This may have been the year of post-truth, but it was also the year of hygge. The Danish word was on the Oxford Dictionary’s short list for the word of the year, as it rose to new popularity among Americans and Brits.
The word hygge is defined as “a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.” The Norwegians call it koselig. It’s that feeling you get when it’s dark outside and the candles are lit, when pillows and blankets are piled on the couches, and you’re cradling a cup of cocoa in your hands.
As The New Yorker noted in a story last week, Christmas is “the most hygge time of year.” “It’s wholesome and nourishing, like porridge; Danish doctors recommend ‘tea and hygge’ as a cure for the common cold. It’s possible to hygge alone, wrapped in a flannel blanket with a cup of tea, but the true expression of hygge is joining with loved ones in a relaxed and intimate atmosphere.”
It makes sense that in an anxiety-ridden time—when many Americans profess themselves to be overworked, stressed, and exhausted—this relaxed, soothing concept would rise to new heights. The New Yorker reports that at least six new books on the subject of hygge were published in the United States this year. It’s a concept that rejoices in the most quotidian and simple of pleasures—one that counters the vision of striving and working that so often results in an exhausted, weary populace.
Is This All About Fetishizing The Rustic?
But The New Yorker—sadly—turns the popularity of hyyge into a sign of bourgeois elitism among Americans. They write,
As a life philosophy, hygge is unabashedly bourgeois, and American readers of a certain stripe will be familiar with its hallmark images—still-lifes of hands cradling a mug, candles lit at dusk on a picnic table, bikes with woven baskets and child safety seats leaning against a colorful brick wall. Artisanal this and homemade that, fetishizing what’s rustic as authentic, what’s simple as sophisticated: urban American sophisticates already know this aesthetic; we’ve aspired to it for a long time.
What many Americans do not aspire to is Scandinavia’s high taxes or socialist ideas. When transferred to the United States, the kind of understated luxury that Danes consider a shared national trait starts to seem like little more than a symbol of economic status—the very thing that Scandinavian countries have sought to jettison.
What could be a universal desire for comfort, cheer, and community becomes a fetishization of rustic authenticity—with elitist undertones, at that. Perhaps if we were more willing to embrace socialism, the authors would be less likely to castigate those who love hygge and what it stands for? To trivialize this longing by situating it in wealthy snobbery seems completely counter to the concept hygge embodies.
How Koselig Helps Combat Seasonal Depression
Perhaps one of my favorite stories on this concept of Scandinavian “coziness” comes from this Atlantic story, about a town where the “Polar Night” lasts all winter long. How, in such a place, do people cope with endless darkness?
Author Kari Leibowitz decided to find out. She travelled to Tromsø, and began to compile findings and interviews. After some time, she discovered that the residents of Tromsø did not see themselves as being cursed by interminable night. She writes,
It dawned on me that the baseline assumption of my original research proposal had been off: In Tromsø, the prevailing sentiment is that winter is something to be enjoyed, not something to be endured. According to my friends, winter in Tromsø would be full of snow, skiing, the northern lights, and all things koselig, the Norwegian word for “cozy.” By November, open-flame candles would adorn every café, restaurant, home, and even workspace. Over the following months I learned firsthand that, far from a period of absolute darkness, the Polar Night in Tromsø is a time of beautiful colors and soft, indirect light. Even during the darkest times, there are still two or three hours of light a day as the sun skirts just below the horizon, never fully rising.
Many Americans struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder; many hate the dark and the cold. Yet to this town, koselig created an overarching mindset and ethos that helped bring them through the dark winter months with joy and cheer.
According to Leibowitz’s writing and research, this has little (if nothing) to do with one’s economic status. It has everything to do with one’s state of mind.
Hygge Isn’t About Economic Status Or Wealth
After all, hyyge is not about procuring extremely expensive items. It’s not about exorbitant vacations. It’s about the simplest, cheapest of items: a mug, and a blanket. A soft couch, and a flickering candle. The company of friends we love. A hot, steaming bowl of soup.
These are things we can procure for very little cost. But by adding them to our daily rituals—at the end of a long work day, say—we can add a little more cheer to our day. We can dispel some of the darkness.
In essence, the concept of hygge takes our economic discomfort, our cultural anxiety, and our political frustrations, and gives us the opportunity to step away from them all—no matter our station or status.
It’s also important to note that hygge gives us the chance to offer hospitality. As a concept intrinsically tied to community and company, it urges a conscious effort at communion: opening our homes to the least of these, as well as to our loved ones. During this cold and wintry season, the concept becomes even more important—as it urges us to offer what bounty we might have to others, to those who may not be as fortunate.
Many Millennials Deeply Long for the Comfort Of Home
But why is the concept so popular right now? Why are so many Americans and Brits clamoring for books and articles on the subject?
As I noted above, there’s a deep sense of anxiety simmering beneath our collective surface. Many young people feel an angst, a longing, that they are struggling to fulfill. I’ve written about this in the past, especially in conjunction with many millennials’ move to the high church:
We live in a time fraught with insecurity, tragedy, and loss. And yet, at the same time, most millennials I know are obsessed with the search for beauty. Their aesthetic sense is strong, and they are always seeking the silver lining in life. It’s why, I think, they’re drawn to games such as Pokémon Go; why they watch reruns of their favorite childhood shows; why they love to travel to new and beautiful places; why they so carefully stage and filter their Instagram photos.
They are seeking re-enchantment. They are seeking the materialization of a longing that they just can’t quite put their finger on. They want their dreams, their fairy tales, their favorite pieces of nostalgia to find embodiment; they want to recapture the incandescent wonder of their childhoods.
Many people did not grow up in comforting homes: they had childhoods plagued with troubles, pains, abuses, griefs. To these folks, the angst may run even deeper: it may be a longing for a comfort they never got to experience in their childhood. They may long for a “home” they’ve never even encountered.
We Need to Be ‘Surprised By Joy’
As C.S. Lewis wrote in his autobiography, “Surprised By Joy,” he felt a deep angst throughout his life—“a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? … before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased.”
After he became a Christian, Lewis found the answer: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
The many folks who are desperate for hygge, and the sense of coziness and belonging it creates, may find that their efforts at reproducing hygge only makes this angst even deeper. They may find that the most beautiful moments they create in this world only make them long for a deeper, sweeter sort of communion.
Hygge Should Speak to All of Us This Winter
There is little about hygge, therefore, that has to be political or elitist. It’s a spiritual and emotional longing, one that speaks to the shortcomings of our divisive and demystified culture. When we consider the root longings that motivate our desire for hygge, we’ll find that they reach into the very heart of what it means to be human—the very heart of it means to seek companionship, and a home.
Hopefully, as we embark on a new year, more of us can open our homes and hearts: offering a space in which hygge and koselig are tangible and comforting. No matter our budget or political beliefs, perhaps this winter can give us the chance to dispel some of that nationwide dissatisfaction—to replace it with “comfort and joy.”