Hygge: How to get happy like the Danes

What is ‘hygge’?

Much is made of hygge, a Danish concept that has no direct English translation. The word is so commonplace in Britain that it even appears in mainstream British dictionaries now. Essentially, hygge means ‘cosiness’ but it’s as much a state of mind as a physical sense. Hygge comes from chatting round the dinner table with good friends, or being curled up in front of the fire with a book on a cold day, or lighting your house with candles in every window on a dark night. It’s a moment that includes contentedness, familiarity and kinship. It may also go hand-in-hand with other situations Danish culture enjoys: a strong welfare state, egalitarianism and a sense of social support and inclusiveness.

Danes consider hygge a defining part of their cultural identity. Some even claim this appreciation of cosiness is what makes them top of surveys about the world’s happiest people.

Hygge isn’t uniquely Danish, though; German-speakers have their own word, gemütlichkeit, while the Dutch call it gezelligheid, while the word actually comes from Norwegian in the first place. But what started as putting a name on a feeling or situation that would break up the long, dark, boring winters of Northern Europe has been hijacked by other cultures and turned into a marketing trend.

Hygge really took off in Britain around 2016 and perhaps it is no coincidence that the country was entering a phase of political turbulence, fear of terrorism and financial instability. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the pursuit of hygge now feels like a quick fix for everyday misery on both sides of the Atlantic.

But there’s almost a hygge backlash now; some say it’s just a commercial trend and a cynical way of selling furniture, knitted socks and scented candles. Critics of the trend claim the pursuit of unattainable hygge, or happiness, is making people miserable, like trying to emulate somebody else’s Instagram lifestyle. Stealing hygge from the Danes, and failing to understand it, is patronising and regressive. Others say hunkering down for the winter with candles and hot chocolate is all very well in dark, freezing northern Europe but lazy, unimaginative, conformist and unproductive in warmer climates.

Having said that, could you embrace hygge in a business setting? Certainly. Understanding the concept will help you to understand the mentality of nationalities that ‘feel’ hygge inside, rather than buying into a lifestyle; it’s more about how you behave. Staring at your phone while someone is talking to you is not hygge and nor is trying to impress a business contact by taking them to an extremely expensive restaurant, or making people feel uncomfortable with your self-aggrandisement.

A workplace in which ideas are shared and in which people feel comfortable, secure, unafraid and free to experiment and even fail, and where their well being is considered important, will engender a sense of hygge. Physical environment is important, too; a space that is uncluttered, has green plants and soothing décor will make employees and visitors feel happier than somewhere cold, sterile or messy. But you don’t have to be Danish for this to be achieved; hygge is just as much about sensitivity to others and plain common sense.

About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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