I am curled up on the sofa, wrapped in an old afghan, enjoying a roaring fire in the fireplace. As I sip from a mug of orange-spice tea, I turn the pages of a murder mystery by one of my favorite authors, while my husband watches a basketball game on TV with the sound turned low. A scented candle, left over from Christmas, fills the air with a pine scent. Our two dachshunds, their bellies distended from their recent dinner, are snoring gently beside me. Outside, a snowstorm rages.
Okay, I just made up the part about the snowstorm—we Marylanders have had a disappointingly mild winter so far. But if we HAD had a storm, it would have made for perfect hygge conditions.
Hygge (pronounced (Hoo-ga), a Danish word, is hard to translate into English. Coziness is about as close as one can come. Hygge has to do with a sense of well-being, snugness, warmth, and relaxation. I learned about this concept through reading the bestseller “The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living,” by Meik Wiking.
On one level, hygge means candles, a fire in the fireplace, woolen sweaters, hot chocolate, and pastry. But on a deeper level, hygge has to do with family and friends, and keeping one’s priorities in order. Practicing hygge may be a big part of why the Danes are, according to surveys, the happiest people on earth, despite horrible weather and high taxes. Which means Danes—only 2 percent of whom attend church weekly—may have something to teach American Christians about how to live.
Hygge “is about an atmosphere and an experience, rather than about things,” Wiking writes. “It is about being with the people we love. A feeling of home. A feeling that we are safe, that we are shielded from the world.” It’s about pleasant conversation, or simply feeling peaceful in the quiet company of others. It’s about inviting friends over to cook soup or stew together—which is much more hygge than slaving over a stove all by yourself, and then inviting your friends over to eat. And when friends spend time together (which 78 percent of Danes do at least once a week) they make a point of treating one another with thoughtfulness and equality: Nobody monopolizes the conversation or brags about getting a raise.
Danes have their careers and family life in balance, too. Parents typically leave work at around 4 p.m.—early enough to pick up the kids, play with them, and have dinner as a family.
Danes boost the hygge factor in their offices and schools by burning candles. And given a choice between a glass-and-steel coffee house serving great java, or one featuring an open fireplace and a friendly cat wandering about, but a cup of joe that tastes of fish, most Danes would go for the second, more hygge place.
Only in a country like Denmark, land of long, cold winters when darkness falls at 4 p.m., would the concept of hygge be invented. After all, who longs for cozy evenings by the fire, sipping a hot drink, if you live in, say, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and roll out of bed every day to warm sunshine?
Wiking agrees. Those cold winters (not to mention 179 days of rainfall per year) are why “hygge has been refined to the level it has, and why it is seen as part of the national identity and culture in Denmark,” he says. “Hygge is the antidote to the cold winter, the rainy days, and the duvet of darkness. So while you can have hygge all year round, it is during the winter that it becomes not only a necessity but a survival strategy.”
You can’t read a book like this without considering how much hygge you have in your own life. In one way, at least, I have lots—in part because I grew up in a fairly non-hygge home and longed for a bit of coziness. I’ve tended to spend nearly every evening as described above, practicing hygge without realizing it. Since reading Wiking’s book, I’ve intensified my efforts, making bread and baking oatmeal cookies. (The smell of bread baking is terrifically hygge.)
But I work in a rural home, which means I’ve fallen short in recent years when it comes to hanging out with friends. I’m making an effort to change that, because it’s so easy to let friendships fade away. I want my friends to know I truly cherish them, and that I need them in my life. As well, perhaps I have greater need of them in the wake of the deaths of three close family members. So I’ve determined to share lunch or watch a film with a different friend every week.
Looking back over the decades, I think I’ve experienced the greatest amount of hygge in church small groups. The best small group I’ve ever been part of was a mixture of young and old. We met in a warm and cozy home, where we played with our hosts’ two pajama-clad toddlers before they were put to bed. Our hostess often baked brownies or pies for us to enjoy after our time of study. We prayed together, shared our problems, and planned occasional outings.
As I mentioned, it’s ironic that the largely irreligious Danes are demonstrating how the faithful ought to be living and treating one another. Sad to say, too many American Christians who wouldn’t dream of skipping church are failing to balance their lives. They work long hours and, like other Americans, don’t always spend enough time with their children, never mind their friends.
But perhaps we can change that. And perhaps we have something to teach the Danes, as well.
The Danish people don’t know what they’re missing, for the greatest experience of hygge comes about when the spiritual element is added: praying with and for one another, worshiping together in a lovely sanctuary, singing the great hymns of the faith together. At my church, we regularly share meals after the service. We teach each other’s children in Sunday School classes, and share God’s purposes for them when we take them on skiing trips or to see films, discussing them afterwards over pizza.
If our churches are operating correctly, they really should be the most hygge places of all. If they are not, we must work to make them so—starting this Sunday. You make the coffee, I’ll bake the Danish.
Image courtesy of Andrey_Kuzman at Thinkstock by Getty Images.
Anne Morse is co-author of “My Final Word” with Chuck Colson, and “Prisoner of Conscience: One Man’s Crusade for Human and Religious Rights” with Frank Wolf. She lives in Maryland.