18 Feb 19
“Hygge” has become a household word in the English language, by way of the lifestyle pages of the New York Times and the Guardian. A Danish word pronounced ”hew-geh,” according to the least hapless pronunciation guide, hygge can be described as the art of “being consciously cozy,” or the innocent pleasure of making oneself comfortable. In 2016, Collins’ Dictionary declared hygge the runner-up Word of the Year, after “Brexit.”
Why do non-Danes even care about hygge? One answer lies in the how-to hygge guides that have been marketed to middle-class British and American audiences since roughly 2016, bearing titles like The Book of Hygge, How to Hygge, and, most grotesque of all, Happy as a Dane. Common to each of these books (and there are dozens more) is that they treat hygge as a means of living the Danish Dream.
Hygge helps Danes imagine who they are and what they should do together. And it helps the rest of the world fantasize about the good life—a Danish export. Since the launch of the UN World Happiness Report in 2012, Denmark has consistently finished in top three countries. The international appeal of the Danish Dream has circulated widely, and it’s not always about hygge. For democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders, the Danish Dream can be realized if ordinary people demand a redistribution of wealth: progressive taxation financing universal health care and equal access to education. As a recent Jacobin headline put it, “You Don’t Want Hygge. You Want Social Democracy.”
As a Dane I’m often required to explain what hygge is all about. I usually offer a comparison to something like “chillaxing,” with a nod to the context of the Scandinavian welfare state. With Norwegian being the only other language to include the word hygge, I was curious to hear what my Norwegian brother-in-law had to say about it. In Norwegian, he told me, the word hygge and the comparable ”koselig” are often used, but merely in the banal everyday way that English-speakers would use the word “cozy.” In Danish, by contrast, hygge appears in a vast number of compound nouns and idioms.
Lots of homes have a ”hygge-corner” and many go for a ”hygge-beer” after work. Not a few Danes own a pair of ”hygge-pants,” which, according to Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute of Copenhagen and author of The Little Book of Hygge, is ”that one pair of pants you would never wear in public but are likely to be, secretly, your favourites.”
When Danes set up an appointment with their friends, they confidently assure one another “it will be hyggeligt!” If, at the get-together, someone spoils the hygge by bringing up a difficult or controversial subject, others complain, ”argh, come on, we were just about to hygge ourselves…” This might shut the person up, and the hygge is likely to resume. When you meet someone present at the gathering the next time, you will be expected to saying something along the lines of, ”thanks for the last time we met, that was hyggeligt!” If you meet a friend who wasn’t there, she might ask you interestedly: “was it hyggeligt?” If, God forbid, you hesitate to answer in the affirmative, that person may presume the encounter was bad, even if what you really meant was that it was intense, but politically or existentially meaningful.
When Danes say goodbye, it often takes the form of a wish—or an injunction: ”hygge yourself!”
Part of the appeal of hygge is its authentic Danishness—without this appeal, it’s hard to imagine such an unpronounceable word circulating in the original language. But the universal appeal of hygge also suggests that the feeling it conveys isn’t as uniquely Danish as one might think.
My mother made this point recently when I asked her to explain hygge, over a cup of coffee with apple cake. Like a lot of Danes, she mostly thinks of hygge in its everyday sense, as a mood and way of being together. She explained to me how she used to explain hygge to American and Kiwi friends in the 1970s not as a uniquely Danish mode of life, but simply as a uniquely Danish (and Norwegian) word for a fairly universal experience. Hygge, following my mother’s insight, is simply what the English call “coziness,” the Dutch call ”gezelligheid,” the German “Gemütlichkeit,” and the Swedes ”mys.” What sets hygge apart isn’t what is done and experienced, but that it is a word not only used as an adjective (hyggelig), but also as a noun (hygge) and a verb (typically the reflexive: to hygge oneself/oneselves).
This sense of the word has made it possible for hygge to become a remarkably international fad. As Charlotte Higgins has documented in the Guardian, it all started in late 2015, in the slick editorial offices of London publishers looking for another marketable Scandinavian trend after the unexpected success of “Nordic Noir” TV crime dramas. Since then it has travelled not only to liberal middle class of coastal America, but also beyond the Anglosphere. Recently, a Spanish friend sent me one of those cute cartoonish explainers of “awesome untranslatable words,” with hygge rendered as “relajarse con seres queridos” — to relax with loved ones.
Ever wondered how to make more time for cozy life moments? Look to the Danish art of “hygge” (coziness) and experience it in its truest form in this Copenhagen home. Don’t forget to add good food, drink and company.Find an Airbnb: https://t.co/8cqvFHWZcgIG: @script_creative pic.twitter.com/k6DQBd47Uy— Airbnb India (@Airbnb_in) October 8, 2018
With a quick Twitter search I found—I kid you not—that the image AirBnB India had used illustrate their guide to Danish hygge was a photo of the dining room of my old apartment, in Copenhagen’s hipsterfied Vesterbro district. (The place was less hyggeligt in my days, I have to add.) The tweet expresses what’s probably the most common misconception about hygge in the United States: that it’s about interior design. It’s not. If you’re aiming to show off with Arne Jacobsen furniture, you have already failed to hygge. Hygge is innocent enjoyment, familial comfort, withdrawal from the world and making-do. If it entails consumption, which it mostly does, it has to be—or, at least, to appear—inconspicuous and effortless. Interior design can merely set a stage for hygge; to achieve hygge requires various types of labor, like brewing a cup of tea, lighting candles, or convening a certain kind of social gathering—though you can also hygge alone.
