The American Search for Hygge
“Americans are so interested in hygge,” Mormor says, “but they will never understand it.”
I first learned the word hygge while studying the Danish language on Duolingo. The pronunciation is a little bit tricky, but you can probably get away with saying “hooga.” The app translates it as “cozy.” I had a feeling that something was lost in translation, though, and that it actually means something more. Ever since I was a little girl, my mom has used Danish words and phrases that can’t easily be translated, so I asked both my mom and Mormor to explain hygge to me.
Mormor told me that it’s the feeling you have when gathering with family and friends, talking and laughing together, and setting aside all distractions. “You know when we sit around the table,” my mom said, “talking and laughing and enjoying being together? That’s hygge.”
“I think I know what you mean,” I told her as a light turned on in my head. “Christmases with Mormor and Morfar were hygge.”
I’ve written before about my family’s Danish Christmas traditions. What makes these memories hygge is a feeling of Danishness that can’t easily be put into words. It’s the smell of the food, the sound of voices and laughter, the familiar surroundings and the people who occupy them. But these things aren’t just experienced at Christmastime. I have felt the same sense of comfort at other times of the year when our family gets together. As you can see, it’s easier to define with feelings that words.
In researching the American fascination with hygge, I found lists of what to do to achieve hygge, including what to drink and in what kind of cups, what kind of socks to wear, and what kind of candles to light. But once you start making lists, it’s not hygge. Americans love to make lists. We love schedules and being busy. I’m no exception. Some days, I can plan my time to the minute. A lot of the time, schedules are necessary. But how much can we really enjoy the fun times when we shove them into a strict timeslot?
Danes seem to have a natural ability to find comfort and balance. They experience stress like anyone else, but they also know how to find joy in life. Mormor has often complained that when she has dinner with her American friends, they leave as soon as the meal is over. In Denmark, friends can sit around the table for hours, even after the food has been eaten and the dishes cleared away. I saw this first-hand when we visited my mom’s cousins during our trip to Denmark a few years ago. It was during the summer, so the hygge we felt had nothing to do with tea or candles or warm socks or the weather. Much like visits with Mormor and Morfar, we enjoyed good conversation, food, and games without worrying about the time.
I honestly believe that Americans can never quite achieve hygge. It’s just not who we are. But perhaps we can find our own version of it. Find a day to spend time with friends and family without any other appointments to be kept. Ignore the clock. Talk, laugh, play games—simply enjoy being together. Don’t wait for a holiday or special occasion. In fact, making time on an ordinary day would probably make the experience even more special. Maybe then—just maybe—we will come a little bit closer to understanding hygge.