Join us as we explore the Danish art of hygge from the author herself…
Hygge: The Danish Art of Happiness by Marie Tourell Søderberg is out to buy in hardcover now through Penguin Books and it is the perfect present for Christmas. How can we best describe it? It’s like reading a slightly bigger Book of Calm. From speaking with Marie Tourell Søderberg at Nordicana last year, the actress and writer is still the epitome of hygge which seems to be a typical trait of the captivating Nordic stars. Despite the dark Nordic Noir narratives and the supposed icy ‘Scandinavian personality’, we find out the other side to a fascination of all things Scandi.
If you’re unsure how to pronounce it – don’t worry, the book tells you how to say it like a true Dane. Hygge is something like hue-gur, with the “hy” closely resembling the “ou” sound in “you”. However, the universality of the concept does not put any limits on its translation. “You can even make your own pronunciation. It is always different wherever you’re from and the way it is said is really secondary. It’s a word and you have to find your own, personal version of it.” Like the book states, we can add hygge and a prefix to any word to add that little touch of happiness to your experience. For example: hyggestund is a hygge moment, hyggestemning is a hygge atmosphere, and Morgenhygge is simply morning hygge. “It’s just like what I have found in India; there is a completely different pronunciation of hygge and a completely different relationship with it. It differs wherever you find it in the world and that is the beauty of it. It’s universal. You can pronounce it in a British way if you like!”
Hygge: The Danish Art of Happiness is full of inspiration because hygge is such an obvious concept we should be practicing but we seem oblivious at times to stop and embrace it. It’s tangible (a fluffy pillow or a good book) but at the same time, it’s not. “That is why I really wanted to write about it. Scandinavia has been so popular around the world from film, television series, and food to the environment with bicycles – everything! These things have been trendy for such a long time so when I started to write the book, the most important intention was that we shouldn’t think the grass is greener. By watering the grass then our own grass with be green. The fact that hygge is also universal points out that it may come from Scandinavia but we all have it. It’s not like it’s exotic – it’s right in front of you.”
The idea or ‘brand’ of hygge has been welcomed by people all over the UK. This could be due to the continued fascination with the Nordic culture, especially in the arts. There are also hygge scenarios featured on page 62: people from different backgrounds gathering at the pub which is a very British pastime. “I think it’s a mixture of different things. As you know, for a long time there has been this Scandi hype and I think hygge is building on top of that. Denmark was appointed as the happiest nation in the world. After that, the eyes of the world were pointed towards Denmark. This attention has drawn us to ask – what is it? Hygge is one of the explanations so I think this is why it came up as a kind of trend. Now, with publishers in Britain releasing books on the subject, it has helped to make hygge a bigger trend around the world.”
From the current trend to its roots, the book touches on the origins of hygge – from the history of Denmark and the events we have seen depicted in 1864, following the battle of the Second Schleswig War. “It is so crucial and I love the connection there. That is where the idea began for me. I looked back at the history and the culture during that time and why it was important for Danish people; reflecting on this historical event to see what kind of impact it had on us. There was a national feeling of being diminished and what we lost on the outside should be found on the inside. It is one of the foundations of why hygge became such a natural part of Danish culture. I thought this connection was so beautiful. It can also be found today: if you go through a terrible time like the financial crisis, getting divorced, or even losing a loved one. These crises make us look into ourselves to understand what we have and not what we want. It draws us back to something essential, like family life which is the core value of hygge. That was not just from 1864 but it was so valuable to us as a human race.”
Past and memories are a significant part of hygge that keeps the concept a tradition in Denmark. As mentioned on page 47, children are brought up with hygge and experiencing the lifestyle from a very young age. We wanted to know the author’s own earliest memories of hygge. “The first thing that comes to mind is at my grandmother’s house: sitting with her on her lap on her best chair, whilst watching the Finnish cartoon Moomins. It was a cartoon that she liked a lot. At the weekend, it used to come on at about 10 o’clock in the morning and we would enjoy that so much. It’s such a dear memory. Also, on the cover of the book, there is a design of small dots of light which resemble memories. These are precious shining moments and that is what hygge became to me. This is my core, essential hygge.”
Not everyone is a hyggemenesker (hygge person) as there have been some criticisms that hygge may not easily be practiced in the UK. A recent article in Time Out by Miriam Bouteba specifically referred to how Londoners don’t have the time for it. “It’s so interesting to hear how people don’t think they can embrace hygge because it is a conscious choice. I see this criticism as a reaction from myself too. When I wrote this book, I had been working so much and not prioritising things as I wanted to. You don’t have to hygge but to say it’s impossible is just a construction; it is possible for everyone. If you are in the city, it’s about enjoying small breaks instead of looking at it in the form of wearing warm knitted socks and visiting the countryside – it’s not just that. My four-year-old niece summed it up so beautifully when I asked her what hygge was: “Hygge! Hygge is just when you want to relax for a little bit”. I thought it was so wonderful – that is what it is. It can be a small break for one, two, five minutes, an hour, or even a whole day. It’s not the form or how it looks, it’s about enjoying those moments in between the things we do, like going to work and commuting by train. Having a coffee break with your colleagues or stepping away from your desk every once in a while; things that make it better to be at work. We react so strongly to our atmosphere in our jobs so hygge is all about tweaking these things to make things more pleasurable.”
