If you think the Danish practice of hygge is just about sippin’ hot cocoa by the fire, think again. In reality, hygge is a way of living that embraces presence, simplicity, and togetherness. And in this time of quarantine and lockdown, there’s so much hygge can teach us about making the best of a bad situation.
If you frequent Pinterest in the winter months, you may have heard of Hygge before. Picture: nondescript female wearing a giant sweater, curled up with her chunkiest knit throw, a battered hardcover, and steaming mug of hot cocoa in front of a raging fire. Sure, those are all elements of hygge, but it is so much more than just a way to optimize coziness during the coldest months.
Hygge (pronounced Hyoo-guh) is a Danish practice, which doesn’t have an exact translation in English. But its essence includes feelings of coziness, a sense of safety, of authenticity, and of savoring life’s simple pleasures.
And despite what Pinterest may lead you to believe, hygge’s not only about a time of year. Rather, it’s about how we engage with life on a daily basis. It’s about appreciating what’s right in front of us and relishing the little things we so often take for granted.
I first learned about hygge in 2018 when I read The Little Book of Hygge, and I was immediately enchanted. As someone who’s always thinking about my next thing, I appreciated the reminder to slow down, be present, and find joy in the everyday. It’s a welcome departure from a world that’s always in hustle mode.
These last few weeks, in which our entire world has been forced to slow down, stay home, and take it one day at a time, I’ve been thinking a lot about hygge. I find myself using elements of hygge to cope with tough feelings and keep my perspective. The more I do so, the better I feel, and I want to help you feel better too.
Hygge principles can radically improve how we think and feel all the time, but it’s especially helpful during this time of crisis. Join me to learn how to hygge at home during lockdown.
Wait, so what is hygge?
Meik Wiking, a Danish happiness researcher who literally wrote the book on hygge, describes it as such:
“Hygge is about an atmosphere and an experience, rather than about things. It is about being with the people we love. A feeling of home. A feeling that we are safe, that we are shielded from the world and allow ourselves to let our guard down.”
“Hygge is humble and slow. It is choosing rustic over new, simple over posh and ambience over excitement. In many ways, hygge might be the Danish cousin to slow and simple living.”
So, it’s about home, family, simplicity, safety, and slowness — i.e. all the things so many of us take for granted in “normal” times, but which abound during lockdown.
Think about it — we are spending the vast majority of our time at home, where we have a promise of safety from the external threat of the pandemic. We’re not out shopping for new things, working long days in a drab office, or spending the entire day rushing from one activity to the next. But we’re also not taking fabulous vacations, enjoying a music festival with 10,000 strangers, or hitting up brunch with the gals. We are at home, with our most immediate family, surrounded by the familiar and with lots of time on our hands.
So many of us are understandably yearning to get back to that normal, but as a result, we aren’t embracing the gift that’s right in front of us. That’s no surprise, because we’ve never been taught how to embrace these things. Our culture celebrates new, fast, and social, rather than familiar, slow, and intimate.
That’s where hygge comes in. Let’s use hygge as a framework for exploring and learning to embrace the new normal. Because even though lockdown will eventually end, the lessons we learn during this season of forced slowness can serve as helpful reminders to live more intentionally when the pace of the world picks back up.
Denmark consistently ranks as one of the happiest countries in the world, and Wiking wanted to find out why. In studying what set Denmark apart, Wiking kept coming back to this idea of hygge. The word itself originates from a Norwegian word meaning “well-being,” which is a crucial ingredient in happiness. But it’s not the only one. So what else about the practice of hygge contributes to the notable happiness of an entire nation?
In his book The Little Book of Hygge, Wiking presents the Hygge Manifesto to illustrate the main pillars of hygge:
All 10 of these pillars boil down to three categories: sensation, connection, and appreciation. I’ll explore each category, then give lots of examples for how you can start living this practice today.
