Joy in the Known: Finding Comfort and Connection with Hygge

Focus is on corner with soft blanket, tea, and books. Two tall bookcases in blurred backgroundHygge, a Danish word that translates loosely to “coziness,” can be said to refer less to a temporary state of being and more to a way of life, one that takes ordinary daily moments and makes them more meaningful. The first written Danish reference to hygge,  a term of Norwegian origin that is pronounced “hooga,” appeared in the 19th century. This cultural ideal as it exists today has been linked to greater mindfulness and overall happiness and well-being—the annual World Happiness Report shows Danes are the happiest people on earth—and the pursuit and practice of hygge has begun to spread.

Scandinavian countries typically rank highly on surveys of world happiness, but Denmark frequently takes first place. Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, has explored what makes Danes happy and believes hygge is what sets them apart. Sweden, Norway, and Denmark all have smaller populations and support them through numerous social programs covering education, childcare, and health expenses, but researchers support hygge philosophy, which is grounded in ideals of cozy, easy intimacy and togetherness, as uniquely Danish and greatly beneficial.

Pleasure in the Simple and Ordinary

Is hygge, then, an easy path to greater joy in life? It is widely agreed that hygge is difficult to explain but easy to obtain. Hygge might describe a particular event, such as a home-cooked meal in a warm house with a handful of family and friends or a night of board games and hot drinks by a crackling fire. Savoring a cup of tea in a favorite mug, in one’s oldest and most comfortable clothes, can also be hygge. Simply put, this practice can be anything that embraces the simple pleasures of life. Having long, deep conversations with trusted intimates; being surrounded by family; making time and space to relax and unwind and simply celebrate life—these are all in line with hygge.

A central concept of hygge might be, “We’re all in this together.” American ideals of independence and self-sufficiency serve as a contrast to this sense of interdependence and helpfulness. While both self-reliance and community support can be wonderful in their own way, hygge celebrates a sense of connection between people. This interconnection and sense of community, especially when combined with various supportive social programs, can help people feel more secure in the knowledge that they have a safety net. This might help anyone feel more relaxed, joyful, and more inclined to take the time to enjoy simpler pleasures.

That is not to say that people without this “safety net” of support cannot take time to unwind and experience the joy in simple, daily routines that bring pleasure. With its focus on remaining in the moment and connecting to what is currently happening, hygge is similar to the mindfulness techniques often recommended for decreased stress and improved overall well-being. When people are fully present, not multitasking, staring at a phone, or worrying about their next task, they may be more receptive to the enjoyment of ordinary moments. Numerous studies have shown that this type of mindfulness can lower stress, and it’s not that much of a leap to imagine lower stress may correlate with greater happiness.

The Benefits of Hygge

By limiting contacts to friends and family and emphasizing small groups of six to eight people, hygge generates feelings of community, comfort, and safety. Since it is not socially draining or loud, and experiences tend to be fairly predictable, some have called this practice socializing for introverts. Though it has been pointed out that this focused familiarity, the practice of socializing only with a small group of intimates, could possibly become exclusionist, hygge may still be combined with other forms of socializing and may, at the very least, be a way to become grounded before seeking new acquaintances. Hygge, with the value it places on togetherness, comfort, and relaxation over monetary gain, provides a simpler template for the creation of joy with what one already has.

America, unlike Denmark, is a melting pot, an amalgamation of cultures, societies, practices, and philosophies. In many of these, an extroverted cultural trope often prevails, with the acquisition of possessions and wealth often upheld as gateways to happiness (though we know that more money, beyond a certain point, does not actually lead to greater happiness). Hygge, with the value it places on togetherness, comfort, and relaxation over monetary gain, provides a simpler template for the creation of joy with what one already has.

Introverts may readily embrace the practice of hygge, but extroversion does not preclude one’s finding enjoyment in hygge and expanding the menu of available pleasures in life, especially when the joys emphasized by hygge are so readily available and inexpensive. Hygge is considered to be quite accessible. No special equipment or distant locations are necessary, and there are no new skills to learn. It can be practiced by simply lighting a candle to brighten a dark room or pitching a tent in the woods and building a campfire with a few close friends.

Positive benefits derived from the practice of hygge might include lowered stress, increased feelings of safety and support, overall improved emotional well-being, and greater appreciation for life. Many of these can be likened to the benefits derived from therapy, which can also help an individual feel safe and supported. Individuals seeking the support of a mental health professional for a range of concerns might find that practicing hygge in their daily lives can be a helpful complement to therapy. Hygge yields benefits in a more external way, through intimate socialization, while therapy works to help individuals generate these same positive feelings from within.

Hygge, it is generally agreed, must be experienced, not described. So why not invite a few friends to enjoy an evening of conversation or games by candlelight? Complete the evening with warm drinks and a slice of homemade cake. Do your own experiment, and feel hygge for yourself.

References: 

  1. Beauchamp, A. (n.d.). What is hygge & how do you pronounce it? Retrieved from http://hyggehouse.com/hygge
  2. Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2016). World happiness report 2016: Update (Vol. I). New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Retrieved from http://worldhappiness.report/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2016/03/HR-V1_web.pdf
  3. Kahneman, D., Deaton, A.  (2010) High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America(107)38. Retrieved from http://www.pnas.org/content/107/38/16489.full
  4. Parkinson, J. (2015, October 2). Hygge: A heart-warming lesson from Denmark. BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-34345791
  5. Sachs, J., Becchetti, L., & Annett, A. (2016). World happiness report 2016: Special Rome edition (Vol. II). New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Retrieved from http://worldhappiness.report/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2016/03/HR-V2_web.pdf
  6. Tang, Y., Hölzel, B.K., & Posner, M.I. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience (16). 213–225
  7. Wiking, M. (2017). The little book of hygge: Danish secrets to happy living. New York, NY.: William Morrow.
  8. Wiking, M. (Speaker). (2017, January 13). On Point with Tom Ashbrook. [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2017/01/13/hygge-denmark-winter-happiness

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Nicole Urdang, MS, NCC, DHM, LMHC, therapist in Buffalo, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 4 comments
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  • Donna C

    Donna C

    February 10th, 2017 at 12:07 AM

    I really enjoyed this article.

  • Annika

    Annika

    February 10th, 2017 at 8:30 AM

    I want this in my life!

  • todd

    todd

    February 10th, 2017 at 10:38 AM

    Does it sound odd that for me this is what I always feel when I get the chance to visit back home about once a year? There is something about being back home where I grew up that is very comforting to me, something that I don’t ever feel when I am back at work in the city. We don’t live that far away in terms of mileage but in terms of way of life it is a totally different experience. I thought that this was what I wanted was to move away, but now every time that I am back there I start to think that maybe I have made a huge mistake.

  • Nicole Urdang

    Nicole Urdang

    February 10th, 2017 at 11:41 AM

    Hi Todd,
    Thank you for taking the time to share you experience. It doesn’t sound odd, at all.
    As for thinking you made a mistake, I always say (and believe) “No mistakes, only lessons.”
    If it turns out you love being home, maybe you can figure out a way to move back, or visit more often.

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