However, Brontë Aurell, chef and co-founder of London’s ScandiKitchen and author of ScandiKitchen: Fika & Hygge, wrote a reaction piece to explain how hygge can be embraced in London and supports the universal appeal. “I have so many friends that are British and I think the British culture really has a lot of hygge. You enjoy Afternoon Tea and have homes in the country. I think the culture of hygge is really British in some way. However, just like in Denmark, I find that hygge disappears for me when it becomes too formal. Then it’s like a ritual without the free content. There was also criticism in Denmark about not being able to hygge at work because it would make people less productive. However, there is a lot of research to say we can only work for six hours with intense focus so we need to take breaks to renew our energy. After that, we can go back to work and concentrate. Even for a breath of fresh air. Hygge can be acquired in a busy city lifestyle.” Perhaps there should be a follow-up to the book set in the UK. “It would be great to connect with British people and find out what their hygge is like!”
Following the release of the book, Søderberg has been touring Europe to find out how hygge has been embraced even further afield. “I recently visited Poland and it was really interesting to meet people who had really responded to the book; hygge changed their lives. Some people came up to me that had been depressed and now they feel much brighter. It was so beautiful and touching. I had no idea that this natural concept could be used to such a great extent.” A lot of the inspirations outlined in the book show that hygge is an art that is accessible so readers can easily implement the concept into their day-to-day lives. “Hygge is not something we have to seek and do; it’s all right there. Holding hands or being with someone you love. It’s so simple.”
“I visited my Syrian friends who are refugees and in their home I was met with really cold, fluorescent lights. I asked them why they wanted those! That was their feeling of home. My friends live in a warm climate so when they go home they want it to be cooler inside. Cold, fluorescent blue light actually has affects the temperature. A bright light is also a sign to welcome someone into their home. It was so different to my idea of hygge but this made my friends more at home in another country. You can’t make a formula or a recipe to achieve hygge – it’s something you have to ask yourself about. We all come from different places with different stories and relate to different things that make us feel good.”
As well as exploring the many meanings and the origins, the book is a collection of perspectives from Danish people that Søderberg has spoken to – a project that includes many different insights for us all to consider. “I started in January and I submitted the manuscript in August so it took about seven months to complete. It was the first time I’d written a book. I have learned so many new things that have changed my life now I am aware of them.” What are some of these newly discovered hyggelig things? “Marendine Ladegaard is great at inviting guests over and creating the right atmosphere. Normally, when I’d ask people to come to my house, I would cook a three-course dinner and meticulously plan it all out because I wanted the evening to be a success. Instead, I now ask people to bring a dish with them and lower my own expectations by not putting so much pressure on achieving my idea of perfection. Step back a bit and let the evening unfold. Don’t worry about being a good host because having people there is the most important thing. Making the food is secondary in order to have a hyggelig time. I learned about how to be more spontaneous.” Images from The Hours and Mrs. Dalloway striving to be the unfaltering host is a prime example of how not to hygge – far too much pressure! “Yes! [LAUGHS] Normally I would tidy up if people drop by but it adds to a more relaxed mood when I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not. I don’t have to hide who I am and that makes the company more relaxed and honest.”
It’s very interesting to see how hygge features subtly on-screen. The composition and product design recreates the feeling, as specifically mentioned in The Legacy and Men & Chicken (page 152 – 157). These narratives initially seem to oppose the notion with the dysfunctional themes and feature cold, yet beautiful landscape settings. “There is a contrast to the climate of the harsh greyness outside. The warmth of the storylines and the set design become more important. That influences our way of thinking in the decoration and lighting. Mia Stensgaard’s interviews from The Legacy and Men & Chicken highlight the significance of the stories and what we surround ourselves with. The interiors are made warmer, safer, and familiar to be in. We surround ourselves with things that add meaning to us. For me, I have inherited things from my grandmother. Something like a candle or a picture holds more of a meaning and creates a relationship between myself and my home. Before, I didn’t realise how important this was.”
People can transform their homes in terms of interior design and Feng Shui with hygge in mind; taking on board the Scandinavian home design of “simplicity and functionality”. This is often clean, crisp lines with a focus on utility and warmth. “I see it as a ball or a circle that you draw. You can find a soft corner at home or even go into a café where there aren’t many people. It is easy for hygge to evolve here. You can hygge without warm, hyggelig exteriors but they definitely help. If your exteriors aren’t hyggelig, you can make the contents of your circle hyggelig instead. A comfortable corner which feels safe is a great place to hygge. For me, I feel hyggelig when I am surrounded by dim, pools of light in my flat; both candles and warm, orange electric lights. You can be in the most hyggelig place on Earth but if you are not together with hyggelig people – if there is some kind of conflict or drama – then it’s not hyggelig at all. A hygge exterior is not hyggelig if what is going on inside is not hygge. The exterior helps but the content of the circle is the main thing.”
