Certain words don’t translate perfectly from one language to another. It’s part of what makes languages so intriguing. One word that you’ve probably been hearing quite a bit lately, hygge (most likely pronounced incorrectly, it’s “hoo-gah”), is Danish for a hard-to-pinpoint sense of contentment and well-being that comes from slowing down and taking comfort and joy in small, purposeful moments. It’s often classified as a kind of “coziness” that conjures up the notion of a cold, wintry day spent by a roaring fire in a fuzzy sweater with a good book. And while that can certainly classify as hygge, it would be a mistake to reduce its meaning to just that.
Living in Seattle, I’m surrounded by Scandinavian culture. Little did I know–until recently–that lots of people grew up living with hygge. In fact, I went to a full moon soup party at a neighbor’s home a couple of weeks ago (there’s a hygge experience if ever there was one; friends, homemade soup, a fire!). I had the chance to talk to a Swede and a Norwegian about what the heck this newly-ubiquitous word was all about.
After a barrage of questions, it came down to this. Hygge should be:
• Simple (an expensive day at the spa doesn’t qualify).
• Participatory (you need to be actively involved in the creation of it, even if it’s as basic as making yourself a cup of tea with thoughtfulness; being mindful as you pour the tea, add lemon, stir, and sip). Another example might be the sensation you get when you bite into a fully-ripe tomato you grew in your yard.
• Thoughtful and intentional (like choosing to dress your dining table with cloth napkins instead of paper ones for dinner, whether or not you’re entertaining or just eating with your family).
• Joyful (one could, perhaps, even experience it while dancing at a loud club, which debunks the idea that it need be quiet or solitary).
• Not boastful (dressing your table with cloth napkins only counts if you’re doing it from a place of love and care, not an aim to impress).
It makes sense that Hygge is so popular right now. As we’re increasingly connected to our devices rather than the real, living breathing people in our lives, and working longer hours which leaves us less time to ourselves—to relax and breathe and live in the moment—this Scandinavian way of living has never been so alluring.
In The Book of Hygge: The Danish Art of Contentment, Comfort, and Connection, author Louisa Thomsen Brits says that “To hygee [yes, it can be a verb too!] is to invite intimacy and connection. It’s a feeling of engagement and relatedness, of belonging to the moment and to each other. Hygge is a sense of abundance and contentment. Hygge is about being, not having.” Sounds kind of Buddhist or like something you might expect to hear from your yoga teacher, right? And that’s probably the closest comparison we can make to it, though with hygge it’s not necessary to learn to meditate or become a yogi.
Determined to figure out if I’d hygge-d or not, I went through a list of things I do (or have done) that I thought might qualify and fired them off to my new Swedish friend. These, indeed, she confirmed were examples of hygge:
• Spring walks where I revel in the newly-opening buds bursting out of the ground and on the bare limbs of branches
• Cutting flowers from the dahlia plants I grew myself, and arranging them into vases to beautify my home
• The bedtime talks I have with my 9-year-old daughter in the dark, holding hands and sharing our private, deepest thoughts
• Taking satisfaction in setting my table for dinner with friends (yes, I bring out the cloth napkins!)
• The physical and emotional comfort I get when my partner rubs my back at night
• Singing out loud in the car to a favorite song
• Taking the time to moisturize my whole body after a hot shower, inhaling a scent that I’ve chosen and love
Are you getting the gist of it? Tell us some of the ways you hygge. We promise not to run them by any Scandinavians for accuracy!
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