I first learned about hygge in a windowless room lit by menacing fluorescent lights. I worked as a graduate teaching assistant at an urban university built of brick and concrete. The writing center was in a rectangular room surrounded by dark green hallways.
Initially, I barely noticed the writing center’s utilitarian design. In the heavy crush of graduate coursework and teaching assignments, I looked forward to my time in the writing center, hoping no one had signed up for my hours. Then I could sit and sip a cup of coffee. The manager kept us supplied with fresh-ground coffee, hot water, and a single-cup pour-over ready to use any time we needed more caffeine, which for me, was always. I craved both the jolt of energy and the comfort of holding a warm mug in my hands. My life at the time—graduate school, a tiny and noisy studio apartment, a side job in a restaurant—held pretty much zero comfort. The writing center was it.
Maybe that’s why what happened next has stayed with me for two decades.
A new student walked in for our first appointment. She wore jeans, a t-shirt, and a cardigan. Simple and practical, but her pale blonde hair, warm tan skin, and vibrant smile glowed, like she generated her own light. When she spoke, her accent sounded sophisticated to me, and she had such poise.
The student was from Denmark, doing graduate work in Portland. We worked together for one term on a lengthy research paper. One day, she seemed uncharacteristically agitated. She gestured to the fluorescent lights hanging from the paneled ceiling and asked, “How do you live in this way?” Her break in composure surprised me as much as the question. “What way?” I asked.
I have no recollection of her using the word “hygge” as she described what homes, schools, and offices looked like in Denmark, but I’m sure that’s the quality she longed for that day. She gestured to a corner of the room, “A lamp there, and none of this” she said, waving again at the staticky lights.
Because I was accustomed to fluorescent lights splashing even the deepest corners of any room in cold yellow light, what she described seemed like a lot of darkness to me. Even so, her conviction captivated me. I’d never thought to notice the lighting. I was as practical as the design of the university—show up, do the work, earn the degree. What did light have to do with it?
Her description planted seeds of curiosity in me. Whatever this dark Denmark was like, I wanted to experience it.
Fifteen years later, the word “hygge” appeared everywhere, making it onto the Oxford English Dictionary’s shortlist for Word of the Year in 2016. Finally, I had a word for what the student had described to me even though I still could not visualize it.
I checked out a few books from the library about hygge. They didn’t clarify anything, but they did make me want to go cross-country skiing, rent a cabin, sit by a fire, and sip a cup of coffee splashed with Grand Marnier.
And that’s the place where I got stuck. Not Grand Marnier specifically, but hygge, as I had perceived it in my American life so far, required time and money, leisure and thoughtfully cultivated taste. My patchwork living room of hand-me-down coffee table and sofa, mismatched pillows and quilts, sprawling dusty plants didn’t match anything hygge-like.
Asked recently how to pronounce “hygge,” I looked it up and got drawn into the definition—cozy and comfortable, yes, but also a “conviviality” that engenders a feeling of contentment and well-being. I had just heard the poet Mary Oliver tell Krista Tippet in an On Being podcast that poetry is convivial. I’d had to look up the word: friendly, lively, enjoyable. Oliver was talking about writing being like an enjoyable friendship, a friendship with the work and with herself. It’s this quality of hygge I think I’ve craved for twenty years—a friendliness that creates a feeling of well-being. Can a space be designed to achieve this?
And then I remembered:
When my son was three years old, we met a friend for a hike on a fall day in Portland, just overcast enough to make the remaining golden leaves glow. Red-cheeked with frozen fingers after a good hour of forest wandering, we headed back to our cars just in time for my friend to make it to work.
She surprised me, however, by inviting us to lunch at her house. It was after noon and I was sure we’d make my friend late, but before I could decline, my son accepted the invitation so enthusiastically there was no turning back.
By the time we arrived at her house, we had maybe twenty minutes, and yet, there was my friend already stirring something in a deep blue pot on the stove. My son and I sat at a small wooden table nestled beneath the kitchen window. A strand of lights hung above the open curtain glimmered.
My friend set mismatched cloth napkins on top of the soft paisley table cloth, some spoons, three ceramic plates, and a cutting board of cheese and crackers. A pot-belly stove sat quietly in the corner, and though not in use at the moment, it suggested warmth and the scent of apple branches. My friend gave us each a handmade ceramic bowl filled with a thick, hearty stew her husband had made the night before. As steam warmed our hands and the stew warmed our insides, we wrapped up our conversations about tenured teaching positions, parenting exhaustion, and which is stronger the Triceratops or Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Though nothing matched, everything had patterns and colors, it felt warm and inviting, safe and nourishing. My friend’s seemingly effortless ability to create this brief moment of generosity and warmth stays in my memory like a beautiful painting of color and light.
That had to be hygge. Conviviality. And lighting too. It was cold and gray outside, but the three of us gathered around color, warmth, and light inside.
I think hygge is as much an intention as it is setting a scene. It’s choosing to make time for comfort. It’s choosing to take comfort seriously, to recognize the power of a few moments of coziness and friendship, with ourselves or with others.
Now that it’s nearly winter solstice and dark in the mornings, my son and I sit in the living room together before breakfast. A strand of white lights wriggles across the fireplace mantle. My son sits below them on the love seat pushed against the fireplace to keep a cold draft from blowing into the room. He pushes Legos around in a box, looking for the right piece while I sit on the sofa next to him and sip dark coffee, waiting for a glimpse of morning light so I can open the shades and watch the day arrive.
The clack of Legos is probably not hygge. My grandmother’s La-Z-Boy loveseat covered in a maroon slipcover is likely not hygge. But the warm darkness feels hygge. The quiet connection with my son before a day apart feels hygge. The warmth of the ceramic mug in my hand, the soothing coffee, the time to sit and sip all feel hygge. We don’t have to be up this early. There’s at least a half an hour before I need to make our oatmeal and get us out the door. But we do get up early. For this.
photo credit: Julian Hochesang