Being Scandinavian has become a rather weird experience. In the span of just a couple of years, we’ve gone from being a relatively unknown group of shy people from a tiny, cold, dark corner of the world to being hyper-visible and feeling like our culture is being fetishised.
I’m Danish, born and bread, but am now living in London, where I’ve witnessed this curiosity firsthand.
Over here, we Scandis are the object of much envy. But not for the obvious reasons — like our high quality of life, our equality or even the fact that we’ve supplied like a third of the cast of Game of Thrones at this point. No, it’s for small aspects of our culture that a group of advertising executives somewhere saw fit to export and aggressively market as something that’s frankly not really true to who we are.
I’m talking about the obsession with (and, more importantly, the misunderstanding of) hygge. Hygge, a Danish word defined as “a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being,” has been practically weaponised in recent years in an effort to sell candles, socks, and blankets. Hygge was never a lifestyle, but it’s certainly marketed as one over here by people wishing to cash in on the Scandi-zeitgeist.
“Hygge, to me, has never been something you could buy.”
What ends up on the shelves in your stores is barely recognisable to us. As a Dane, I’m dumbfounded. And I’m not the only one.
Comedian and co-host of the Secret Dinosaur Cult podcast Sofie Hagen, another Danish expat in the UK, is just as confused as me. She has a habit of calling out nonsensical marketing revolving around Scandinavian lifestyle on social media.
“It’s incredibly strange finding a hygge blanket that costs £85 and promises to make you feel hygge,” Hagen tells Mashable. “I found a scented candle called hygge that cost £35 which I had to buy because I was desperate to find out how on earth they thought hygge smelled. I think it was cinnamon.”
To Hagen, actual hygge can be anything from a cup of coffee on a Monday morning to going out with friends. It’s a feeling closely tied to being relaxed or chilled out. “The weirdest thing is that it is suddenly for sale,” Hagen says. “Hygge, to me, has never been something you could buy.”
I feel the same way. For me, hygge is comfort. It exists only in the complete absence of stress and nuisance and feeds off feelings of happiness and relaxation. It’s not an aesthetic or a trend. Hygge, like love though far less elusive, cannot be bought.
Some misuses of the word hygge are innocent and even funny – an article by The New Statesman called The hygge of Oasis (yes, the rock band) is particularly snickered-at by Scandinavians. But as soon as hygge is being used to sell you stuff you don’t need, it loses its meaning.
So, how did hygge end up on the shelves of your stores?
The road to hygge was paved with good television
It’s not exactly hard to figure out what happened. It started with the excellent Nordic noir thrillers (The Killing, anyone?), which gave the world a glimpse of our beautiful Scandinavian capitals; dark, rainy, and filled with pale Nordeners dressed in gorgeous knitwear.
Seeing detectives run around the dark streets of rainy Copenhagen, the world also got a glimpse of how we Scandis cope with living in a part of the world that is dark for most of the year. We do that by relaxing indoors, snuggling under a blanket with a mug of something hot and lit candles all around: hygge.
A central element to a quaint, Nordic culture. A hard-to-pronounce word with no direct translation. Brits became obsessed – even at Mashable, the hygge-craze led one Mashable writer to inexplicably play guitar on the floor alone in front of a lit candle.
Guardian journalist Charlotte Higgins writes that the version of hygge marketed in the UK was, in fact, invented by London booksellers, after The Killing became massively popular. “Hygge seemed like a perfect distillation of popular lifestyle obsessions,” Higgins writes. According to her piece, entitled ‘The hygge conspiracy,’ booksellers started looking for authors to translate the concept of hygge into a successful lifestyle book.
One of these authors is Dane Meik Wiking, who wrote The Little Book of Hygge, a New York Times bestseller on “the Danish way to live well.” Wiking, who runs the Copenhagen-based think tank Happiness Research Institute, says that “hygge-washing,” as he calls it, is just big business doing what it always does: turning something that has always been free into something marketable.