But the idea of hygge as the quality of a space, like the preceding fad for feng shui, is useful to publishers whose sales depend on making the state of hygge seem easily attainable and available for purchase. That is, if you can afford it. What the hygge literature rarely if ever mentions is the fact that inequality is growing in Denmark, and the welfare state has been in steady decline for the past two decades. (Sanders tends to ignore this too, engaging in jovial conversation with some of the politicians responsible.) The self-help books also fail to mention that the welfare state was the product of political struggles throughout the 20th Century, and the geopolitics of the Cold War.
Outside of this context, it’s presumed that middle class Americans simply need to learn how to enjoy their existing comfort in order to achieve hygge. It becomes a balm for affluent liberal guilt. Somehow, even in the absence of hardship, you still don’t feel happy as a Dane? Try hygge! In the midst of winter, who wouldn’t want to cozy up under a warm blanket, hot chocolate in hand, feet tucked comfortably under the thighs of a loved one?
The hygge literature is mainly pitched to those who can create spaces for themselves where economic worries are absent or effortlessly postponed. Hence the polite and civil middle class aesthetic of these books and lifestyle pieces. But it’s also true that Danes have become a hyggelig people as a result of the welfare state. So is the truth of hygge middle class or social democratic?
In Denmark, the origins of hygge can be traced back to the Biedermeier movement in the early 19th century. In reaction to the dangerous passions of the revolutionary period that preceded it, artists and designers of the time returned to the home, producing an aesthetic of idyllic domesticity. In the struggle between aristocracy and middle class, the middle class valorized the authenticity of the private sphere, against the perceived public pretentiousness of upper class exclusivity and consumption.
One theory connects the adoption of hygge as a “national” value to Denmark’s loss of territory and prestige, and its subsequent retreat to Hobbit-like landscapes, since its defeat in the Napoleonic Wars and 1864 war against Prussia. But more important, I think, is the hegemony of a relatively guilt-free form of protestantism, established by theologian N.F.S. Grundtvig in the 19th century. This ideology of guilt-free but modest pleasure might in part explain Denmark’s reputation in the rest of Scandinavia for hedonism bordering on the amoral. In Norway and Sweden, where Lutheran moralism persisted for much longer, a greater sense of piety prevails.
If the Grundtvigian movement morally freed Danes to hygge, it took social democracy to transform the concept from a middle-class value to a popular pastime and national ideology. Generally, status anxieties, economic fears, competition, and dissensus block the feeling of hygge. In Denmark, hygge only proliferated once trade unions and the welfare state increased the leisure time and economic security of the large majority. It is unsurprising that workers opted into the culture of hygge, which fits with the social democratic ethos in various ways: it’s a break from the Protestant work ethic—usually well-deserved after work—and most people would say that hygge is only possible between relative equals.
As long as the workers’ movement remained combative, hygge was nothing more than the useful word translated by my mother, rather than a marker of national identity. Struggle is rather uncozy. The adoption of hygge as national pastime among workers seems to have happened at the same time that social democracy established its hegemony, in the 1950s and 60s. From mass organized demands and practices of mutual aid, solidarity was increasingly institutionalized and nationalized, and comfort became an unquestioned fact of the life of the great majority in Denmark. Today, Danes might realize the welfare state is a condition of hygge, but people tend to think it exists because it is rational and good, not because people fought for it.
If Bernie Sanders is the prophet of the construction of social democracy, hygge is the spontaneous ideology of late social democracy, when the working class comes to see itself as middle class.
Since the 1990s, hygge has become central to any attempt to define an otherwise elusive Danish culture. Hygge features in the State’s official Canon of core “Danish values,” along with the Christian cultural heritage, the Danish language, associations and volunteering, freedom, tolerance, gender equality, equality for the law, trust, and welfare society. Interestingly, most of these “Danish values” are the property of no nation in particular. Even this nationalist project acknowledges that hygge can only be defined as specifically Danish through a curious elliptical formulation: “in practice people in other countries also hygge, but they don’t necessarily ascribe the same importance to hygge as Danes, who often used the word to explain what is Danish to foreigners.” As it turns out, what is uniquely Danish about hygge is neither the word nor the mood and spirit it conveys, but simply the idea itself that hygge is Danish.
As Benedict Anderson has pointed out, the rooting of nationhood in language opens the nation to anyone able to learn the language. Hygge, on the other hand, designates an affective community, an imagined genealogy of common feeling. In a high-budget documentary series on the History of Denmark produced by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, a historian speculates about conversations at a prehistoric campsite discovered by archaeologists. “Danish hygge has probably been around for thousands of years,“ he says. In the imaginary of 19th Century nationalism, a bloodline would serve to connect modern Danes to the pre-Viking inhabitants of the islands and peninsula that separate the Baltic from the North Sea. For this contemporary historian, overexcited by the task of popularization, it is hygge that makes the link.
