Updated: Sep 23, 2022
I live on the edge of a small anonymous village in Denmark.
I have a little desk. It has a laptop and an old fashioned desk lamp. To my left, the window overlooks trees and farmland. The last few weeks have seen stunning photogenic chocolate box lid weather. Today, however, is charmless. Just over five years ago my travels led me to Denmark, a small understated country, quietly getting on with the business of being happy, safe and entrepreneurial.
First of all, home is central to the culture, so the Danes make the home a place where they want to be. In Jutland, where I live, houses are mostly set on their own plot, bordered with a hedge. The houses tend to be one level and designed with big windows to let as much light in as possible.
Light, or the lack of it, is embedded in the culture of the Danes. Images of old Viking poets in dimly lit halls, recounting ancient myths to pass the long cold winter nights. This cultural gathering echoes down the centuries to modern Danes.
Inside the house becomes the home. None of this is cheap, Danes are not afraid to spend money on their homes, a lot of money. Furniture is purchased specifically to fit into the “feel” of the home. A sofa is not just to sit on, it has to look right, it should be admired for its design as well as comfort. Sit in it, loll on it, relax or as the Danes say “slap af”, (slap ay), it means relax or chill.
There are no cold drafts in the house but pretend there might be, and own as many different patterned blankets as you can get away with. When not in use they are carefully rolled and stored pleasingly in a basket purchased specifically for this one task. When in use, these blankets must be draped over legs or wrapped around shoulders. You must stretch out on the sofa with one tucked under the chin.
Lighting is not a functional necessity in Denmark, it's an opportunity. Stylish lamps on the cabinet, large sepia coloured bulbs hanging from the ceiling, Italian designed central lights above large scrubbed wood dining tables. Light is the way you draw attention to the artwork on the walls, mostly local artists. Light is what directs the eye to the classy glass blown vase.
While electricity has removed the need for candles, Danes ignore this inconvenience and buy all manner of candles and holders. A room is not complete without a plethora of randomly sized and burned candles. The Danes burn more candles per person than any other country in Europe.
The purpose for this effort is to create a warm comfortable space inside, in contrast to the cold inhospitable outside. It’s in to this personal space Danes invite family and close friends.
These occasions are special. Food is planned and prepared, wine selected, beer purchased to match personal taste. It is not customary for a Danish visitor to bring wine, this is all provided by the host. The lights are dimmed, the candles lit, the home is warm and ready to welcome guests. Everyone sits to eat, everyone, children included, with only minor food alternatives allowed. It’s here, round the dinner table children imitate manners, learn to enjoy different tastes and participate in the gathering of adults to listen to the stories. After the meal, everyone is free to slap af. More drinks are served, smokers go outside, children play, and a cosy feeling of closeness inhabits the occasion, this feeling is hygge.
You can’t buy hygge (pronounced "hoo-gah").
Hygge isn’t bought or consumed, it’s experienced, sure candles, blankets and wine add to the moment just as wrapping paper adds to the excitement of the gift. Hygge is the feeling of being truly connected to the important people in your life. It can be in the home, on a walk in the forest or over a coffee in a sidestreet bistro. It’s the feeling you have when the priorities in your life are in the right order.
No matter the maelstrom outside, hygge is the moment of contentment, inside.