When I was twenty-one, I spent five months studying journalism in Denmark. Ask me why I picked Denmark and I’ll break into a breathless spiel: progressive social values, free universal healthcare, impressive income equality. Press me and I’ll admit I knew none of that when I picked Denmark; I just wanted some decent bike lanes.
I came to learn what really makes the little Scandinavian nation special by living there. Yes, Danes pay higher taxes than almost any other country—for most people, around half their income—but they seem to feel it’s worth it. The UN regularly ranks them the happiest people on earth.
One thing I’ve never mentioned while heaping praise on Denmark is hygge (pronounced “hyoo-gah”), a Danish concept that translates loosely to “coziness.” That’s because I never heard the word while I was there. I learned what it was the same way most North Americans did: online, about a year after I returned home to Toronto.
Its definition often takes the form of a wintry tableau. Imagine lounging under a knit blanket to the crackling of a fireplace, book in one hand and coffee in the other. That—or, more precisely, the feeling of familiar comfort that it might spark—is hygge. Add tea candles, a couch full of old friends and a snowstorm brewing outside, and you’ve hit peak hygge.
Hygge isn’t new; it’s believed to stem from ancient Norse or Norwegian words meaning “hug” and “well-being.” But it took until the mid-2010s for European and North American headlines to begin trumpeting its wonders: that it will calm you down, cheer you up and improve your face-to-face relationships, no screens attached. “Hygge: a heart-warming lesson from Denmark,” was how the BBC put it in 2015.
Suddenly, there were at least four dozen recent books on the topic, not counting any about the IKEA catalogue of other concepts—lagom, coorie, lykke, gezellig, friluftsliv—that purport to be “the new hygge.” There are now more than five million photos on Instagram tagged #hygge, a never-ending scroll of sun-speckled bedrooms and immaculately prepared breakfasts. On Amazon, you can buy pretty much anything—drapes, mugs, plants, cardigans, furniture—with some sort of hygge branding. In Colorado, an American-Dutch couple who had a hygge-themed wedding opened a store called Hygge Life that sells clothing, accessories and home décor meant to help bring about hygge.
Among Danes, the reaction to the hygge hubbub has been lukewarm at best. When I asked my friend Stefan Sigaard Weichert, a Danish journalist, what he made of its sudden popularity, he was baffled. Every Dane knows about and has enjoyed hygge, he told me, but they don’t make much of a fuss about it. “The Danes are no better at it than anyone else,” he said. In the 2018 documentary Finding Hygge, a Danish chef laments, “Manufacturing products to be a ‘hygge candle’ or a ‘hygge jumper’ is the biggest load of bullshit I’ve heard in my life.” In the same doc, even Danish tourism workers, the people you’d most expect to want to cash in on the zeitgeist, are nonplussed. “The perception that came out of that big buzz was a superficial way of understanding hygge—the woollen socks and fireplace and all that,” one sulks. “There is so much more to say about hygge.”
Intrigued, I spent ten minutes looking, unsuccessfully, for a copy of the de facto hygge bible, The Little Book of Hygge, in the aisles of my local Indigo. When I finally asked an employee for help, she told me I’d find it downstairs, next to the cheese boards and fleecy scarves. Duh.
The Little Book was a 2016 bestseller, written by hygge evangelist Meik Wiking, a perpetually scarved Copenhagener who runs the self-explanatorily named Happiness Research Institute. Its pages are stuffed with #hygge-appropriate photos, hearty recipes and, now and again, a story or a statistic. (One thing it won’t teach you is that if a Dane asks you to “come home and hygge,” they probably want to hook up.) The Little Book makes the case that hygge is about peace, harmony and humility. Its back cover claims that Denmark’s happiness comes “down to one thing: hygge.” As if domestic bliss were as simple as cocoa and candles.
But hygge isn’t the key to Denmark’s success. It’s the result of it. The Danes have the luxury of enjoying cozy, carefree nights by the fire precisely because their strong welfare state allows it. By law, full-time workers get five weeks of paid vacation, women get up to a year of paid maternity leave and, as my Danish dormmates liked to remind me, students get paid to go to college. It’s harder to hygge when you’re working three jobs to pay off six-figure student debt.