“I think what is happening is what happened with yoga and mindfulness,” Wiking tells Mashable. “You can get $200 yoga pants, but that is not what yoga is about. You can get a ‘mindfulness plate’ – but what the hell is a mindfulness plate, I ask. In the same way you will get companies that try and ‘Hygge-wash’ their products.”
“Hygge is increasingly in risk of being hijacked by commercial interests”
Hygge, Wiking explains, is not about things. Since his book was published and hygge was made trendy, Wiking, too, has noted how the concept has slowly been corrupted. Hygge, which is ultimately just a feeling, has been commercialised, he says. “Hygge is increasingly at risk of being hijacked by commercial interests – and this worries me as hygge, in its original shape, is free.”
While he insists that the original meaning of the word hygge is important to preserve and protect, Wiking also makes the argument that Danes actually don’t have any authority about what hygge is.
“Some fill things into the term that Danes would not necessarily agree is hygge” explains Wiking, before adding: “Denmark does not have a monopoly on hygge. It happens everywhere.”
A sign of the (political) times
Another popular Scandi hygge author is Norwegian anthropologist and chef Signe Johanson, who wrote How to Hygge. When she wrote her hygge manual, she had little idea the western world was heading for a boom in hygge.
“I had no idea there would be so many other books published about hygge, or that it would become a marketing term for companies to flog every blanket, candle, and fluffy slipper,” Johanson tells Mashable. There are indeed many other books on hygge – a quick Amazon search brings up 12 titles.
According to Johanson, the success story of hygge has less to do with clever marketing than with the fact that 2016 (the boom year of hygge) was the year of Brexit and Trump. “It may seem odd to people in Scandinavia that hygge became such a big trend in recent years,” Johanson tells Mashable. “But understanding the context in which it occurred helps us grasp why people became so captivated by all things hygge.”
“The clamour for hygge isn’t just because people are being duped by clever marketeers.”
Johanson says that she receives lots of emails from readers in the UK and North America who find the idea of hygge to be a soothing element in times of upheaval, and who are genuinely interested in why and how Scandinavia has achieved such a high quality of life.
“You and I may not necessarily recognise the aggressively marketed version of hygge we see outside of Scandinavia,” Johanson says. “But, what we can do is try to understand that the clamour for hygge isn’t just because people are being duped by clever marketeers.”
“I don’t necessarily recognise or identify with the aspirational side of hygge,” Johanson continues. “But I reckon if shining a light on one small aspect of Scandinavian living brings people joy in troubled times then I can live with the myriad of unexpected ways in which hygge has become appropriated across the globe.”
Johanson, who notes in a tongue-in-cheek way that Denmark is actually guilty of appropriating the term hygge from Norway (a fair point – the origin of the word is the 16th century Norwegian word hugga,) says that she doesn’t necessarily agree that the meaning of the term hygge has been diluted of meaning by over-eager advertisers. “It depends whether you find yourself irritated by the shift in meaning when a word is adopted by another culture,” she says.
You already know how to hygge
What all of we Scandis in this article are getting at— Sofie Hagen, Meik Wiking, Signe Johansen and myself included — is ultimately this: hygge is just a feeling. It costs absolutely nothing. And the thing is, if you’re even thinking too much about it – if you’re forcing it – you’re missing the point.
Hygge is effortless comfort; it has no element of performance. It is absence of all pretence and worry. The word itself may defy direct translation, but you are very familiar with the concept – trust me. Had a nice dinner with a loved one in a cosy setting? Congratulations, you just had hygge. Enjoying yourself relaxing with a good book? Hygge!
Besides, if you absolutely want to fetishise Scandinavian culture, there are other places to start.
I ask Sofie Hagen to point readers in the direction of under-the-radar Scandinavian concepts that the world would benefit from adopting as their own. “We pay 30-50 percent in taxes and I have never, personally, heard anyone complain,” Hagen says. “Because in exchange we get free education with a monthly salary for even attending school!”
My own bid for the next Scandi word the world should start celebrating is a little less weighty, but significant none the less.
“Haps” is a great Danish word. It is used when you rapidly and unexpectedly take something (typically a treat) from another person. Haps! Brilliant word, brilliant concept. You’re welcome.