Hygge: The Danish art of being in the moment

In our always-connected world, columnist Jessica Alexander reminds us to unplug every once in awhile and fully embrace the Danish concept of hygge.

Hygge: The Danish art of being in the moment
The author says that the Danish concept of hygge can be thought of as 'we-fulness'. Photo: Scanpix
I recently came back from a vacation with a group of friends. We spent a week at the beach in a shared house with children spanning all ages. We all cooked together, hung out and ultimately engaged in a British/Danish/American version of ‘hygge’. We turned off the electronics, screens and TVs (for the most part) and watched the magic of free play unravel before us on rocky beaches, cliffs and dunes.
This sounds pretty straight forward, but in this day and age, it really isn’t. 
I have researched, experienced and written extensively on the topic of hygge over the past years with Danish psychotherapist Iben Sandahl. That is the very Danish concept of “cozying around together”.  
Some of these articles have been picked up by outlets from The Huffington Post to Mother magazine. It seems people all over the world are interested in the concept of hygge and the benefits it yields. I think what many Danes don’t realize is that it is precisely due to hygge’s obvious nature that it isn’t obvious for many at all. It takes awareness and conscious effort to create hygge for non-Danes, but the results can be magnificent. 
If you ask a Dane what hygge is, many will say that it is cozy time with candle lights, tea, coffee and cakes (and let’s not forget wine, schnapps and beer for ‘hygge heavy’). But while food, drinks, lighting and warmth are all very important factors, I believe they miss the crux of what hygge really is: the quality of connection to others and the ability to be in the moment. 
It is similar to the very popular trending topic of ‘mindfulness’. But hygge is what I like to think of as ‘we-fulness’.
As a foreigner who has spent many years enveloped in the Danish culture, I have come to see hygge as more of a psychological space one steps into where you leave your drama at the door and put your complaining, negativity, judging and problems aside to really connect to others and enjoy the moment. 
Hygge is about being present, whether it is with two people or twenty. It’s one of the reasons that singing is such a great activity because it creates a present sense of oneness with others. It’s hard to be somewhere else mentally when you are singing together.
That feeling of connectedness is what improves wellbeing. It’s a mental oasis from the everyday grind where you feel safe. It’s a reminder about the beauty in the extraordinary. That is, the extra ordinary and the marvelousness of the little things that really are the big things in life.  What a wonderful lesson to pass on to our children.
All the hype in mindfulness training these days is preaching what the art of hygge embodies at its core. It’s not just about replacing ‘me’ with ‘we’ it is also about the verb ‘to be’.  It’s about not stressing about work, our to-do lists or the often frenetic constructs of our daily lives. It’s being in that psychological space and feeling together with others you care for that gives our souls a true reprieve. 
We get this crazy idea that we have to keep checking our phones and our mails because we might miss something and it won’t be there when we come back. But by taking the time to ‘be we’ and shut off the outside, one discovers an ability to be ten times more effective when you return. Real quality hygge is a battery charger of the heart and mind.
Coming back from my hygge-filled holiday, I felt deeply revived, inspired and freed. 
The thing is, I never really realized how draining it is to always be looking at a screen. Of course you hear about it all the time. We all say “Yeah, I know” but until you turn your phones and computers off for a week, you cannot imagine how cleansing it actually is. 
For those of us who haven’t lived our whole lives in Denmark where that community feeling is built into the society, and hygge is a part of life and vernacular, we have to work hard to create it for ourselves. 
Whether it’s with dear friends or new friends or family or partners, ‘we-fulness’ is a state of mind that we can all enter into with practice. It’s definitely worth a visit. If hygge was on TripAdvisor it would get five stars. 
The tricky bit is getting everyone to be there at the same time.
Jessica AlexanderJessica Alexander is an American author who co-wrote 'The Danish Way of Parenting: A Guide to Raising the Happiest Kids in the World'. She has been married to a Dane for over 13 years and has always been fascinated by cultural differences. She speaks four languages and currently lives in Rome with her husband and two children. Her book can be purchased via Amazon and Saxo

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


How hygge is misunderstood in the English language (in one Twitter thread)

An incisive Twitter thread took apart misunderstandings of the concept of hygge and its dubious grammatical usage in English. See whether you agree with the analysis.

How hygge is misunderstood in the English language (in one Twitter thread)
Hygge? Not necessarily. Photo: Ólafur Steinar Gestsson/Ritzau Scanpix

Hygge entered the Oxford English Dictionary a while back now, and countless numbers of Anglophone books have been written about the concept.

But while the concept remains an interest – and aspiration – for many in the English-speaking world, the word itself is more mundane than you might think when used in its original language.

London-based Danish comedian, author and activist Sofie Hagen ripped through what she called “making a wrong about ‘hygge’” in a sharply-worded Twitter thread, posted in response to a headline in the Observer which incorrectly used ‘hygge’ as a countable noun.

Hagen did not hold back on incorrect pronunciations she has come across and wrote that she had even been corrected for pronouncing the word in her native tongue.



She then explained that hygge does not just mean 'cosy' as it is often translated, but encompasses a wide range of expressions and situations.



The comedian also had a few things to say about Danes' ability to cut through polite niceties and get to the point.



She was also prepared to voice criticism of her home country.

A commenter noted that, in their defence, the Observer may have been trying a pun with 'hygge' standing in for 'hug'. That did little to make the London-based Dane feel better about the offending headline.


What do you think? Should English-language media and publishers rein in their hygge fixation — at least until they understand it properly? Or is it okay for a concept to take on a new form in other cultures and languages? How do you view Hagen's assessment of Danish attitudes to feminism? Do you appreciate the directness of Danes or do you miss hearing words like 'please' and 'pardon'? Let us know — we'd love to hear your thoughts.

READ ALSO: It's official: 'hygge' is now an English word