The Pursuit of Happiness: How hygge became a global lifestyle trend

Candlelight. A cup of hot cocoa. Knitted wool sweaters and comfy socks by the fireplace. If you visited a bookstore recently, the chances are high that you stumbled upon these images on a book cover with a very Danish word standing out on its title: Hygge.

by Louise Soares, photo by Nick Amoscato (Flickr)

Flashback to a couple years ago and few people outside of Scandinavia knew what that word meant, much less how to pronounce it correctly (It’s hoo-ga, by the way). But since 2016, hygge took a leap from being the quintessential Danish way of life to becoming the latest international lifestyle trend. And this July hygge went a step further and officially became an English word after being added to the Oxford Dictionary. There, it is defined as: “A quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.”

But, how did hygge come such a long way?

Through the eyes of a Dane
Since the World Happiness Record was launched in 2012, Denmark has topped the charts as the happiest country in the world. Other Scandinavian countries followed closely in the top 10, including Norway, the current champion of happiness according to the index. These results stirred worldwide curiosity upon the secret of Scandinavian happiness.

The answer found was hygge. The next question was, what is hygge after all? For Danish trend-spotting expert Anette Eckmman, hygge includes both a feeling, a mood and an action. It is all about creating a congenial and convivial atmosphere, resulting in well-being.

“This penchant and need for comfort is an important part of the Danish mentality and many Danes perceive it as part of the national character, a form of basic DNA,” says the Copenhagen-based expert.

For Eckmman, hygge can be replicable in other societies, even those not as seemingly egalitarian as Denmark. It’s all about celebrating traditions and rituals centered on being close to family and friends and enjoying the simple pleasures of life. She hopes that the world sees hygge not as a passing trend, but as something that is here to stay.

“The fact that you can meet other people to socialise, but also enjoy oneself by doing something alone, is important for everybody’s sense of well-being. Hygge is something that occurs suddenly. You can’t plan this form of coziness, but you can create some good conditions by arranging things in a room or meeting in a special way, or by spending time with people you care about. But it does not mean that it automatically becomes cosy. If the word hygge spread around the world –more and more people will be aware of this possibility and, perhaps, will copy-paste it,” says Eckmman.

In the words of foreigners
The quest to understanding hygge and bringing it into your life has spawned a variety of lifestyle books. From the quintessential 101 guides on how to live like a Dane to cookbooks and parenting guides, Hygge is also an editorial hot topic. It has even garnered parodies, like Dr. Magnus Olsensen’s ‘Say Ya to Hygge,’ an inevitable symptom of when a literary trend reaches its peak.

Two British authors pioneered in this field: Journalists Charlotte Abrams, author of ‘Hygge: A Celebration of Simple Pleasures. Living the Danish Way’ and Helen Russell, author of ‘The Year of Living Danishly’. Both books describe the hygge lifestyle and the many ways in which embracing it impacted the authors’ lives.

For Charlotte Abrams, the main essence of hygge is contentment, a feeling of safety and security in which we can fully relax and enjoy the small pleasures of the immediate moment. She highlights how undemanding hygge is when compared to other lifestyle trends.

“Many of the ‘better living’ philosophies we are presented with today, such as clean eating and de-cluttering, focus on the need for us to deny ourselves things – wheat, sugar, too many pairs of unworn shoes, and so on. Hygge, on the other hand, doesn’t ask us to give up any of these pleasures. It is much more generous in spirit. There are no diets and no special exercises in hygge, simply an expectation that we take the occasional break from the rush of life and give due care and attention to that break,” says Abrams.

The writer also points out a contradiction that comes as a consequence of hygge becoming a marketeable good, instead of a free experience. “The links with materialism are rather contradictory; on the one hand, hygge is anti-consumption, encouraging us to instead focus on simple things. But on the other, it is now being marketed, particularly in the UK, as something you can buy, with candles, Danish furniture and knitted socks,” says Abrams.

Hygge is also at the heart of Helen Russell’s book, ‘The Year of Living Danishly’. In it, she narrates her experience of moving from London to Denmark and understanding what gives Danes and Scandinavians their reputation for being the happiest people on Earth.

“Hygge plays a part and trust plays a part as well. I have looked at every area of Danish living, to try and uncover the secrets of their lifestyle and to being happier, and trying to see what’s exportable, what people can use around the world. I think being active is very important. There is also a lot about prioritising people and spending time with family, in a way that we don’t do. It’s  just about finding a more value-based way of living that is not so materialistic and based on prestige,” Russell concludes.

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