'People do it already in Ireland' - Hygge: Mastering the Danish art of living well
The concept of 'hygge' is set to be the biggest publishing trend of the season. Meadhbh McGrath investigates the hype
Published 07/09/2016 | 02:30
Forget the grisly crime drama of 'The Killing' or 'The Bridge', this year's most important Danish export is something a lot less gruesome: the concept of 'hygge'.
Pronounced 'hue-gah', the word is crudely translated as "cosiness", and no less than nine different books on the topic are hitting the shelves over the next two months.
"Hygge is definitely the publishing trend of the autumn," says Maria Dickenson, managing director of Dubray Books. "A backlash against our hectic lifestyles and the pressure to perform, it is about comfort and communication, and the things that nourish our souls as well as our bodies. After the stresses of the recession people have a yearning to find value in things that can't be bought."
So what is hygge? Snuggling up under a blanket with a cup of hot chocolate on a rainy afternoon, reading by the fire with your dog or enjoying a roast dinner with family, surrounded by candle - according to the Danes, these are all hygge. After enduring months of holier-than-thou sermons on clean eating and punishing workouts, that doesn't sound half bad.
Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, explains that hygge is about "being kind to yourself - giving yourself a treat, and giving yourself, and each other, a break from the demands of healthy living", which means plenty of hot drinks, buttery pastries and good-quality dark chocolate.
In 'The Little Book of Hygge', published last week, Wiking writes: "Hygge is about an atmosphere and an experience, rather than about things. It is about being with the people we love. A feeling of home. A feeling that we are safe, that we are shielded from the world and allow ourselves to let our guard down."
To some of us, this may sound suspiciously like the downtime we cherish after work, consuming four hours of 'Say Yes to the Dress' while zonked out on the couch in a pair of dirty tracksuit bottoms. Many of us would consider ourselves experts at this, so what makes hygge so unique to the Danes? Well for one, it's a conscious activity, not the passive mental fog that takes over when you lose an afternoon to a lazy TV marathon.
Secondly, while it may be a wellness trend for the rest of us, hygge is a vital part of the Danes' national character, with Wiking describing it as a defining feature of Danish cultural identity. "What freedom is to Americans, thoroughness is to Germans and the stiff upper lip to the British, hygge is to Danes," he explains.
John Kelly, originally from Dublin, has been living in Haderslev, Denmark, for 13 years, and says hygge is not an entirely foreign concept. "People do it already in Ireland," he says, citing examples such as an evening at the pub with friends or a singalong when someone pulls out a guitar at a party. "That's very much the Irish version of hygge. We just do it slightly differently than the Danes do," he explains. However, he adds: "What hygge means to the Danes is noteworthy. They hold it in such high esteem."
Louis Weyhe Funder, from Aabenraa in southern Denmark, moved to Dublin 10 years ago, and now runs Nordic Makers, an interior design shop in Dun Laoghaire. He notes that while we have our own versions of hygge, the concept is so rooted in the Danish DNA that it can't translate easily to other cultures.
"You probably have to have grown up with it to really understand what it means," he admits. "I think it's something to do with the fact that we have a lot of dark nights in Denmark, it gets very dark very early from about October to March. It's just part of the culture to sit down, light some candles and gather round with your family. It's about taking time out in your day and relaxing."
For Louis, an ideal hygge moment would be to spend a stormy night reading a good book by candlelight in your favourite chair.
"It's hard to define, but it's not that complicated," he says. "Hygge is a somewhat strange word, because you can't really translate it. It can be a feeling, an act, a mood and it also acts as an adjective and as a verb - so you can have a hyggeligt home or you can say 'let's hygge today'.
"I mainly associate hygge with winter and candles, and sitting around with friends or family. But you can easily have hygge in the sun or alone for that matter. It's basically a feeling of contentment, security and happiness."
Denmark frequently ranks as the happiest nation in the world - nabbing the top spot on the United Nations' World Happiness Report in 2012, 2013 and 2016 - so they must be doing something right. How can we in Ireland master the Danish art of living well?
It all starts with candles. Figures from the European Candle Association show that Denmark burns more candles per head than anywhere else in Europe, with each Dane burning around 6kg of candle wax each year. To put that in perspective, the next highest country, Austria, burns 3.16kg per year. Scented candles are to be avoided (Danes consider them artificial), but a €2 pack of tea lights should do the trick.
Once you've sorted your hyggelit lighting, you'll need some cosy knitted blankets and cushions, or even better, a fireplace and some sheepskin. As hygge is about "the absence of annoyance", Wiking advises no checking emails, and ideally turning your phone off altogether.
Hygge is not just a middle-class concept, and can be achieved on a shoestring budget. "You cannot buy the right atmosphere or a sense of togetherness," Wiking writes. "The art of creating intimacy cannot be bought by anything but time, interest and engagement in the people around you."
You can hygge alone or in groups, with Danes preferring a maximum of three or four people. Rather than the Irish attitude of 'the more the merrier', John suggests adopting the Danish approach: "Instead of throwing a big party with all your friends and acquaintances, have more intimate company with just the people you care about the most or want to get to know the most."
Spending time with loved ones is central to hygge, argues Louisa Thomsen Brits, author of 'The Book of Hygge'. "Hygge happens wherever people gather in a wholehearted and inclusive way, whether it's an unexpected encounter on a pavement or for a birthday celebration in a kitchen. Hygge is about human connection," she writes, describing it as "an experience of togetherness". "To hygge is to invite intimacy and connection. It's a feeling of engagement and relatedness, of belonging to the moment and to each other."
How to hygge
No recipe for hygge is complete without candles. Create a warm glow with a simple pillar candle and the clean lines of Emil Hjorth-Rohde's copper and steel candle holder.
Candle holder, €59, Nordic Makers
Classic sheepskin is a hallmark of Danish design. Give your home an extra layer of hygge by draping this natural Irish sheepskin across chairs and windowsills.
Sheepskin throw, €95, Makers & Brothers
Casual dressing is key for hygge, but that doesn't have to mean sloppy. Cosy up in style with this luxurious cashmere scarf, ideal for a walk through the crisp autumn leaves.
Scarf, €195, Lucy Nagle at Brown Thomas
Draw out the hygge by warming your fingers around a hand-thrown ceramic mug as you savour every sip of a freshly brewed coffee.
Mug, €32.50, Arran Street East at Kilkenny Design Centre
One translation of hygge describes it as "cocoa by candlelight".
Hot chocolate, €6, Avoca