You may have heard of or seen this curious word in passing. Perhaps in a food or travel magazine or creatively used by a lifestyle columnist in the daily newspaper to describe something as cool, or hip. It’s tested the waters of the English language on occasion, but how many people truly understand what hygge means?
Thing is, there really isn’t one definition of the Danish word ‘hyyge’ (pronounced ‘hoo-gah’). In fact, there shouldn’t even be one, because it’s not directly associated with any sort of noun. There’s no such thing as that hygge cafe or that hygge book. Think of hygge as a sort of aura of pleasure and serenity. It’s the warm and toasty feeling that you get when you’re drinking hot cocoa by the fireplace on a cold winter’s day, or a chilled beer in the middle of summer. Telling ghost stories around a campfire with friends. Heck, even getting out of your house to go for a walk can be hygge.
Hygge is one of those instances where words or phrases of one language cannot necessarily be directly translated into English. I’ve always been wary of this ever since learning French in school. In Stockholm, I learned a particular phrase when you want more coffee, the word påtår which indicates refill (I used this once), but you cannot simply get this from using Google translate for “may I have a refill?” What I’m getting at it hygge is a feeling but it’s very much akin to Danish way of living. Although the idea can be intertwined with various English words synonymous to comfort, the essence of hygge is experiencing it. It’s more than just a word, and needs no translation.
Its origins derive from the Norwegian definition of “wellbeing” and was first used in Danish writing in the 19th century. Its striking similarity to the word ‘hug’ is most likely no accident. Both indicate feelings of intimacy, and contentment, whether alone or with people close to you.*
As per my last blog post, bicycles are one of Copenhagen’s main modes of transportation and an integral part of Danish culture. Those like myself who got a thrill out of riding a bike through the fresh, chilly breeze down Hans Christian Andersen Blvd. is also considered hygge.
Just like cycling, the concept is heavily ingrained in Danish culture, and is another reason why the Danes are so content. When the days in winter are short, cold and dark, hygge is often their modus operandi to enliven the spirits. Light up a fire, brew some tea, throw on the sweaters and the blankets and get cozy. Us Canadians also struggle from similar conditions, but add in 3 feet of snow. We could take a lesson or two from this cultural phenomenon – to take a moment in your day in between the woes of work or school and do something that makes you feel good. Stressed at work? Treat yourself to pizza for lunch or a dessert to satisfy your cravings. Hygge is also about the little gestures like spoiling yourself when you need it.
While traveling I certainly reaped the benefits of hygge, often unknowingly, until the word crept back subconsciously into my memory. I first heard of it while on a free walking tour of Copenhagen. As I reflect on it now, I would recall the time I was hiking along Neist Point – the westernmost point of the Isle of Skye. My tour group and I trudged through winding hills and slippery stairs and jumped across moss-covered rocks to hear the waves crashing and spraying the shoreline. To my right was an eerie old lighthouse and cliffs curving upwards from the sea to my left. Here is when I felt I was away from all of it. It made me question if I was truly here. Everything around me was a sight you’d see in a movie, like a sweeping landscape shot of a romantic drama. The surrealness of it all was what I was seeking all along. Another instance was of course, that elated feeling of achievement when I conquered those temperamental electric bikes in the Danish rain and be a ‘local’ for one evening. These were one of several ‘hygge’-inspired moments abroad. Even back home I experience it within the comfort of my own home. Drinking a glass of wine on my balcony, or lying down to watch TV after work. It really doesn’t take much to feel it.
I envy the Danes’ way of life, and try to mimic it as much as possible. No one is immune to the stress of living and moving through a big city. When this occurs, I believe that naturally experiencing those moments of stress, then later finding time, even a brief time, for hygge creates a perfect balance, and mitigates a great deal of negativity.
For fellow and future travelers – the biggest takeaway here is to find that ‘hygge’ in every city or place you visit. Having an agenda is awesome, but you may run the risk of entangling yourself with too many places to go or things to see. Everyone is different, and perhaps busy schedules work for many people. But drowning in a flood of agenda lists and tickets is the last thing that I want. Even for half a day in a new city, spend some time just simply doing what you like at home. You’ll be surprised how much of a local it’ll make you feel.
*Information and for further reference from BBC Travel’s Hygge: A heart-warming lesson from Denmark