Hygge: fresh approaches to living well

I want to talk about hygge

If you haven’t heard the word before, so much the better. I’ve settled on a completely off pronunciation of it in my head now - I hear “higgy” when I see the word, and it makes me smile because I know it’s nowhere near the actual pronunciation. Hyoo-guh is what the internet says it is. I’ve heard people suggest huggy, hee-jeh, hi-gee, a host of pronunciations. I like all of them. I think the uncertainty over the way that word is pronounced makes it more memorable, and what’s more, makes the meaning of the word more flexible. Uncertainty does that. Another reason to like uncertainty. 

But the meaning, ah, the meaning of hygge… it’s a feeling. Okay. There’s that. A feeling brought on by - probably different combinations of things for every person who’s ever experienced it. The broad and faceless internet, again, defines it as “the art of creating intimacy: contentment, comradeship, and coziness all rolled into one.” It seems to be social for many people, though there are some, like me, who can find it more easily while alone. For the Danes, who created the word, it often involves candlelight, and I dare to venture a guess that the warmth of candlelight and the warm associations that flickering glow holds for many of us is behind that piece. 

Hygge… I think it’s the way you feel when you see a warm light shining out of a window on a cold evening, and realize that that window and the light belongs to the place you call home, and there are people there waiting to welcome you to it. I think it’s the feeling Frodo had when he realized his impossible quest was completed and saw Bilbo’s face again. I think it’s the feeling after astounded joy fades when you bring your newborn home for the first time. I think it’s a certainty of love shared that many of us have learned not to trust. I think hygge and the incredible comfort it brings are the best gift any person can give another, and give to themselves at the same time. 

I’ve been inviting small groups of people to come over on occasional Saturdays to “cultivate hygge” together. Usually we turn the lights off, I light candles around the room, we read our favorite stories aloud to each other. Sometimes we play games. There’s a lot of laughing, there’s usually some cuddling, some people wind up giving other people massages, somebody falls asleep and everyone who’s still awake giggles if they start to snore. We snack or share a meal. We sit in circles. There is no agenda, it’s just friends new and old, getting to know each other better. My favorite hygges are the ones where the people who showed up said it was a perfect evening, or when people fall asleep in a comfortable pile and wake up the next morning and say the same thing. 

In college, the first course that really caught my interest was called “Living Deliberately”. It was a course in nature writing, in experiencing the world firsthand, in thinking carefully about the ways other people talked about their experiences. It didn’t mention hygge, and yet I can’t help but notice the similarities. During those hygge evenings I do things deliberately. I turn my phone off. I don’t check email. I’m far more present with the people I wanted to see than I usually am, in a social evening. I make a deliberate choice to do that, and the word and the people and the whole concept of hygge help me stick to that choice, get through the moments of discomfort if I’ve forgotten to turn the pesky little text-buzzer off, and stay in the “real world” of my ancestors long enough to remember that it feels a lot more like home than the virtual world I spend a lot of my time in now. 

When you come right down to it, I think hygge is the meaning of life.

It’s not that I don’t value accomplishment, industry, grit, perseverance, ambition... but all of those things are means to an end, although they do bring a satisfaction in themselves. And that end, for me, is hygge. It’s the feeling of the interactions I have almost all the time with the people I call my best friends. We know each other, we affirm each other with the old jokes and the easy grins, we know we’re welcome, and if we’re not, we know it’s ok to say so. It’s the feeling of spending time with chosen family. It’s entirely the opposite of that awful feeling of rushing to something important, knowing you’ll be late, knowing there will be consequences because Somebody Said There Would Be. It’s security. It’s love. It’s a relaxed afternoon with your favorite book, quality time with your best friend, snuggling with your lover. It's a reason for being.

It probably isn’t realistic to say that hygge is possible for everyone on the planet to experience. People who have lost their homeland, whose hearts are broken by war or abuse or neglect, people who I have no right to talk about, having experienced so little of that scale of trauma - yet I have seen those people find contentment too, and hygge. It isn’t realistic, I understand - it cannot be expected - but it happens, nevertheless. The human spirit is resilient and it seeks balance and contentment no matter the horrors it has seen. And when it finds hygge, it heals. Yes, hygge is that too; healing, healing of the soul, of the heart, of the whole. 

I might be a little obsessed with hygge right now. But I think it’s worth it. Finding the word has made an incredible difference in my life, in the last few months alone. Somehow, a simple word made me realize how much I was missing that feeling of coziness and contentment, made me remember how much feeling that way mattered to me, and reminded me that the power to cultivate hygge with people I care about was mine. So I did. 

I hope you will, too.