On a rainy and dark February evening, I’m on my way down to the store to get some candles after finishing work. One of my colleagues catches up with me and we chat about our evening plans. I say I’m going to get some candles, and she asks me “Is there a special occasion?” I get a bit puzzled. I’ve never thought about it that way. Why would it be a special occasion? Running out on candles is like running out on milk for a Scandi, we use more candles than anywhere else in the world. The Scandinavian countries are ranked as the happiest people in the world’s year on year, so is there more meaning to the flick of a candle flame than we might first think?
Everywhere in the world people light candles to create a warm, intimate ambience. It’s the sort of atmosphere that provides safety and shielding from the world. In Sweden this cosiness is called “mys”, in Norway “cos” and in Denmark “hygge”. Swedes have turned cosiness into nearly a religion. Every Friday families around Sweden huddle up to make time for “fredags mys’” which would translate into “Friday cosiness”, where you have something simple to cook, preferably a meal where everyone can help out. Tacos is the main thing, followed by watching a film or playing games together. This has moved beyond being a trend and is more of a cultural tradition, as important to Swedes as Lucia or cinnamon buns. The Danes are also really good to learn from and they’re probably more known for creating atmosphere in a spontaneous way. Hygge is so much more than candles and sitting in front of a fireplace. Hygge is essentially a way of creating an ambiance in the everyday moments.
Grit Tind Mikkelsen, a Danish documentary filmmaker based in Copenhagen, describes hygge as an action, event or a sublime feeling. Hygge is a moment that appears naturally and is a state of being. “It could mean a simple moment for myself, drinking tea, or sitting together with a friend under the same blanket, whilst I’m reading and she’s watching tv. Together we would hygge.”
The Scandinavians’ ability to create this sort of intimacy, might come from the history of many long, dark winters where making a mundane moment into something more than just prevailing winter. That sort of simplicity, in turning a functional need into an almost spiritual one, might be what makes the Nordic countries unique. It’s about enjoying every moment, the way it is.
“Essentially hygge is an atmosphere and an experience; it’s not about physical objects”
Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, is coming out with ‘The little book of Hygge, the Danish way to live well’ in September. According to Meik, “hygge has been called everything from the art of creating intimacy and togetherness, cosiness for the soul to absence of annoyances. Essentially hygge is an atmosphere and an experience; it’s not about physical objects.
“I think the essence of hygge can best be describe as the pursuit of everyday happiness.”
Hygge is a feeling of home, being in the company of the people we love and where we feel safe and shielded from the world. Here we allow ourselves to let our guard down and take pleasure from soothing things. My personal favourite is a Cocoa scented candlelight. I think the essence of hygge can best be describe as the pursuit of everyday happiness.”
How does this translate into the British culture of creating a similar kind of cosiness? What are the typically British ways and expressions of the “hygge atmosphere”?
Helen Russell, the British author behind the book “The Year of Living Danishly – Uncovering The Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country”, moved to Denmark together with her partner. In her book she unpicks the cultural traits behind the essence of Danish culture. I asked her to share her view on what the equivalent of hygge is to British people.
“In the UK, we’ve forgotten how to celebrate the simple things and be kind to ourselves, something I think the Danes are pretty good at.”
“I think that Brits already get hygge to an extent, look at the number of log fires in every house, obsessions with country walks and pub lunches. However we don’t prioritise it like the Danes do. In the UK, we’ve forgotten how to celebrate the simple things and be kind to ourselves, something I think the Danes are pretty good at.”
Something I’ve picked up on and that I think a lot of people would describe as utterly British is the relationship with drinking tea. When entering a home in the UK, you will probably be asked the question, “Shall I put the kettle on/shall I make you a cup of tea”? Then you’ll sit down and have a chat while drinking your tea, which to me is the essence of hygge. The rituals of making tea, or a toast for that matter, is very important to British people, and there seems to be a certain way of making a cup of tea that people hold dear to their heart. I think also this shows an intention of enjoying the everyday moments.
We are now approaching autumn both in Scandinavia and in the UK. Our seasons are fairly similar, with many opportunities to create an everyday atmosphere that feels nurturing and meaningful just the way it is. Let’s not wish our days away but practice a mindful approach in our life and let’s hygge!