When I first decided on a name for my studio, it was just before the 'Hygge madness' hit in 2016. I didn't know whether to thank my good luck (boosted up the SEO rankings) or fear the weariness of reacting to the 'oh you named it after that popular Scandi word!' onslaught. But I remain pleased with my choice, which was very personal to me. Here is a brief introduction to my life with 'Hygge'.
I am soothed by candlelight. I’ve often associated its constant and reassuring ambience with the safe haven of being at home, and my mother’s instinctive ability to create a welcoming place to be. On admiring yet more additions to the collection on a recent visit, I was told that it was originally my father, on a visit to Copenhagen over 30 years ago, who brought back tealights from a shop called Magasin long before we'd all start stocking up at Ikea. He'd been invited to dinner at the home of local friends and the little, unassuming tealights had added a luminous backdrop to the evening and he thought my mother would like them in her house too.
It wouldn’t have been articulated at the time, but that candlelit dinner was my father’s first experience of hygge. Originally a Norweigan term roughly translating as 'wellbeing', hygge is a word and a term with no single or direct translation. Its Scandinavian soul may be hard to define, but recognising and embracing hygge might just be the tonic, balance and remedy we all need, regardless of our character or culture.
When researching hygge in a little more detail it quickly transpires that the crude translations given; ‘cosy’, ‘togetherness’, ‘warmth’, paint only a fraction of the picture. Traditionally the concept was attributed to a cultural attitude to the long Danish winters - finding ways to be at peace with the dark and the cold by bringing light and warmth in. It loosely defined a need to stay in and create an escape, but was also a conscious decision not to succumb to cabin fever. A key part of hygge is being together with family and friends and using the energy and warmth of these relationships to improve your mindset and promote positivity. Professor Judith Hansen in her work ‘The Proxemics of Danish Daily Life’ tells us that “familiarity is the key element - a state of stable predictableness associated with small-scale gatherings of people...a protective space enhanced by external elements; subdued light, candles, flowers, food, drink.”
Clearly it is this element of hygge that influenced my parents, and the gift of tealights started to play a part in their evenings with friends. Even as a child I remember feeling a sense of imbued camaraderie when guests came to our home, hearing laughter and togetherness from my position at the top of the stairs.
Subconsciously I think this incidental adoption of hygge shaped my own attitude to home and to ‘being’ at home - I am well known for a love of candles, and most evenings light one almost as soon as I’m through the door. I also love to welcome people into my home - so much so I practically have an open-door policy for friends who need a place to stay, a place to eat or a place to escape to. In winter I believe there is nothing better than shutting the blinds, lighting candles and eating a warm meal with friends, and in the summer staying at the table way after the coffee has gone cold, talking, debating and enjoying company.
However, for Danes hygge is so much more than candles, food, and getting together with friends, but a self-understanding, a way to describe who they are and what they believe in.
An understanding and adoption of hygge ideals is within grasp of most modern Brits, after all, we can all get on board with an evening of good food, wine and company, but it seems harder, yet more necessary, for us to appreciate and embody the hygge spirit in our minds. I’m told that hygge is not always to do with community, and that it can be embodied in oneself. Hansen writes that “hygge is charged with a strong orientation toward the present...a readiness to commit oneself to the experience of the moment.”
This seems an important distinction when faced with the typical Millennial modern life. There is always something to feel you should be doing, could be doing or would be better off doing. In London there is so much noise and light - so much to be missing out on, so much to be punishing yourself for not being a part of. This is true of anywhere and especially in modern Western culture. What’s next? We ask ourselves. What should I be doing now? Aspiring to now? Who should I be today?
“My head is a hive of words that won’t settle,” declared Virginia Woolf. I can guarantee that my friends, colleagues and anyone who graduated straight into the lurch of the recession nearly a decade ago can identify with her. To counter this, the concept of mindfulness has, in the last couple of years, become the buzzword for those of us trying to escape the hives in our own heads. We devour books that tell us how to clear our mind, how to train our thoughts, how to be present in the moment. But, for me, hygge takes the qualities of mindfulness and applies it more readily to the every day, encouraging us to look for the moments of joy, comfort and tranquility in our everyday lives and savour and cherish them, be it lighting a candle, cooking a meal, calling a friend, or putting fresh sheets on your bed to crawl into.
I’ve been told by Danish friends, and British friends who have made Denmark their home, that spiritually (and colloquially) hygge embraces the notion of chilling out and not being too hard on yourself. I’ve experienced first hand that if you spend any time at all in Copenhagen and attempt to blitz the city with a robust itinerary you will be advised by any local confronted by your whirlwind to slow down and enjoy the moment.
It seems then, that the major adversary of hygge seems to be an entrenched feeling of guilt. If you do slow down, sit still, do nothing then aren’t you missing out on something? What if life passes you by? Why aren’t you striving for something more? We tell ourselves that these questions are the judgments of others, but aren't we really just putting pressure on ourselves? This pressure to perform, to not rest on our proverbial laurels, is what strips the enjoyment of the simple things; of appreciating a day for just being a day, not being the day we achieve everything.
Hygge is the antithesis to this pressure, this judgement, this guilt. For me it’s the perfect word and the perfect concept - if it’s not clearly definable then we can stop worrying about what it is and what it isn’t. In a general sense I think of it as a reassurance. Slow down, it tells us, just be. Light a candle, call a friend, enjoy a cup of tea, read your favourite book. Listen to music. Dance to the music. Tell stories. Write stories. Be who you are in this moment, not who you could be tomorrow.
As I write this I am alone, accompanied only by the delicious smell of my favourite candle and the smooth sounds of Miles Davis. And everything in this moment is exactly ok. I may not be able to pronounce it, but I know I have hygge to thank for that.