If you’ve ever sought respite from Wisconsin’s frigid winter in a cozy blanket, hot drink or conversation around a crackling fire, you’ve experienced hygge.
Pronounced “hoo-guh” or “hue-guh,” with no direct translation in English, hygge is a Danish concept that implies a sense of warmth and wellbeing. It’s the ability to slow down and enjoy a cozy moment, especially with loved ones.
“My definition is ‘pleasant togetherness,’” says Claus Elholm Andersen, the Paul and Renate Madsen assistant professor of Scandinavian Studies in the Department of German, Nordic and Slavic.
An expert on the literature and culture of Denmark, where he was born, as well as the works of Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård, Andersen says Danes plan these pleasant, relaxed times, enjoy them in the moment and talk about them afterward.
“When we sit together, we say we’re having a hyggelig time,” he says. “It’s very much acknowledged. It’s very much part of the language, and we create it in part through language.”
Hygge has been part of Danish life since the early 1800s, but it’s only recently swept westward through the U.K. and into the U.S. It ranked among the Collins Dictionary’s top 10 words — along with “Brexit,” “mic drop” and “snowflake generation” — in 2016, and it’s been the topic of dozens of books, even more news articles and countless Instagram posts filled with nubby socks, baked goods, flickering candles and #hygge.
But while Americans get the material components and vibe right, they seem to miss the deeper meaning of hygge.
“From the American point of view, it has to do with embracing darkness,” he says. But Danes practice hygge year-round and could make something as quintessentially summery as the Terrace hyggelig, Andersen says, if it involved lingering with friends over drinks after sunset.
Which brings up another oft-overlooked element: the social side. “Yes, you can sit in hygge alone with books,” Andersen says. “But it’s usually with friends.”
Hygge comes most naturally in small groups of people in which “an inner sanctity can be created,” Andersen says, and talk segues easily from world issues to personal, even intimate, topics.
Yes, you can sit in hygge alone with books. But it’s usually with friends.
Andersen has lived throughout the United States — he taught at universities in Minnesota, Texas and Los Angeles before joining the UW-Madison faculty in 2017 — but believes Wisconsinites are particularly inclined to hygge. There’s a healthy work-life balance here, and people aren’t afraid to admit when they want to relax.
Still, even the most laid-back Badger lives with a different political reality than the average Dane, Andersen points out.
“The Danish welfare state provides a safety net,” he says. “You might lose your job, but you won’t lose your health insurance and your kids can still go to college.”
Like anything that hits trending status in the 21st-century cultural zeitgeist, hygge could soon be eclipsed in popularity. In January 2017, Vogue declared lagom — the Swedish concept of moderation, of “not too much, not too little” — the new hygge.
Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Department of Tourism recently claimed gemütlichkeit as the German concept of “friendship, warmth and good cheer” as well as “the feeling you get when visiting Wisconsin.” And Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, Chinese and Japanese cultures boast their own words describing warm, comfortable, pleasant atmospheres.
Regardless of how Americans get cozy and social in the future, Andersen says hygge is hardly a temporary fad in Denmark. It’s part of the culture and will continue to provide Danes with that hard-to-describe but you-know-it-when-you-feel-it “pleasant togetherness.”