The Book of Hygge review – can the Danes really teach us how to live?

This book, by Louisa Thomsen Brits, is one of many titles on ‘hygge’ and the Danish way of living. But hygge has a dark side – what if the price of ‘cosiness’ isn’t worth paying?

Hygge” sounds from the outside like a meme to allow hipsters to grow old: a Danish mode of being, it has no single, literal translation, which is only to be expected, as it is the source of the Danes’ singular happiness and could only be a wraparound concept. Its baldest definition is “cosiness”, but that expands, according to The Book of Hygge by Louisa Thomsen Brits, to cover “a feeling of belonging and warmth, a moment of comfort and contentment.”

Thomsen Brits, in a self-described “beautiful little book”, which reliably delivers small pages and an incredibly large font, lists some of the things that give us a feeling of hygge; “We hygger” – with an R it becomes an intransitive verb – first thing in the morning “when we light a candle at our breakfast table”. No, really, though: who does that? And “by lighting fires almost every day”. “It is a practice as old as sitting around a fire or sharing food with a friend.” Hygge practices are, broadly, things that we do that our ancestors would recognise; besides lighting fires, eating, drinking, eating cake and drinking things that are hot.

It is not a new thought that activities bring pleasure in inverse proportion to how recently they were invented (Facebook; the cello; reading; keeping a dog as a pet; making bread; having sex). Yet there is certainly a Danish specificity in the prominence of pyromania, and principles crop up repeatedly that are highly specific to the Scandinavian climate. Proverbs swirl: “We have a saying in Denmark that there is no truly bad weather, just bad clothes,” Helen Russell relates, in her unexpectedly winsome memoir, The Year of Living Danishly (Icon, £8.99). Blankets play a huge role. In heavily pictorial books, still lives of slippers are a mainstay.

The valorisation of the cold is possibly the most distinctive feature of the region, and certainly the least exportable. It reminded me of an exchange I overheard in the Arctic Circle, between a Swedish sled driver and a travel journalist from the Daily Telegraph. The hack was moaning like some southern cissy because his contact lenses had frozen on to his eyeballs, and Sven said: “At least you can protect yourself from the cold. How do you protect yourself from the heat?” “With factor 15,” the blind man replied, “and a pina colada.” You can’t concoct a love of the hearth without a chill wind. If you stay in with the curtains drawn and a hot chocolate on a warm day, that’s not hygge, that’s depression.

Almost as a throwaway, Thomsen Brits mentions elements of Danish life that make them happy yet would go by the more pedestrian name of “social infrastructure”: “Denmark’s high standard of living, decent health care, gender equality, accessible education and equitable distribution of wealth all contribute to the measurable happiness of the Danish people.” But that’s not hygge; your ancestors would not recognise those things, and the sense of belonging is deeper, and stems from immaterial things.

It has three themes, again according to Thomsen Brits – “interiority, contrast and atmosphere” – and it doesn’t help if you don’t know what they mean. OK, interiority, since you ask “is a perception of being a discrete, bounded presence that exists in relation to others, to place and to the passage of time … Mind, home and country are the interiorities of hygge.” Nope, still nothing. It’s possible that to understand that sort of thing, you need to be someone who gets it before it is said.

One of the most data-rich of the recent profusion of Dane-books, The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking (Penguin Life, £9.99), is the one that gets fastest to the “dark side of hygge”: “Danes are not good at inviting new people into their friendship circles. In part, this is due to the concept of hygge; it would be considered less hyggeligt if there were too many new people at an event. So getting into a new circle requires a lot of effort and a lot of loneliness on the way.”

Russell is more blunt on this point, and describes arriving in January, and wandering through streets, “shops that are either closed or empty and houses that look unoccupied save for the dim flicker of candlelight burning from within”. It is spring before anybody talks to her. “Danes prefer to gather in limited numbers rather than in large, expansive groups, to emphasise the unity of their small circles,” Thomsen Brits writes, concluding “the centripetal force of mutuality, warmth and enthusiasm is sometimes intimidating and impenetrable. Feeling excluded from a group is uncomfortable. Feeling trapped inside one is equally disquieting. There is the downside that the Danish style of socialising could be considered exclusive.”

Is there more to hygge than just having a cup of coffee with a friend?
Is there more to hygge than just having a cup of coffee with a friend? Photograph: Leonardo Patrizi/Getty Images

Or homogenous, stultifying, bland: books on hygge often include recipes, and there could be no more solid iteration of this tension, that comfort is a hair’s breadth away from boredom. Flour, fat, sugar, jam, more sugar, cinnamon if you’re lucky: Danes consume twice as many sweets as the average European, and it must be down to some internal hygge energy that they aren’t fat. Or maybe it is because they are tall.

The origins of hygge lie in the implosion of Danish imperialist ambitions in the 19th century, given a positive spin by the philosopher NFS Grundtvig, who argued that the nation’s outward grandeur was less important that the wellbeing of its people, extrapolating from there a very tight culture of nationhood, Norse lore, folk singing, simplicity and cheerfulness. It is laudable from some angles but very narrow from others, and it brings with it the dispiriting implication that such solid and exemplary egalitarianism is made possible by a rigidly demarcated in-group.

Even the most inspiring expressions of modesty and egalitarianism – such as the note, in The Danish Way of Parenting by Jessica Alexander and Iben Dissing Sandahl (Piatkus, £10.99), that “this value of humility is knowing who you are so well that you don’t need others to make you feel important. Therefore, they try not to overload their children with compliments” – lose their lustre when that fellowship is so fixed.

There is a contradiction, too, in the notion of hygge as a design idea – elegant interiors, artful drapes, beauty in the domestic sphere – set against the insistence that it is about simplicity, the quieting of ambition, the respect for predictability and ordinariness, the abnegation of status in favour of togetherness. The “Kähler vase scandal”, described by Wiking, occurred when 16,000 Danes tried to buy a limited edition piece of tableware on the same day, crashing the website. Queues formed outside the shop with the outrage of a breadline. This makes no sense as a worldview: you can either separate importance from trivia, or you can’t; live contentedly on love and carbohydrates, or hanker after distinction and novelty; spend your time with the people who matter, or wait outside a shop.

There is a contradiction at the heart of all human yearning, of course: that we all simultaneously want safety and adventure, equality and status, familiarity and excitement, woodsmoke and fresh air. Yet to articulate an ethos in which those conflicts are not simply unresolved, but wafted away with a scented candle, seems slippery and opaque, a set of rules in which every pillar could just as well be turned on its head.

• The Book of Hygge is published by Ebury. To order a copy for £10.65 (RRP £12.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Contributor

Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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