If the Danes’ happiness comes down to anything, it’s smart policy. The trouble with policy is that it doesn’t sell socks. It’s complicated, it’s beyond the control of everyday people and it’s hard to implement. It would take decades of systemic change for a country like the US or the UK to introduce Danish-style programs (see: the incessant American healthcare debate).
Hygge, on the other hand, is easy. In 2016, the year that gave us Trump and Brexit, it was an especially seductive panacea. Who wasn’t pining for an activity they could control, in which talking about politics was verboten and phones were switched off and out of sight (at least until it was time for the requisite Instagram post)? Canadians weren’t immune: if Justin Trudeau proved anything, it’s that we’re suckers for a good pair of socks. So, as the world burned—literally so in Alberta and California that year—a helpless public fell for the escapist fantasy that tuning out was the key to happiness.
It’s a dangerous myth. The world can’t afford to shut in, shut up and pretend that hermitting is an adequate substitution for an inclusive, equitable society, least of all as a global wave of authoritarian strongmen threatens democracy and the freedom, health and safety that come with it.
“There is a dark side to hygge,” Wiking, the Little Book author, admitted two years later in Finding Hygge, the more critical documentary. He means the real hygge, the kind Danes understand, because the problem is not just that it’s been perverted into an empty advertising buzzword. It’s that hygge enables Denmark’s worst qualities. Throughout my time in Denmark, I heard over and over that Danes are a “cold” people who take a long time to warm up to strangers. “[Hygge] is an exclusive club that takes a lot of effort to get invited to,” says Wiking, “and that’s something we should be better at: opening up.”
Hygge cherishes familiarity. It welcomes friends but shuns newcomers, something Danes have been doing more and more fervently in recent years. There are almost six million Danes. Eighty-seven percent of them are of Danish heritage, and many of them would prefer to keep their country that way. In the country’s 2015 election, support for the far-right, anti-immigrant Dansk Folkeparti (in English, the Danish People’s Party) spiked, helping it soar to second-party status. Then, last year, the Danish government unleashed a raft of xenophobic legislation. Toddlers in so-called “ghetto” neighbourhoods with high immigrant and refugee populations were forced into daycare at age one; sentences for crimes committed in these “ghettos” were increased compared to the same crimes committed elsewhere; and immigrant parents faced four-year prison sentences if they took their children on long trips abroad that could “endanger their development.”
In 2017, Denmark granted asylum to just 2,365 refugees—about a tenth the number admitted by Sweden—and one government plan would have incarcerated some rejected candidates on an otherwise abandoned island, though that plan was ultimately scrapped. The Folkeparti lost a significant number of seats in Denmark’s 2019 election, but that’s partly because the popular leftist Social Democrats adopted its anti-immigrant rhetoric. In Finding Hygge, one less insular-minded Dane bemoans, “I thought we could be prouder of our country… The way we treat refugees is not right.”
Denmark can do better. I’ve seen it. My classmates and I at the Danish School of Media and Journalism were not refugees or permanent migrants, but we were still an international sampler platter: Egyptian, Australian, Russian, Canadian, French, Korean, Danish, American, Lebanese. On weekends, we prepared dishes from our home countries (poutine and bannock included) for potlucks at each other’s dorms. We danced, drank and taught each other how to swear in each other’s languages. I don’t remember lighting any candles, but that jumble of faces, cultures and cuisines was definitely hygge.
Non-Danes can do better, too. Instead of appropriating a quaint Danish custom and proclaiming it to be the cure-all for our modern woes, we’d be wise to learn from all the things Denmark has done right—strong social services, environmental stewardship, economic equality—and what it’s done wrong. There’s no harm in a worry-free afternoon cozying up to the fire. But at some point, we all need to throw off the blanket, step out of our bubble and confront reality, however grim it may be.