Like any good American suburban mother, I am in a book club.  Thankfully, unlike many I have been a part of in the past which were simply not-so-subtle excuses to get a gaggle of women together to drink wine on a Friday night, we actually all read and discuss the books (and also drink wine*).  It is winter in Michigan, and our smart hostess chose The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking for our February read, which is a how-to to the ways of Danish happiness.

Mr. Wiking is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen and spends his time studying what makes people happy and gives them quality of life.   Hygge  is one of my favorite types of words–those which does not translate well into other languages.  It is compared to German’s Gemütlichkeit and Dutch’s gezelligheit, but these don’t quite get there.  Coziness is comparable, but doesn’t quite scratch the itch either.  It is “like a hug without touching.”  In the words of Mr. Wiking,

“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.

In his research, Mr. Wiking has worked to define the characteristics which comprise hygge from a Danish perspective and attempts to make correlations as to how hygge contributes to Danish high levels of happiness.  Hygge-ing involves some very simple tools.  Here are some highlights to get you started in creating an environment for it:

  • books
  • the correct lighting/lamps (ideally from iconic Danish designers)
  • candles (unscented)
  • much natural wood and other tactile materials (reindeer pelts are recommended)
  • hot beverages
  • wool socks
  • chocolate or other decadent sweet (the Danes consume a ridiculous amount of sugar compared to other European countries.
  • food which takes many hours to prepare, preferably prepared together

One of the biggest characteristics of hygge is that of community.  It is this aspect which makes me think of The Way Station.  Our community is not candlelit or filled with delicious noshes, but for me, the suspicion that if small groups of us found ourselves together on a reindeer hide covered couch, it would be bursting with hygge.  Maybe not at first, but we would get there.  Some of you have met.  Could you feel it?  Can you imagine it?

There can be “alone hygge,” but Danish levels of happiness are achieved in community. This community should to be curated and intentional.  Get-togethers need many of the components mentioned above to be hyggeligt.  Danish social circles are generally small (ideally 3-4) and difficult to break into for newcomers, but once you are in, you are in (the author calls this “The Dark Side of Hygge.”).  Time with family can also, of course, be hyggelig, and this is most evident during the Christmas season (“The most hyggelig time of the year”).   Hygge together is very important to the Danes; so much so, that they are very strict about leaving work at 5 (earlier if they have children to tend to) and getting to the business of being together and cultivating their relationships…against a backdrop of candlelight, wool and calories.  They emphasize being present with one another.

Mr. Wiking brings up some challenging aspects of hygge.  One of these is that, though hygge involves much time, preparation and commitment, what it does not involve is wealth.  Giving a too extravagant gift puts a damper on the hygge, as it makes the recipient feel he or she owes a debt.  It is also seen as a display of power, which is frowned upon.  Showiness or overt displays of wealth are not hyggelig. This could easily be read as “don’t be too generous.”

Contrary to my American upbringing, this cozy, safe time with our people is about that time only and not about the result.  To many of my compatriots, this sounds like wasted time, as it is not “networking.”  Also a bit frustrating to me as an American is that Mr. Wiking correlates much of the Danish happiness phenomenon with the Danish welfare state.  Its citizens have many needs met and can therefore focus up Maslow’s hierarchy of need and give energy to self-actualization.  Here is where the leadership of my country could learn from our Scandinavian and European counterparts.

I believe my favorite take-away from this little gem is the idea that for hygge to make the most impact, there must be “anti-hygge.”  In our home for the last couple of years, we have decided on a word or phrase of the year.  Hmm, more accurate would probably be that I have dictated to my family what our word of the year is and hope they might notice.  This year I/we decided on BALANCE, so there were many stars and much underlining on this page of my book.  “Hygge is possible only if it stands in opposition to something which is not hygge.”   You will be happier in a life with contrast; with the highest highs and the lowest lows.  The madness of the Christmas season gives way to the mug of coffee around the tree.  The lonely moments give way to the shared table filled with candles and delicious scents.

This book is no intellectual tome.  It is a sweet, pleasing-to-the-eye handbook on how to live life like a Dane and hopefully personally experience some of the effects on your level of pleasure in life.  It is a quick read which you will probably leave on your coffee table to remind you to hygge.  It offers recipes and craft projects.  There are many books published on this topic, and if you don’t pick up this one, perhaps you will find another that fits your style better.  Then, one day when we meet at the dinner table after cooking sometime lovely involving cream and chocolate, we will smile together and enjoy the hygge.  

*This book club meets on Sundays right after church for me, so at first, this day-drinking felt a little subversive and very un-Christianlike (I am a recovering Evangelical), but now that I have settled in, it feels more like communion than communion in church feels.