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Hygge: The Danish Art of Calmful Living

Jutting out into the North Sea just above Germany is Denmark. This small country may be overshadowed by its glitzy European cousins, but its inhabitants have a lot to teach other Westerners about happiness and the art of coziness or hygge.

Denmark has been ranked the happiest country in the world in studies going back to the 1970s.

“Denmark has been ranked the happiest country in the world in studies going back to the 1970s—so it’s clear that there’s something Danes are doing differently, and hygge plays a big part in this,” says Helen Russell, author of The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country.

A large part of this happiness, and the Danes’ ability to foster it even during the country’s extreme cold and dark winter months, is attributable to hygge (hoo-gah). While many translate this term as “cozy,” it goes beyond that. Russell, who spent twelve months living like a Dane and researching every aspect of life in Denmark to write her book, hesitates to neatly define the term. “Hygge defies literal translation, but the best explanation I’ve seen in more than four years of living Danishly is ‘the complete absence of anything annoying or emotionally overwhelming: taking pleasure from the presence of gentle, soothing things.’”

How to Practice Hygge?

Hygge is a philosophy of life but also as simple as a lit candle. “Simple candlelight is a key component—Danes burn the highest number of candles per head in Europe, and they’re everywhere: from the windowsill of my son’s daycare to shops, banks. Hygge is so crucial to living Danishly that I once saw a camper van driving along the motorway with lit candles in the windows. This is probably illegal, but Vikings don’t tend to be too hung up on health and safety,” Russell relates.

Hygge is also tied in with the weather, says Russell. “It’s so cold and dark October to March that everyone comes together. In warmer climates, you can still go out and spend time in restaurants and cafes, but living Danishly means you pull together at home and get hygge.”

According to Russell, hygge has also been proven to make you happier because you’re being kind to yourself. “This in turn has been shown to make you nicer to other people and more generous and kind to society as a whole. Because it’s about being present and celebrating the simple things and practicing gratitude, it plays into the current cult of mindfulness that is so good for well-being, and something Danes have been wise to since the 19th century.”

While we can’t all emigrate across the Atlantic, we can all try living a little more Danishly—wherever we are—and be happier as a result. Russell offers these thoughts on getting hygge.

    • Hygge is free. Hygge isn’t a commodity and it shouldn’t cost you anything—simple candles are better than fancy scented ones (anyone trying to sell you an expensive, scented hygge candle is missing the point); an old knitted blanket is better than the latest designer incarnation, and hot drinks in mismatched mugs are just fine. Ditto cake, beer, soup—whatever your comfort food or drink of choice may be.

    • Socialize smartly. Hygge has a lot to do with togetherness, so it’s about prioritizing your people, cramming as many of the folk you care about around a table and eating, drinking and being generally merry.

    • Self-kindness. Danes don’t binge then purge like we do in the UK and the US; instead they’re kind to themselves, indulging when they fancy it and not depriving or punishing themselves. This makes them nicer to be around, and happier as a nation.

For more on hygge, visit the online magazine Simply Hygge.