Hygge is about…sensation
Here are the 5 Dimensions of Hygge according to Wiking. Use these as a guide for crafting your sensory hygge experience:
1- taste: familiar, sweet, and comforting
2- sound: the absence of sound, which enables you to hear very quiet noises around you
3- smell: whatever evokes feelings of nostalgia, security, and comfort
4- feel: old stuff, natural stuff, rustic stuff, warm stuff
5- sight: warm light, slow organic movements, dark natural colors
“No candles, no hygge.”
It’s all about lighting…but a certain kind of lighting. When creating a hygge atmosphere, think of the fire’s warm orangey glow. So light some candles, replace harsh light bulbs with dimmer, warmer ones. String some fairy lights or Christmas tree lights around your home (just make sure they’re warm white not cool white). It’s amazing how much magic a few twinkling lights can bring into a space.
“Hygge is about being kind to yourself — giving yourself a treat, and giving yourself, and each other, a break from the demands of healthy living”
Calorie counting is anathema to hygge, but so is overindulgence. So give into sensory pleasures of your favorite sweet treat, a hearty slice of crusty bread, your most sinful comfort food, or warm mug of mulled wine. Just make sure you’re savoring every taste.
Savoring by its nature requires slowness, and research shows that when we eat more slowly, we eat less. So don’t let fear of weight gain stop you from allowing yourself tasty treats — just change the way you eat. Serve yourself a small portion on a small plate, then put the rest of the food out of sight. Sit down in a distraction-free space (no phone or tv!) and take one small bite at a time, noticing every sensation. You can save that salad for the next meal.
“There is something comforting about having a warm cup of coffee in your hands. It is definitely conducive to hygge.”
I don’t care if it’s almost May…get your cozy on! If wooly socks and fuzzy blankets aren’t your jam this time of year (although they totally can be), at least make some hot cocoa or brew a mug of tea before you snuggle into the couch this evening. Up the comfy factor by wearing your fave loungewear, surrounding yourself with all the pillows, and choose your entertainment wisely. Reread your favorite novel, watch a beloved old movie or TV show, or put on an album that fills you with warm memories and nostalgia.
“It gives the feeling of being comfortable in a hostile environment”
The element of safety is often overlooked in North American discussions of hygge. But with the harsh Scandinavian winters, the security and protection that your home — your shelter — provides is not only essential to survival, but is also deeply embedded in their concept of hygge.
This contrast between the inhospitable “out there” and the warmth and safety of “in here” is essential to the spirit of the practice. And while it’s a virus rather than a blizzard that’s keeping us home these days, the contrast is the same. While we’re home, we’re safe. So instead of using language like “stuck” or “trapped” at home, embrace the feeling of safety that your home provides.
Hygge is about…connection
Coexisting with other humans is trying in the best of times. So when we’re suddenly spending way more time with our immediate family or roommates, we’ve got to be intentional about how we treat one another. The good news is, the ideal hygge scenario happens among a small group of friends or a family, rather than by yourself. Just keep the following principles of connection in mind so everyone feels seen and accepted.
“Equality…manifests itself in the fact that everybody takes part in the chores of a hyggelig evening.”
Divide tasks with your partner or housemates. Discuss what feels fair to both of you, and be honest if you need more support. Your lives may look radically different than they used to, so work together on a new, temporary arrangement. If your partner who used to travel for work is now telecommuting, ask them to help with some household tasks they normally wouldn’t have time to do. If your work obligations have slowed down, ask your partner where and how you can help support them and the household.
“Hygge is also a situation where there is a lot of relaxed thoughtfulness. Nobody takes center stage or dominates the conversation for long stretches of time.”
There’s no need for comparison or one-upmanship with your partner — doing so can be really harmful. Everyone processes grief, trauma, change, and anxiety differently, so please don’t impose your reaction on anyone else. Give yourself permission to feel your feelings, and give others that same space.
