It was a simple pleasure. When Charlotte Thaarup was a child, her father used to come home from work each day in time for afternoon tea.
“We’d make a pot of tea, we might have some cake or a little bit of food and we’d just connect,” the Australia-based Dane recalls. “It was always about connecting, about talking.”
It was also about taking joy in low-key comforts. It was what Thaarup describes as a “hygge time”.
Hygge (pronounced “hoo-guh”), the subject of multiple new books, has become a “striking publishing trend”. It was one of the Collins Dictionary top 10 words of 2016 and also a runner-up in the Oxford Dictionaries 2016 “word of the year”, behind winners “Brexit” and “post-truth”.
Hygge is not a new word, but its meaning has more oomph as winter approaches – freshly baked foods, woollen blankets, cashmere socks, low-lighting, candles, cups of tea, warm fireplaces, fresh-picked flowers, huddling together with those we love and mulled wine are all said to evoke hygge. Its popularity may also tie in with our cultural obsession with mindfulness, a craving for simplicity and connection (of the human kind) and the belief that the Danes are apparently the happiest of us all.
There is no literal English translation for the word, but according to Oxford Dictionaries, it is a “quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being (regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture)”.
“Hygge is an everyday warmth and togetherness – an everyday happiness,” adds Thaarup, the director of Sydney’s The Mindfulness Clinic.
“It’s ‘I’ve turned inwards with my back towards the wild cold outside’ and also metaphorically from the business of life, so we turn towards each other, we turn towards the home, we turn towards food… it’s an atmosphere, it’s a feeling – it’s not something you ‘get’, it’s something that you experience and that you are in.”
For all its comfort, it is not about luxury, Thaarup insists – hygge, she says is “not a glamorous thing”.
“If I say, ‘come over and let’s hygge-off’ – that’s how you say it – then you’ll know that there’s an equality in it, I don’t want something from you,” she explains. “We’re just going to have a good cup of tea. I’ll have baked something so you walk in and it smells good, I’ll light a candle and we’ll just sit and talk about life or the book you’ve read. There’s an ordinariness in it.”
How exactly has something so ordinary – its ordinariness Thaarup believes is born out of the Scandinavian aversion to show-offs (“tall poppy syndrome” she says is “massive” in Denmark) – become so popular?
“I think we’re yearning contentedness,” Thaarup says. “I think we thought once we get everything done on the to-do list, ‘I’ll land, I’ll feel the contentedness’, but we don’t.
“And we see these pictures of this cosy stuff and we think ‘that’s what I’m yearning’.The first thing is to appreciate that’s what we yearn for,. Pick some flowers, bake something, light a candle, sit down with your family or children and be there and appreciate it – ‘aren’t we lucky, we’re sitting here in the warmth and we’ve got a bit of food and we’ve got good company?’.”
Appreciating the simple pleasures – the metaphorical “hug” of comforting things (hygge is believed to derive from the word “hug”) – is a sensory experience and that is perhaps where its comfort and real appeal lies.
Although the mild weather in Australia may not be as conducive to hygge and we have, Thaarup believes, a more open-minded culture unlike the “small-mindedness which hygge is a part of”, there are benefits to introducing some of its concepts into our lives, winter or not.
“Hygge is a really lovely connection thing – when we connect the oxytocin reduces the cortisol and adrenaline so from a biological perspective it makes sense,” Thaarup says.
“As soon as we come into our senses we are present. So not only is it, coming into winter, holding the horrible weather and the worries away, but it’s also that thing of ‘busy, busy, busy but now we’re here. In this moment, we’re here and all is well’.”