Why you should care
Because well-being is important, whatever language you speak.
Some of Kristian Næsby’s fondest childhood memories are of being at home around family in his native Denmark. “I knew nothing better than just sitting at the table, not saying anything and just listening to the conversation,” the Danish lecturer at University of Washington says. The candles were always lit, friends and loved ones were having a good time, perhaps drinking wine or eating good food, and enjoying one another’s company while engaging in lively conversation.
For him, that’s hygge.
Hygge: Cozy, but in a complex, highly personalizable way
To non-Danes, hygge (“HUE-gah”) sounds like the stuff of a lively dinner-party setting. But it’s something that “is ever-existing in the Danish consciousness,” says Næsby. “It’s around all the time.” For Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen and author of The Little Book of Hygge, it’s about being consciously cozy. “Hygge has also been called the art of creating a nice atmosphere, but you can also see it as the pursuit of everyday happiness,” he says, noting how it revolves around building in moments of relaxation, comfort, togetherness and gratitude while enjoying life’s simple pleasures. In his book, he acknowledges that the term has been called everything from “cocoa by candlelight” to the “art of creating intimacy.”
English doesn’t have an equivalent one-word term for hygge, but German comes close with:
Gemütlichkeit: Warm friendliness
Patrick Wolf-Farré, a native German and lecturer in German languages at Yale, says coziness is the first English word that comes to mind, but warns that it’s not easy to define gemütlichkeit (guh-myoot-lish-KYT) either. Chairs can be gemütlich, as in cozy or comfortable. “But as a noun, it describes more than just being physically comfortable, but an overall atmosphere that’s nice, welcoming and warm.” While it can refer to home settings, it’s usually used to describe settings outside the home; German restaurants, for example, often describe themselves in these terms. There’s even a pejorative way to say a person is gemütlich, which means he or she is perhaps a little too relaxed and “maybe a bit too slow in going about his business,” Wolf-Farré adds.
Hygge, on the other hand, often refers to the home — though not exclusively — and, according to Wiking, “usually happens in smaller groups.” The Danish term also implies a sense of security: that safe feeling one enjoys in a healthy home environment. “You feel surrounded by people that you feel safe with,” says Næsby. But that’s a bridge too far for gemütlichkeit. While the German term describes a warm embracing feeling anywhere, it doesn’t offer the same sense of at-home security, says Wolf-Farré.
Breaking the words down shows us that the term “mut” from gemütlichkeit was originally linked to the English word for mood, and gemütlich, says Wolf-Farré, originally meant “comforting and fitting to all of the soul’s powers and sensations.” Hygge, on the other hand, harks back to a Norwegian word for “well-being,” but it may also originate from the word “hugge,” or “hug,” according to Wiking’s book. “Hugge,” in turn, may come from the Old Norse “hygga,” meaning “to comfort,” which is linked to the term “hugr,” for “mood.” Going back further, “hugr” comes from the Germanic “hugjan,” which means “to think, consider.” And it’s this last element of hygge that Næsby loves most.
For him it’s about more than having a good time or reassuring close ties with family and friends. Næsby sees it as a time for thinking and reconsidering. “I think that this is essential. You learn empathy in situations where hygge is. You learn to respect other people and their views, and you reconsider your own in conversations.” And it was these chats around the family table that form his images of hygge. Topics of discussions years ago “stayed with me and helped form me and also helped me learn how to talk to people in a respectful way, even about difficult issues or issues on which you disagree,” he says.
Hygge, in short, helped form his ethical core. All that from one powerful little word.