If you’re the kind of person who deals with anxiety by getting super productive or active, that’s perfectly fine. But please recognize that others deal with anxiety by doing the exact opposite — by shutting down and underfunctioning. It’s not helpful to try and guilt (or “motivate”) others to get uber productive like you. Do your thing, and allow everyone else room to do theirs. If you feel like your loved one is coping in harmful or self-destructive ways, approach them with love, understanding, and a desire to help, not with judgment.
“We have a basic need to feel connected with others, and close, caring bonds with other people play a major part in our motivation and behavior.”
It seems like it should be a given considering no one’s leaving the house, but are y’all intentionally spending time together, or just coexisting? Gather the family and brainstorm a list of activities you can do together (keep reading for my recommendations). Aim for intentional family time at least once a week (and, yes, this means NO PHONES).
“No drama. Let’s discuss politics another day.”
Whatever your politics, there’s always something to be angry about. Even if you agree with your partner/housemates politically, talking about politics at all during such a stressful and divisive time can still trigger negative emotions in both of you. If you can’t keep away from political discussions entirely, at least set some boundaries around when you’re allowed to have such conversations (politics is not good pillow talk, nor is it good for your digestion*, so keep it away from the bedroom and the dining table).
*I definitely made that up, but I stand by it.
Hygge is about…appreciation
The true heart of hygge is an attitude of appreciation. Appreciation for the little things, the simple life, nature, comfort, safety, and the familiar. The elements necessary for appreciation are presence and gratitude.
“Hygge may help us to be grateful for the everyday because it is all about savoring simple pleasures. Hygge is making the most of the moment, but hygge is also a way of planning for and preserving happiness.”
Get in the habit of bringing your senses into every moment. If you’re struggling with this, pretend you’re a writer whose job it is to describe the current moment you find yourself in. What details do you see? What sounds do you hear? How does your body feel (cold, warm, tense, relaxed)? Describe what you smell. If you’re eating or drinking, slow down your chewing and really think about the taste and texture of the food. What emotions are you feeling?
Making the effort to fully immerse yourself in life’s small pleasures will not only improve your day, but it also helps you form more vivid memories that will improve your future. When you’re always a little distracted, it’s way harder for your brain to form memories.
Make the practice of presence easier on yourself by reducing as many environmental distractions as you can. Put down the phone, take out the earbuds, and turn off the TV when you’re not actively watching it. Practice just 5 minutes of guided meditation everyday to help your brain learn to be ok with the absence of all that stimulation. These tips are tough at first, but stay the course. It does get easier, and it’s so worth it.
“More than anything, savoring is about gratitude…Gratitude is more than just a simple ‘thank you’…it is about keeping in mind that you live right now, allowing yourself to focus on the moment and appreciate the life you lead, to focus on all that you do have, not what you don’t.”
Clearly, gratitude and presence go hand in hand. If you aren’t present enough to notice the good stuff, how do you know what to be grateful for?
Have you ever started a gratitude journal? It seems like a simple thing to name just 3 things each day that make you feel thankful…until you’re on day number 6 and you realize you keep repeating yourself. The challenge with such a practice is that it forces you to be on the lookout throughout the day for things you can write in your gratitude journal. In the end, it’s not about having gratitude, it’s about actively seeking out opportunities to be grateful and appreciative in the moment.
How to hygge at home
Now that you have a fuller understanding of all the elements that add up to hygge, let’s get tactical. Here’s a ton of ideas for how you can practice hygge and make the most of your time at home.
- Create a nook: Find a cozy spot or comfy chair where you can curl up with an old hardcover and a hot cup of tea. Pile on the pillows and blankets for extra cozy.
- Warm feet: Put on those fuzzy socks. I don’t care if it’s almost summer, there’s nothing cozy about bare feet.
- Get close: Release the oxytocin by cuddling on the couch with your partner, kids, or pets.
