Forget Your Troubles, Come On, Get Hygge: Fighting off SAD the Danish Way

The instant the temperature dips below 60 degrees, out come my sweatshirts, my slippers, my Uggs, my gloves, and anything soft or warm that will thaw me out. These early winter afternoons call for steaming hot cups of tea, and the early nightfall of Daylight Wasting Time makes me want to curl up with the cats and a book and hibernate until Spring. Call me a wimp, but for this California-born, Florida-raised girl, winter is Kryptonite.

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How I generally feel about winter.

Maybe I’d feel differently if I’d grown up in a snow-laden place, but I doubt it; my husband spent the first 20+ years of his life shoveling snow in South Dakota and he wishes it were 90 degrees and 90% humidity 24/7. Perhaps I’d dread this time of year less if Nashville’s winters weren’t grey, wet, and icy, or if I shared any of my brother’s snowboarding proclivities. But none of this is the case.

 

The fact of the matter is that I hate winter and have to fight off Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) every year.

SAD sucks, which is why I might be mildly obsessed with hygge.

Pronounced kind of like hue-guh (with the ‘u’ like the French une), hygge is a Danish word with no English equivalent. The closest we can get to in English is with the word coziness, but that doesn’t quite do the trick. Hygge acknowledges a moment, mindset or atmosphere as cozy, charming or special in a comfortable, slow and present, joyful way. It’s the way you feel when you’re nestled up in fleece blankets in front of a fire drinking cocoa, or spending an evening at home playing board games with family and eating from-scratch cookies. It’s bubble baths and fuzzy socks, kitten snuggles and sleepy-time tea. It’s even playing cards by candlelight because the power went out during a raging thunderstorm.

There’s debate over the origin of the word hygge. It definitely comes from the Norwegian word for well-being but some think it comes from the 1500s word ‘hugge’ which meant ‘to embrace’ (or ‘hug’). To me, one of the most interesting things about hygge is that it can be a noun, compound noun, verb or adjective. Let’s be hyggespreders and hygge at that hyggeligt café tonight while listening to hyggemusik.

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Get some candles for more hygge.

What’s most notable about hygge, I think, is that it apparently permeates every aspect of Danish life. I’m absolutely baffled and fascinated by the fact that Denmark is consistently ranked as one of the happiest places to live. The country is known for frigid, rainy, dark winters. The average tax rate is more than 50%. And Danish culture apparently makes it difficult for newcomers to make friends and penetrate social circles. Yet you’re telling me THIS is the happiest country on Earth? My curiosity is more than peaked.

I’ve read dozens of articles, just finished reading The Art of Hygge, and am currently in the middle of The Year of Living Danishly for my  travel book club, and so far it seems Denmark’s high happiness rank comes down to three primary factors:

  1. The Welfare State. No one can be really poor in Denmark. The government provides a basic income to those who can not work due to age, illness or injury; minimum wage is double what it is in the US; and those hefty taxes provide excellent free universal health care, education (through all levels), generous parental leave and unemployment, etc. Overall, the goal of the welfare state is to reduce risk, anxiety and uncertainty for its citizens in order to allow them to pursue things that enrich their lives, such as passions, volunteering, hobbies and time with their families.
  2. Work-Life Balance. Because people don’t have to worry about how they will pay their medical bills or get their kids through college, they can pursue their interests instead of getting a second job. And because money is not such a priority, Denmark has not evolved into a country of workaholics. Danes enjoy the shortest average work week in the world – 33 hours — as well as flexible working hours and lots of paid vacation. If you’re not stressed about money all the time, you actually have time and energy for a life, which they seem value above most other things, including work.
  3. Hygge. With all of that free time to fill, and all of that crappy weather to endure, I suppose it’s no wonder hygge is such an important part of Danish culture and society. Instead of trying to do too much, working overtime, and rushing from one obligation to another, Danes supposedly focus on slowing down, being present, eating delicious pastries, and being together. They try to capture that feeling of being wrapped up by their favorite blanket and surrounded by their favorite people, making it a way of life, and I applaud that effort.

I’m still doubtful that Denmark’s weather wouldn’t give me SAD all the time, if I lived there, but I am intrigued by the country’s continually high happiness ranking, and their approach to life.

I want to incorporate more hygge into my daily routine. As someone who works from home, for a small company that began as my family’s business, it’s very easy for me to work all of the time. I’ve worked hard over the last two years to establish strict working hours and physical space to prevent myself from doing so; I go as far as shutting the doors to my office when I’m done and, even though my office is in the middle of the house serving as an easy bypass, I avoid cutting through it lest it remind me of my looming To Do list. I’m also terrible at relaxing – just ask my husband or my therapist. I feel lost without plans and get antsy if I’m not being productive. Again, this is something I’m working on, giving myself time and space to do nothing and the opportunity to relax. But I still feel a need to DO SOMETHING in that down time, and sometimes I feel so overwhelmed by my options of relaxing activities that I can’t do any of them, fall onto the couch, and want to cry. Not very hyggeligt, eh?

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Cosmo knows how to hygge: snuggle your giant teddy bear by the Christmas tree.

I’m writing this from the most hygge room in my house: my lounge, my fledgling library. It’s the room we use least yet the one I love most. In an attempt to relax during my downtime and create more hygge opportunities in my day-to-day, I’m spending more time in here. Full of books, 1960s furniture, comfy mismatched chairs meant for reading, and, this time of year, our Christmas tree, our hyggeligt lounge lets me hygge whenever I need some hygge. And this time of year, I need it more than ever.

The holidays might actually be the perfect time to practice hygge (and isn’t it convenient that the Danes even have a word specific to Christmas-time hygge? Julehygge. “Do you want julehygge tonight and bake some cookies?”). Since the weather is so un-hygge, we’re already whipping out our comfiest pants and our warmest sweaters, and planning family-and-friends gatherings galore.

So let’s turn up the hygge switch by following the 10 parts of the Hygge Manifesto:

  1. Atmosphere. The Danes are super into lighting, so turn off the overheads, and turn up the soft glow bulbs or, better yet, light some candles.
  2. Presence. Hygge is all about the NOW. Put your device down and be in the moment.
  3. Pleasure. We all know we’re going to make resolutions to lose 15 pounds come January, so screw the calorie-counting for now and enjoy the food you put in your mouth.
  4. Equality. Hygge is less about me time than it is about we time. Remember what Mr. Rogers or Barney taught you about sharing.
  5. Gratitude. Be thankful. This might be as good as it’s gonna get (at least, until spring… or 2020).
  6. Harmony. No competition, no bragging.
  7. Comfort. Get out your favorite comfy-cozy blanket, put on your LulaRoe, and don’t worry about looking good but rather feeling good.
  8. Truce. This might be challenging given the country we live in and the shitty political situation, but hygge is not a time for drama or politics. Let it go.
  9. Togetherness. Share stories, relish the memories, get nostalgic, and enjoy your time together.
  10. Shelter. Be with people you love, who bring you a sense of peace and security.

I hope that by incorporating more of these things into my routine, I can lower my stress levels, learn to relax more, and deter SAD this winter. On my hygge quest, I will continue to read about Denmark and other countries that consistently end up in the Top 10 list for Happiest Places in the World (a list the US never makes).  And, since I believe that cats may be the most in touch with how to hygge, I’ll take more baths, more naps, and make more time for cuddles.

How will you hygge this winter? How do you hygge in your daily life? Have you experience Danish culture first-hand, or know someone from Denmark who can shed more light on this hygge mindset? What’s your favorite way to hygge?