Hygge Isn’t Dead. The Scandinavian Way of Life Will See You Through Quarantine.

And it isn't the only lifestyle concept that's well-suited for this moment

January 27, 2021 7:25 am
nordic lifestyle
Michael Fousert/Unsplash

The other day, National Geographic posted a picture to Instagram of Copenhagen’s Amager Bakke, a waste-to-energy plant built by the famed Bjarke Ingels Group, which burns trash, emits water vapor and powers over 100,000 households across Denmark’s capital. For those who follow efforts in sustainability and green design, “CopenHill” is already a familiar sight. It’s been triumphed by architecture publications for nearly two years, with special attention on its clever, pedestrian-oriented roof, which includes a ski slope and hiking paths.

Still, it appears that many of National Geographic’s followers — of which there are 150 million, making it the 11th-most followed account on Instagram — had never heard of the project. In the comments, there is a singular refrain: “Why don’t we have these in America?” The answer to that question is somewhere at the intersection of sobering and boring. The United States struggles to employ (if even attempt) many of the projects and processes perfected in recent decades by the Nordic model. Denmark — and its neighboring nations — are welfare states designed to foster equality, ensure education, and prioritize sustainability. America can get there, but party politics, special-interest tax breaks and broad-scale skepticism of science aren’t helping.

It bears noting: you don’t need to have Google Translate handy in Scandinavia. Over 85% of the local populations in Denmark, Norway and Sweden speak proficient English. Like much of the world, the area has been a prolific consumer of American stuff since the end of World War II. But in recent years, if that script hasn’t flipped, it’s at least started to swivel a bit. Americans are increasingly likely to spend time looking at things the Nordics have (free healthcare, ethical prison systems, bike lanes), and wonder: “Why don’t we have these in America?”

danish chilling
“Hygge” has a seasonal connotation, but it’s part of a year-round devotion to chasing vibes.

Aside from buildable furniture and buildable toys, the most prolific recent export from Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, Sweden), and the Nordic nations as a whole (which includes Finland and Iceland), has been philosophical. It’s difficult to land in the World Happiness Report’s top five year after year without people noticing. Foreigners, forced to confront the world’s inequities without the extensive social apparatuses of jolly Northern Europe, have decided they’d rather not wait for their countries to catch up. They’re better off bottling the goodness at the source.

This view, that the Nordic people have a “way of life” to offer to the world, a perspective that’s responsible for their famous happiness, was a driving force behind the hygge explosion in 2016. At the end of that year, the Danish word, which refers to coziness, comfort, joy, and everyday togetherness, was the runner-up (after “Brexit”) for word of the year in the United Kingdom. The States was all in, too. Americans wanted to know how to say the word — for the record, it’s hyoo-guh — they wanted to know what qualified as hygge, they sought to implement it at an individual level.

But eventually, and it’s hard to blame Denmark (a country with less people than Maryland) for this, the concept became commodified. You could buy your way to achieving hygge, with a tiny gift shop book that professed its teachings, or by way of a wool-knit fisherman’s sweater. The concept definition drifted from one provided in 2010, by Danish anthropologist Jeppe Trolle Linnet: “… a pleasant and highly valued everyday experience of safety, equality, personal wholeness and a spontaneous social flow.” It became more about good lighting. It became a fad. Which made it easier to dismiss, or, for some, to even despise.

scandinavian lifestyle
Happiness is more than soft sweaters and Edison bulbs.
Jonas Jacobsson/Unsplash

That’s a shame. This age, especially, is suited for hygge. One of the top Google search queues for the phrase reads, “Is hygge still a thing?” Yes, it most definitely is. It’s possible that part of the concept’s popularity stemmed from packaging, from its otherness; people enjoyed reveling in something that suggested they were well-traveled, cultured. It was a string of fun English words summed up in one fun-sounding word. Whatever reason brought people to hygge, though, that instinct should be acted upon again — if not as a permanent lifestyle change, at least as a way to ease the sting of this long, quarantine winter.

Strip away the lifestyle cult of hygge, and you’re left with a pretty workable daily point of view: cherish friends and family, comfort yourself and others, create an inviting atmosphere. It’s little wonder so many seized on the idea; in the wake of Denmark’s 20th-century surge (and those of its neighbors), hygge seemed an elixir, a secret to success. It isn’t. But when observed, it’s a recipe for lighter days. Mental health issues have accelerated at an alarming rate during the pandemic; sometimes, it helps to have a reminder to treat yourself and others with kindness. That can manifest with an assist from the unwritten “playbook” hygge provides.

In this case, the word — the branding — actually helps. It’s memorable. It’s something to turn to. And watch, it’ll feel more potent when it isn’t just scrawled in cursive across a scented candle.

If hygge doesn’t do it for you, though, there are other words. Sweden uses the phrase lagom, which venerates moderation and balance. It’s descended from a long-standing proclivity in the Swedish psyche for simplicity: find appreciation where you are, with what you have. In Iceland, the unofficial national motto is Þetta reddast, which means “It’ll all work out in the end.” (A helpful attitude to have, in a place where the soil in your backyard is hot enough to fry an egg.) Norwegians riff on hygge with the concept of koselig, only it doubles down on the companionship bit, and urges a celebration of the outdoors, even in the depths of winter. And the Finns, bless them, have kalsarikänni, which means getting hammered in one’s underwear.

The bible of vibes has already extended past these Nordic nations. The latest craze seems to be Japan’s ikigai, which refers to one’s reason to getting up from bed each morning. Finding “it” is believed to have an impact on one’s longevity. (The idea originated in Okinawa, one of the world’s highest concentrations of centenarians, so perhaps there’s something there.) Of course, you’re free to ignore all of these concepts. But at a time like this, when we could all use a boost, there’s value in looking outward — as in, across the sea — before you look inward.

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