Hygge: the secret of Danish happiness

“Hoo-ga”, “hue-gah” or “hu-ga”? This autumn, everyone will be talking about hygge – or trying to.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

She’s a well-travelled, cosmopolitan type, this stylish young woman in a knitted skirt. She’s wearing a knitted top, too, and around her waist is a low-slung belt decorated with a bronze disc – the ultimate statement jewellery in Denmark. She is lying on a bed of cosy fur, and is nestled down with a woven woollen blanket, pulled up to her chin. Character, outfit, accessories – an expression, surely, of the Danish quality from which there will be no escape this autumn: hygge. Hygge is where it’s at.

I bet that no matter how many episodes of Borgen and The Bridge you’ve watched, you still don’t speak Danish, so let me help you say it. You’ll want to have it on the tip of your tongue, as there are at least five books forthcoming on the serious subject of hygge, and on how to live, like our youthful friend in her elegant knitwear, a more hyggelig life. Try “hoo-ga”, according to one source; “hue-gah” and “hu-ga” are also doing the rounds. Just remember to channel the same slightly guttural, swallowed noise you made when you perfected your pronunciation of “Troels Hartmann” in the days when you were obsessed with The Killing.

So, what is hygge? “Cosy” doesn’t quite cut it. It’s one of those words, like “chutzpah” or “Schadenfreude”, that simply are themselves. Google Translate will give you “fun”, which offers only a small sense of the calm contentment, the warmth, the sense of “all is right with the world”, that is the truth of hygge.

Images depicting the idea often focus on socks – not any old socks, but lovely, colourful and (I am sure) spanking-clean socks, encasing toasty toes that are likely to be propped up in front of a roaring fire. The wind, we know, is beating against the glass and snow is deep on the ground outside; but here inside we’re safe and warm, at least for the foreseeable future.

The blurbs for these books (The Little Book of Hygge, How to Hygge, The Art of Hygge – you get the idea) emphasise relaxed, low-key socialising: taking pleasure in the “modest, the mundane and the familiar”. There is talk of “warmth, conviviality and community”, of focusing on the small things, “sharing good comfort food with your closest friends by candlelight and exchanging easy conversation”.

In post-Brexit Britain, it’s no wonder that publishers are hoping to cash in on a longing for simplicity and comfort. There’s not much easy chat to be had when half of the table voted Leave and the other Remain; as for mundane and familiar, well, we can dream. After all, the Danes are officially the happiest people in the world, having trumped Switzerland in the 2016 World Happiness Report. They even have a Happiness Research Institute, whose CEO is a charming fellow called Meik Wiking. The Little Book of Hygge, out in September from Penguin Life, is his offering. It promises practical steps to “become more hygge”, through lighting design, catering, clothing, and so on.

But Wiking knows that a well-placed candle doesn’t solve anyone’s problems for long. In a Ted talk entitled “The Dark Side of Happiness”, he notes that there are 500 suicides every year in Denmark, three times as many as are killed in traffic accidents. You would think that the happiest country in the world would have the lowest rates of suicide, but it is not so. As Wiking remarks, it can be particularly difficult to be unhappy in an otherwise contented place.

Denmark has a relatively high GDP, good life expectancy and high levels of social support. Yet it is still a place where people check out each other’s Facebook posts and envy the perfect lives apparently just beyond their reach. My friend Hans, a Dane who lives in London, is amused to hear that hygge is poised to be the next big thing – and not just because, for him, growing up with the notion, it was merely a part of life. “It’s not the real Denmark,” he says. “It’s too chocolate-boxy.”

When he and his partner, who is French, go to Denmark together, they find the hyggelig ideal oppressive. “He couldn’t even contemplate living there,” Hans says.

Other lives are always more alluring than our own. What difference is there between a yearning for that snug cabin, with its glowing stove, and our earlier dreams of a beach hut in Hawaii or Tahiti? I had the time of my life in Copenhagen, one cold, bright spring, when I was ensconced in a little boat hotel moored in the harbour at Christianshavn. Floor-to-ceiling windows let in the light but kept out the cold. Every morning, I cradled a cup of hot coffee in my palms as I stood on deck, surveying the glittering water and the tidy city spread out before me. For a few days, anything can be perfect.

One of these books has an epigraph from the Danish literary hero Hans Christian Andersen: “Life itself is the most wonderful fairy tale.” But no one would want to live in one of his fairy tales. Strip back Disney’s varnish and you’ll find tales of suffering, written by a strange, unhappy man. All the warm socks in the world won’t keep the Little Mermaid from feeling as if, on land, she’s walking on knife blades.

All the same, it’s easy to believe that the Danes are on to something – and that hygge isn’t just this year’s hot idea. If you’d like to visit that young woman in the knitted skirt and chunky jewellery, you can – at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. She’s called the Egtved Girl, and she was buried beneath that woollen blanket, lying on a soft cushion of oxhide, roughly 3,400 years ago in the Danish Bronze Age. Hygge, I reckon, is here to stay. 

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article appears in the 11 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, From the Somme to lraq