For politicians, invocations of hygge serve to articulate the imagined Danish community in ostensibly apolitical terms. As the most recent social democratic prime minister, Helle Thorning Schmidt, put it, ”we are a hyggeligt people. We have a good sense of humour, and we like to be together.” Similarly, the leader of the national-conservative Danish People’s Party claimed that Denmark is “a peaceful, hyggeligt place with a sociable and happy people that wishes both itself and others well.” Perhaps he was referring to the act of well-wishing known as the Iraq War, in which Denmark amiably joined allies in agreeing to deploy troops.
As the welfare state declines, the desire for hygge increases while its conditions wither. The Danish Dream is a safe space afforded by the global division of labor, a space which lasts only until you enter into wage competition with Chinese workers or until the next refugee arrives. Hygge is only a suspension of social pressures in the way social democracy is a suspension of capitalism. The feeling that hygge is slipping away has resulted in much nostalgia, and in defensive lashing out against anyone considered a spoiler. Unlike other key markers of the debates over “Danishness” (eating pork, and forcing public kindergartens to serve it) and what is ”undanish” (declining to shake hands with a person of the opposite sex—but not stripping refugees of their valuables), hygge appears as absolutely uncontroversial to most people.
Hygge is about belonging, and strangers stop being strangers when you make an appointment with them. When you affirm that it will be hyggeligt, you have entered into a kind of contract. Since hygge is sociality without controversy, it might be described as an enforcement of agreement, even “political correctness.” This does not mean that political or controversial subjects are banned from conversation, only that the hygge is spoiled if anyone present expresses a disagreement about them. Hygge is depoliticizing, and, as such, hyperpolitical. In some circles, it can be quite hyggeligt to complain about the growth of the far right—as long as everyone agrees and no one enters into heated debate about the proper strategic response. In other circles, we find the ironic, jocular bigotry known as “hyggeracisme.”
For Muslims, hygge in general is arguably a greater barrier than hyggeracism. Even among those who don’t engage in hyggeracism against Muslims, many still find it hard to hygge with them. Islam has been construed as controversial, and hygge presupposes a level of shared understanding and taste. For these reasons, Islam is not hyggelig to most Danes, and the word for that—“uhyggelig” (un-hyggelig)—happens to be the same word used to translate the Freudian “uncanny.” In the German original this is unheimleich. Heimlich literally means “secret,” but comes from the root heim, “home,” with its connotations not only of domestic comfort, but of privacy. So what is unheimlich is both a negation of safety and comfort and the disturbing revelation of what was supposed to be concealed. The negation of hygge, similarly, is whatever bursts the bubble of hygge, be it a stranger in the house or the raising of subjects one is not supposed to mention at the dinner table.
The problem with hygge as a national pastime is not so much its compatibility with smug moral superiority, racist banter and shisha smoking, but the bubbles it creates. Hygge, it seems to me, provides us with a rather impoverished notion of friendship, community, and family. Because hygge builds on agreement and a shared understanding—of humor, popular culture, small talk, whatever—it leaves little room for the other. It’s not just that it’s hard to hygge with strangers, but that hygge requires the repression of your own strangeness to your friends and family. Hygge is family and friendship, but without difference and disagreement, without encounter, challenges, and change.
Like any mode of comfort, hygge is extremely addictive. I’ve spent most of the last decade living outside of Denmark. Without running away from hygge, I was seeking an intensity in life incompatible with it. Yet hygge has followed me around, as an unconscious compulsion to create moments of quiet enjoyment, often at the cost of pursuing my desires (the things you realize in analysis). When, in 2012, I made my first public proclamation against hygge, in a rant at a conference on the economic crisis in Copenhagen, it felt daring and impertinent. Do talk to your families about what’s going on, I implored fellow conference-goers, even if it ruins the hygge.
It’s no wonder the ethics and aesthetics of hygge appeal to the post-Puritan liberal middle class, in the age of austerity, Brexit, Trumpism, and climate change. Unlike the excesses of wellness (spas, champagne, and massages) which prepare the luxuriant body for its reinsertion in the rat race, hygge is the art of more humble social pleasures. Hygge promises and presupposes pleasure without guilt. When you hygge you abandon the idea that you should be working or working out, or that one shouldn’t be indulging when others can’t. Within these limits, hygge frees us temporarily from conspicuous consumption, competition, and the work ethic.
What do Americans dream of, when they dream of hygge? Do they dream of the egalitarian security of the welfare state, or of complacent enjoyment? I don’t know. What I do know is that hygge is not the process of liberation from want and inequality, nor is it the only way to experience its promise. Hygge is pleasure without desire, friendship without difference, egalitarianism without solidarity. Just as hygge has given Denmark an excuse to forget the struggles of the past, it now teaches others to screen out the struggles of present. Hygge is the art of feeling comfortable while the world burns.