- Electric enchantment: Not a fan of candles? Too hot to make a fire? Dig the Christmas lights out of the attic and hang them on the wall or the mantel, because magic.
- Hygge-fy your dining table: Place some wildflowers in a mason jar or old crock for a natural centerpiece. Set out a few plain, unscented candles around the flowers to up the hygge factor. For table linens and dishes, use the most unassuming ones you own — not the set you only bring out for the holidays.
- Embrace your inner Betty Crocker: Bake some farmhouse bread or sourdough (if you can find yeast!) The longer it takes to rise, the better.
- Go low and slow: Make a hearty stew. When finding a recipe, look for ones that call for hours of simmering.
- Create ambiance: Y’all know the drill by now…light some candles! For an intimate dinner, tapers and tealights are infinitely more romantic than pillar or jar candles, imo.
- Open the good wine: You know, that bottle you’ve been saving for…something? Make tonight that something.
- Get bookish: Keep the TV dark, put on some soft classical music, and just sit together and read.
- Remember some good times: Break out the wedding album or pics from your last vacation together and reminisce on your shared past.
- Long walks (beach optional): Go for a peaceful sunset stroll together after dinner.
- Living room cinema: Pick something loud and fun, turn out all the lights (even the candles), pop a big bowl of popcorn to share, break out the junior mints, and put away the phones.
- Go to cuddle town: Make a blanket fort in the living room (even if you don’t have kids. Blanket forts are the best!)
- Embrace the great outdoors: If you have a backyard, go “camping”. Eat hotdogs, roast s’mores, and tell scary stories around the fire pit (Bill and I always bring Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark with us camping for fun frights!) If you’re super committed (and live in a safe area), actually pitch a tent and sleep under the stars.
- Friendly competition: Have a weekly board game night while enjoying fresh baked cookies.
- Hey boo boo: Have a simple picnic in your backyard or a non-crowded public park.
- Flame broiled: Fire up the grill and have a family barbecue.
- Get active: Go for a bike ride together, go kayaking, or hike on a nature trail.
- Agricultural adventure: Go berry picking at a local farm (call ahead and ask if they’ve put social distancing practices in place).
Get some alone time
- Solo stroll: Connect with nature — no earbuds, no phone, no camera. Just be. (Nature is very hygge.)
- Pen pals: Write handwritten notes and letters to friends or family you haven’t seen in a while.
- Reminisce: Pull out some photos or mementos from childhood and take a trip back in time.
- Play pastry chef: Bake a cake or make some simple pastries.
- No agenda: When in doubt, just curl up in your nook with some candles, a book, blanket, and your hot beverage of choice.
Embracing the everyday
“Hygge is about making the most of what we have in abundance: the everyday”
I’m most drawn to hygge because it’s all about taking life’s simplest moments and choosing to turn them into something worthy of being relished. It flies in the face of productivity and hustle culture, which often makes you feel lazy if you spend a Saturday in your PJs. Because it recognizes the importance of allowing yourself simple pleasures, it turns the act of eating a slice of cake alone in your kitchen from something you might feel guilty about into an act of self love. It celebrates home for providing safety, comfort, and a place to shelter from the uncertain world with the people you love most.
It’s about casual and natural over sophisticated and manufactured. It challenges you to take in the present moment with all your senses. An evening spent reading and sipping tea by candlelight — or playing a board game with your family over a giant bowl of popcorn — can become a sacred experience.
Hygge provides a way to reframe how you think about everyday routines that we so often take for granted. It imbues the mundane with magic. We’re so used to chasing newer, bigger, shinier, more exciting experiences and products that we fail to recognize the magic that surrounds us everyday.
In our current situation, we can’t chase those new experiences like we’re used to. So let us take this as an opportunity to embrace the casual, the routine, the simple pleasures. If we have shelter and food and people to love, we have everything we need in this moment.
We can spend the day yearning for more, or we can choose to recognize what’s good and appreciate the hell out of it. Hygge shows us how.