Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.
–Henry David Thoreau
What could be nicer in the winter than snuggling up by the fire with a cozy cup of hot chocolate, a delicious slice of homemade cake, and an engrossing book you can’t put down? I grew up reading together with my family. We all had our noses in books, but we’d sit together in the living room and read. This is the very definition of hygge. The Danish word, hygge, pronounced “hue-gah” is a quality presence and a feeling of togetherness. It is a feeling of being warm, safe, comforted and sheltered! Just what we need to get through the winter during a pandemic. You can experience hygge alone or with family or friends.
For instructions, one need look no further than The Book of Hygge: The Danish Art of Contentment, Comfort and Connection by Louisa Thomsen Brits. Denmark is known as one of the world’s happiest countries, not just because of their high standard of living but also their health care, education standards, gender equality. [I read the Kindle edition, available here: The Book of Hygge: The Danish Art of Living Well.] And also because:
“At the heart of Danish life, and at the core of hygge, is the deeper stability of contentment.”
This deep satisfaction with life comes from simple daily practices, habits, routines, rituals. I thought I’d pull out a few of these daily rituals that make for a happier, more contented life and share them with you. Hygge is about imbuing the ordinary stuff of life with a sacredness by adding spirit and warmth. It is about making the best of what you have, being present to the moment, and appreciating the small things in life, especially the comforts of home. It helps to unplug and simply be with yourself or your group of friends or family in a warm, relaxed, informal way.
When I think of our home, without a doubt, our living room is the essence of hygge. We have a big fireplace, but rarely put it on because the room is so cozy and warm. The walls are a dark paneled oak, the Knowle sofa is deep, loaded with cushions and big enough to lie flat out in to watch TV or read a book or take a nap. There is a basket full of throws to wrap up in, lots of candles, shelves of books, stacks of magazines. When we first moved in, we thought we’d paint the dark walls a lighter color to brighten up the room. But there is something nice about being in a dark, cozy room. It seems to invite hygge. Friends come to chat over a cup of tea, feet up on ottomans.
On the other hand, a friend whose home is more modern pop had us over for an impromptu brunch one Sunday morning. This was initially for some coffee and pastel de nata, Portuguese tarts, hot out of the oven. It somehow morphed into a full-blown breakfast feast. She has the knack for throwing unplanned events together and we all felt cozy, relaxed after having had a brisk dip in the freezing cold sea. My friend gets nervous about entertaining but has discovered it all turns out well when no one is expecting much. Then we are all pleasantly surprised and delighted when it evolves into a minor event. And of course, because she is relaxed and everything is super casual, she enjoys herself, too. I highly recommend her spontaneous approach to entertaining, even if you get the tiniest bit stressed by having people over to dine.
The Danes value a balanced life: work, play, family, fun. They do it all without taking themselves too seriously, with lightheartedness.
Blessed are we who can laugh at ourselves for we shall never cease to be amused.
It can be found in simple gestures. Bring breakfast to your partner in bed. Have friends over for cake and coffee and a chat. Bring a colleague a cup of coffee at work. Take a walk in the park with your friend and a dog or two.
Hygge isn’t just for the winter or for the holidays. It is a way of life, a practice of simplicity, generosity of spirit, of kindness, of inclusiveness, of quiet attention. Without a doubt, Christmas is the most hygge time of year in Denmark. Everyone gathers around a fir tree, lit with real candles, holding hands and singing as they circle round the tree until everyone has sung their favorite song and the candles have burnt down low.
Wishing you a hygge holiday season!