Moving from the living room to the kitchen, there are recipes, such as the open-top potato sandwiches, Snødbrod, and oatmeal with caramel sauce, apples, and roasted almonds to create a platter of hyggemad (hygge food). “I love the warm buns of dough [Palle’s Morning Rolls, page 78] which are so easy to make in the evening and then you put them in the oven the next morning. They taste so good and smell so wonderful – it’s a great thing to do for a hyggelig morning.” Londoners can sample similar tasty treats at the ScandiKitchen or the Nordic Bakery. “I’m looking forward to trying out the concept to see what it’s like when transferred to another country. The new perspective is very inspirational to me.”
The Nordic countries are famed for continuing traditions in culture, from folklore to customs like celebrating Midsummer and hygge. On page 199, hygge notably thrives today with “health ideals, digital media, and society’s demands for efficiency, which challenges the concept in a modern society. “I think it’s something we all do and have done for a long time but it may not always be hygge consciously. Relaxing and taking breaks will continue and trends are shifting all the time as we seek to improve our lives in order to feel more and more at ease. The meaning of the word hygge may change and the trend could become something else. The content will stay for the people that are into it and can relate to it.”
Family and togetherness is a big part of hygge, which Lars Mikkelsen’s quote on page 27 also draws attention to. Family is popularly portrayed in Nordic Noir and Nordic dramas as fractured to offer us a comment on Nordic society. “I think that’s so interesting because hygge is not this fairytale image we may think it is. In Nordic Noir, drama is there because if we were sat on the train drinking tea nothing would happen! Hygge is absent from Nordic Noir. I think this definite lack of hygge is what attracts us to the genre. It’s so dark, it’s grey, and there are crime scenes! But the contrast of sitting at home, watching it, and loving it is hygge!” That’s right – Nordic Noir is actually hyggelig in its own way and fans of the genre are practicing it without even knowing it. “The counterpart to hygge is present in Denmark; there are grey skies, people are alone, there are crimes being committed, and there are dysfunctional families. Hygge is something you need when it is cold and dark outside; there is not much comfort in the surroundings so you have to find it in yourself, with your family and your home environment. You have to look indoors because outside is so remote.”
In Danish families, a prime example of a hyggemensker (hygge person)is a hyggemor (hygge mother). This can often be countered by the Nordic Noir heroine. With Sarah Lund – only her Faroese jumpers would suggest she is but the similarity ends there. “No, Sarah Lund is definitely not a hyggemor and thank goodness for that! [LAUGHS] The jumper isn’t even hygge for her, it’s just practical to wear. She’ll stay warm in that no matter what!” A modern hyggemor on Danish television is most likely Mille Dinesen as the unconventional but natural hyggemor in Rita. “She is very unconventional; a mum that is powerful and doesn’t give a damn about anything. She’s not sat at home knitting, which is also a cliché. You don’t have to be a special kind of person to hygge. Mille Dinesen does so many things that make her really cool. You don’t have to hygge and you don’t have to hygge all of the time. I think Sarah Lund’s problem is that she is not really connected to her son. What makes her so interesting is that she is lacking something that immerses her into her job. It’s so interesting to watch her at work and see that hygge is not her thing. She’s so passionate about something else.”
Hygge is definitely a great mindset to have for Christmas. “For those of us living in the northern part of the world – there is a lot of darkness. Many people are trying to get through the winter because they see it as something that is exhausting. Whereas I don’t have to get through winter because I love this time of year. There is more time to do things indoors which is much more hyggelig. It brings people together. I love the darkness and the lights. I hope more people see the season as something to enjoy too. There are so many great things to do because Christmas is special with the lights and decorations. But you can continue to enjoy hygge during the winter when Christmas is over.”
Hygge is not purely seasonal and it can be experienced all year round to celebrate in Midsummer. “Hygge isn’t seasonal mainly because of the sense of togetherness. In Midsummer, I spend time with my friends and family at the beach and we have marmalade, we go and collect berries and flowers – everything that is laid-back so we can enjoy the season.” There must be plenty of inspiring vistas to visit in Denmark that instill the essence of hygge. “Ever since I was a child I love to go to Ærø; the place where the pancakes are made! There are lots of little fisherman’s houses and there are plenty of stories about the island. People still like to experience a simple life in a small community; they are so friendly and welcoming and they know each other really well. Many people visit from all over the world to get married there because of the special hyggelig atmosphere. There are so many beautiful islands south of Funen. It’s wonderful to go island-hopping in the summer. Lots of ice-cream and local cheese!” Readers take note – this is called Øhygge or island hygge.
We can look forward to seeing Marie in the new drama series Rides Upon the Storm (‘Herrens veje’) from DR and Borgen creator Adam Price. The series also stars The Killing I and Borgen’s Lars Mikkelsen and Marie Askehave, alongside Sebastian Jessen from Heartless. Marie will also be appearing in another series from Danish filmmaker Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror) coming soon.
In the meantime, consider this: “One little word is the secret reminder of what really matters in life: hygge.” Read it. Live it. Love it.
Words and interview by Antony Smith
Hygge: The Danish Art of Happiness by Marie Tourell Søderberg is out to buy in hardcover now through Penguin Books.