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The Danish Secret to Getting Through Winter

It's called "hygge," a simple practice that can take the sting out of the season


As a particularly harsh winter sweeps the nation — and with Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction that we must endure six more weeks of it — we might do well to look to our friends in Denmark who have spent centuries refining their cold-weather coping mechanisms. Indeed, the most fashionable Scandinavian import this season is an intangible: the Danish concept of hygge (HUE-gah). 

The New York Times annointed hygge a certifiable trend in December and one dictionary named hygge one of the top 10 words in Britain in 2016, along with Brexit and Trumpism.

Danes have long been practitioners of climatic stoicism, since Denmark is cloudy, overcast and/or dark almost 64 percent of the time and never hot. Even in July, the highs are in the 60s. For centuries, to compensate, Danes create hygge whenever and wherever they can, warming the damp, chill-you-to the-bones cold indoors and out with fire and light.

You can create hygge anywhere. Do it. More cozy relationships make for a better quality of life.

— Pia Edberg, author of 'The Cozy Life'

They’re also more content in general than the rest of their fellow humans: Denmark consistently is ranked the happiest country by the United Nations; the United States is now 13th.

The word hygge essentially translates to connection, coziness and fellowship — with forbearance and optimism thrown in for good measure. It’s finding joy in simple pleasures and communing with loved ones in a low-key, but meaningful way: sipping warm drinks, watching the snow fall, embracing (and making the best of) a cold climate. Winter is high season for hygge, since cold weather can be isolating.

Choosing Happiness Through Hygge

To an extent, it’s about choosing happiness, says Denmark native Jytte Svarre, who was hanging out mid-hygge at the Danish American Center in Minneapolis.

On twice-monthly Wednesdays, those of Danish descent gather in the elegant Mississippi riverfront building for a hyggelige lunch, camaraderie, singing, lectures and simple chitchat.

Doing so, “and enjoying that feeling of comfortable connection,” Svarre says, just naturally makes everyone happier and more positive.

Her husband Erik Bruun, also born in Denmark, is on the board of the Danish American Center. Bruun says hyggelige can be achieved only when participants are relaxed: “When no one is trying to impress anyone,” he says. “Hygge is something that can be encouraged, but not forced.”

Going Offline

It’s also about embracing the season. Pia Edberg, the author of The Cozy Life: Rediscover the Joy of Simple Things Through the Danish Concept of Hygge, believes that communing with nature — without screens, distractions and multitasking — is an integral part of hygge. “Hygge is about real-life connection — and I think people are craving it,” she says.

If it’s tempting to be in touch mainly by keyboard, desist, advises Edberg. Constantly checking your phone and living online, especially on social media, she points out, “is an addiction, just like anything else.”

She concedes that can be a tough habit to break — especially for many older adults, for whom instant connection to anyone is still a relative novelty. While teens are leaving Facebook, there has been an 80 percent growth in the last three years of Facebook users 55 and older. But political arguments online, particularly in a polarized nation, do not enhance positivity, well-being and uplifting encounters in cyberspace or otherwise, Edberg warns. (See our tips for how to do a 30 Day Digital Detox.)

A native of tiny Nykøbing Falster in southern Denmark, Edberg suggests trading online obsessions for real connection with others.

“It’s about simplicity, really: simple clothes, simple food, candles, just getting together,” she says. “For me, it’s about unpretentious connection, and enjoying your loved ones. You can create hygge anywhere. Do it. More cozy relationships make for a better quality of life.”

Keeping Calm

In The Year of Living Danishly, British author Helen Russell writes that she was at first quite reluctant to give up London after her husband accepted his dream job at Lego, in Billund, Denmark. But, says Russell, the transplantation to rural Jutland, Denmark, was a revelation that changed her worldview.

She’s come to greatly admire the culture.

Part of the reason they’re happy, Russell says, is because Danes are calm, neat, organized and focused inwardly. Hygge is part of that, she says, and is a perpetual state of mind — crucial to Danish living since the 18th century.

And about that pronunciation: “Imagine the sound you make clearing your throat,” Russell says. “It’s very guttural.”

Even if Americans can’t quite pronounce hygge, cold city residents, especially, are embracing it.

The key to being serene in winter and in life, Russell says — in addition to warm connections — is getting fresh air and mild exercise daily.

Clutter, Russell points out, is not relaxing, not hyggelite.

“Danes have a reverence for design, art and their everyday surroundings, and they appreciate quality and minimalism. They have fewer things of high quality,” she says. “Although hygge,” she hastens to add, “is not about getting your best crockery out; it’s about letting your guard down.” (To learn more about leading a more minimalist existence, read Next Avenue’s Great Decluttering Experiment.)

How to Hygge

As we get older, we tend to get more isolated. Hygge is a great antidote to that. Here are a few things you can do to embrace the long, dark days of winter with optimism:

  • Get out. Don’t be a shut in. Break out of your routine and seek warmth and companionship for cheap, good fun: a walk, a latte, singing at your place of worship. Get fresh air every day.
  • Have frequent, low-key and unpretentious get-togethers. Employ soft lighting, good music and comfortable chairs.
  • Start groups: Book clubs, salons, Bunco, mahjong as well as cooking, knitting and poker parties are wonderful ways to form lasting, monthly connections.
  • Limit alone screen time, but do consider inviting friends for the Super Bowl, the Oscars, sporting events,Victoria, or any TV series that promotes a great discussion.
  • Share meals. Cook, bake and/or order in. A simple stew, delivery pizza, scrambled eggs or coffee will delight your guests.
  • Create a cozy feeling with warm seasonal lighting and candles instead of overhead lighting. If it’s dark, light candles, even at breakfast.
  • Scuttle the clutter of unread books, bills, too many photos, dying plants and outdated collectibles. Marie Kondo-ize: Get rid of objects you never touch and that bring you no joy. (You can’t promote hygge with junk all around.)  
  • Instigate and initiate. Contact friends, family and those you love and miss, with whom you’ve lost touch. Set dates; make plans; look forward to it.
By Kate McCarthy
Kate McCarthy is a Twin Cities writer.

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