If you thought all this while that the greatest global export of the Danes was, well, the danish – that gloriously feathery bit of layered pastry filled with a blob of custard-cream or jelly inside that had been invented, incidentally, by Austrian bakers in Denmark – then you couldn’t be more wrong. And I am not talking about LEGO® or Hans Christian Andersen or Bang and Olufsen. Au contraire, we are here to discuss the merits of this little concept that has suddenly taken the world by storm: hygge (pronounced “hue” as in colour + “gaah” as in where-did-the-year-go??).
Indeed, so many English books have been published on hygge this year, and such is the pride of place given to hygge in bookstores and magazines, that publishing trend-gazers are calling it the adult colouring book of 2016. And much like the adult colouring book phenomena, it was cultivated by a smart editor somewhere in London, looking for idiot-proof ideas that would attract people who were not traditional book-buyers.
Hygge has provided a bumper crop in that department. Although “post-truth” eventually became the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2016, “hygge” had made it to the shortlist, along with “coulrophobia (irrational fear of clowns)” and “Latinx” (gender-neutral term to describe a person of Latin American origin), both of which have been included in the OED this year, thus signalling the grand success of the crossover.
Hygge is here to stay.
The high road to hygge
Before we get to the what and how of hygge (an untranslatable word that approximates cosy, fuzzy and feel-good), let me confess that I am a great sucker for exotic faraway concepts – which, of course, hygge is – that offer, for five seconds at least, the miraculous promise of letting me turn over a new leaf permanently. So yes, give to me the miracle grain sourced from the Amazonian rain forest that helps you lose weight magically, put me on the waiting list for the leaf tea from Africa that induces magical calm, and definitely buy me the book on the “Kon-Mari” method, the Japanese approach to decluttering, pioneered by Marie Kondo, which is definitely far more interesting to implement (when one decides to declutter that is) than one’s mother’s trusty formula of throwing things, giving things away, and returning things to where they were. Where’s the SA in that?
So, naturally, the moment the notion of hygge began to circulate on my various timelines, I dashed to the bookstore...
But first, what is hygge?
...where I picked out a gorgeously designed little book titled The Book of Hygge: the Danish Art of Living Well by Louisa Thomsen Brits, with delectable photographs by Susan Bell. Thomsen Brits’s book had the first-mover advantage in the market, since it appeared in August 2016, marginally before most of the others did – except, of course, Helen Russell’s popular 2015 book The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country, which is believed to have anticipated the tide. Thomsen Brits’s book begins with a helpful definition of hygge, next to a picture of a grey and white kitten curled up on a rough grey wool carpet, next to a charming grey and white cushion:
“Hygge (pronounced “hue-gah”) is a quality of presence and an experience of togetherness.
Hygge is an experience of selfhood and communion with people and places that anchors and affirms us, gives us courage and consolation.
To hygge is to invite intimacy and connection. It’s a feeling of engagement and relatedness, of belonging to the moment and each other. Hygge is a sense of abundance and contentment. Hygge is about being and not having.”
If you think this is a little vague, the author goes on to explain hygge further in the illuminating note that follows:
“You don’t need Danish recipes or the secrets of a Scandivanian lifestyle to learn how to hygge. It can be found in asking yourself where you feel most at home, what are the activities and customs that anchor you, who makes you feel at ease, what is it that contributes most to your sense of well-being, what do you do to unwind, what do you reach for to create comfort?
For me, hygge exists in moments of contentment, particularly at the beginning and end of the day. We hygger first thing in the morning when we light a candle at our breakfast table, make coffee, pancakes and packed lunches and when we return home to each other to share a cup of tea or a glass of wine, to sit around the kitchen table together and enjoy our evening meal...I hygger when I make risotto, make love, make tea or read in bed. I find it in at the heart of the dance floor, when I walk through our local town, camp at small festivals or meet a friend for coffee. It lives in my father’s study, in my mother’s garden, around the table in my aunts’ quiet apartments in Århus, on the verandah under a wide African sky with my husband’s family. Hygge arrives when all four children come home and we sit by a fire under the oak trees in the garden, play cards, beachcomb, dance in the kitchen or curl up under blankets to watch a film together.”
To tell you the truth, the quote above is the custard cream or glob of jelly at the centre of your danish. The rest of the book – 180 pages of text and atmospheric pictures of, mostly, candles, rugs, woollen socks, cashmere shawls and sheepskin throws – much like the layers of good pastry is flaky, light and without any surprises. There are delightful nuggets of Danish history and culture woven into the text, along with a million references to lighting candles, and in my opinion you would best enjoy this book if you keep it on the night-stand and read a few pages at random every night before going to sleep, the gentle repetition soothing you softly. The feeling that hygge is just around the curve in your life induces that delicious fuzzy state leading to blissed sleep.
A matter for reflection
The concept of hygge is so organic to Danish culture that there is a degree of surprise in Denmark about the fabulous success of the extrapolated idea in Britain. But then, of course, like all extrapolated ideas that become a rage far away from home (though the British and the Danes are cousins, after all), there is an element of paradoxical re-invention about it.
So, while Thomsen Brits points out again and again that hygge is meant to turn one away from consumerism, through a deeply felt philosophy of mindful living, with old and familiar objects, recipes, people and moods, its global import has brought in its wake a whole armload of consumerist goodies, the buying of which will impart instant hygge upon the new convert – books, cakes, rugs, throws, blankets, cushions and happiness.
There is also the dark shadow lurking just above the flickering candles. The idea of hygge, even within Denmark, is a cultural marker. As Thomsen Brits tells us, deep in their hearts, the Danes are a tribe rather than a nation, and the egalitarian ideas of hygge, based on the solid simplicity of inherited cultural referents – candles to dispel the long dark months and blankets or woollen socks to provide a sanctuary in the cold – provide a warm sense of inclusivity to insiders.
Outsiders were always few and far between in their cold climes, and their relation to hygge was ambiguous. However, post-globalisation, and in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis, where Denmark too now houses its share of “outsiders”, hygge can end up keeping not only cultural outsiders, the migrants, but, also internal outsiders, the dissenters or anarchists, outside its charmed inner circle. It is a matter of concern, too, that the ultra right-wing, openly “anti-immigration” Danish People’s Party also invokes the principles of hygge to make a case for their version of Denmark, and hijacks popular hygge symbols in their commercials.
For many years, Denmark has consistently found itself close to the top of the “happiest nations” charts and polls (whatever the veracity of these might be), and this has definitely added to the myth of hygge. As long as one takes one’s encounter with hygge as a healthy instigation to look inward and dig deeper into one’s own cultural past and present for inspiration (surely we do not idolise woollen socks and log fires in tropical India!) and adapt its principles accordingly, to find simple joys within the everyday, I am quite happy to go along with the bit of harmless fun, a New Year’s folly. But while we are at it, for next year’s big trend, I am hoping to offer the exquisite Bong concept of adda – an idea as egalitarian, fun, and movement-inducing as it can get.
Dear London Editor, are you listening?
Devapriya Roy is the author of two novels, a PhD dissertation on the Natyashastra and most recently, of The Heat and Dust Project: the Broke Couple’s Guide to Bharat, co-written with husband Saurav Jha.