic memories: the cabin at the lake, the trip down the river, the perfect holiday. Although it is non-denominational, hygge may feel like Christmas when it is not Christmas—in some ways, it’s better. Hygge is without expectations, time constraints and high costs. Hygge isn’t hurried and is never about money, neither spending it nor making. Technology is rarely hygge, but old movies or special playlists are hygge—preferably vinyl records because vintage is hygge. Hygge isn’t glitzy or glamourous—another reason why there is a place for hygge in all our lives. There must be special things we can do for ourselves: the gift, the treat, the quality date reserved for our own personal self. We ought to give ourselves a real break (especially from our screens) and hygge more often. Have some cocoa, bake cookies, write a friendly letter, light candles, journal. When we feel like the sky is falling, we can retreat to the safety of our warm snuggly hyggkrog. Those who have a hard time doing it for themselves can blame it on the lousy weather and seize the day selfishly. Those sick of the winter can use this as a good reason to curl up on the couch with their pets and make it matter. Hygge, after all, is what makes home happy.
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