It kind of sounds, and looks, like the world hug, particularly if you say it in your best Danish accent, which if it’s anything like mine sounds nothing like a Danish accent at all. Hygge, 2016 word of the year contender, is a Scandinavian term, derived from the 16th Century Norwegian word ‘Hugga’ which means ‘to comfort’ or ‘to console’ which, unsurprisingly, is related to the English word ‘hug’.
The Danish are regularly recognised as the happiest nation in the world, which may come as a surprise to many of us who associate the warmth of the sun and long, hot summer days as a prerequisite for happiness. There’s not many of us that pine for days of permanent darkness and -20C temperatures when work’s getting us down. As those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere begin to dig out our warm winter outfits and settle in for the long cold dark nights, those clever folks that live in the northernmost reaches of Europe have developed an ingenious way to celebrate the coming of winter.
To break it down into its simplest, and most recognisable, Hygge is candles, lots of candles, big woolen jumpers, rich, sweet hot chocolate, red wine with friends around a roaring log fire, slippers, sheepskin rugs and that cosy feeling that you only associate with winter. What could be more comforting, as a snowy blizzard rages outside than being holed up in a log cabin with great friends, a crackling fire, and good food and drink?
At a deeper level, Hygge is a philosophical and spiritual concept of simplicity and seeing the beauty in the mundane. Whilst it’s most visible elements may be seen in the depths of winter, it’s a year-round attitude that permeates almost all aspects of Scandinavian life from the minimalist design ethic through to the delicious purity of the New Nordic Cuisine movement.
Perhaps the Scandinavians can appreciate the smaller things in life because they sorted out the bigger things first. Sure, they have some of the highest personal taxes in the world, but those taxes are put to good use providing free healthcare and education, paid parental leave, great infrastructure and a work-life balance that seems, at least to the outsider, on point. Denmark, Sweden, and Norway regularly rank at, or near, the top of lists of the best countries to live in the world.
What can we learn from Hygge and the Scandinavian way? It’s the importance of a small, close group of friends, that it’s the simple things in life that hold the most beauty and that once the essential needs of life are met, more money doesn’t bring happiness. At the heart of the Danes happiness is a realisation that, despite all the complexities of modern life, all we really need in life is shelter, food, family, and good friends.