Hygge: The Danish Practice of Comforting the Soul During Winter

As we focus on staying positive during overcast winter weather, who better to learn from if not from the happiest people on earth, who coincidentally also have some of the worst weather in the world? There’s a lot we can learn and incorporate from the Danish and their practice of hygge.

Winter is here and for many, including myself, this is one of the hardest seasons of the year. Coming from a tropical country makes this particularly difficult, but I have decided that this year I will wholeheartedly embrace the cold season. As we focus on staying positive during overcast winter weather, who better to learn from if not from the happiest people on earth, who coincidentally also have some of the worst weather in the world? There’s a lot we can learn and incorporate from the Danish and their practice of “hygge.”

a person in a cold place

What is hygge?

The origins of the word hygge (pronounced hoo-guh) are little known and the word has no direct translation in other languages, but that poses no problem because hygge is not something that needs to be understood, but experienced.

More than indulging in tangible things, hygge is first and foremost a feeling of comfort, coziness and peace. The main focus is on wellbeing, experiencing a sense of belonging, and creating an atmosphere in which we feel safe and comfortable, where we can let our guard down and truly be ourselves, both alone and in the company of others. This could take many forms: going for leisurely walks in nature, being at home bundled up with a cup of hot chocolate in hand while it rains or snows outside, enjoying a moment of silence as we become hypnotized by the slow crackling of wood in a chimney, making dinner with the people we love or watching a film in bed while wearing the warmest and most comfortable pants you own and that you’d never dare to be seen in public with (the Danish also have a name for these kinds of pants: “hyggebuckser”). Hygge is the practice of comforting our souls, and while it can be practiced all year long, it truly becomes a warm light in the coldest and darkest season of the year.

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‘Tis the hygge season

The Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere marks the beginning of winter, and it’s also the day with the fewest hours of sunlight in the whole year. If you live in a country where temperatures drop substantially during this time, then you know what a shock this change can be to our system. The cold temperatures and the absence of light for many months can really affect one’s mood and this can be particularly hard on people suffering from seasonal affective disorder, a recognized psychological condition in which people experience symptoms of depression in the winter.

happy couple in winter

Hygge contributes to your wellbeing

Despite the horrible weather and high taxes, for the past six years, Denmark has been in the top five happiest countries in the world, and researchers have taken an interest in knowing why this is so. Although to have a comprehensive answer one must take several factors into account — including the welfare model Denmark has adopted — Danish researchers at the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen have found that most Danes attribute their state of happiness in great part to their hygge-focused lifestyle: hygge home decor, hygge clothes, hygge restaurants, hygge bakeries and even hygge laundromats!

The science behind hygge is fairly simple. When we create a warm, safe and peaceful atmosphere to enjoy the good things in life with our loved ones, our bodies enter a state of calm which activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PSN). The PSN is responsible for the body’s rest and digestive responses, and it decreases heart rate and helps our muscles relax. In other words, when the PSN is active, our bodies have time to heal themselves and feel well.

Practicing hygge contributes to less depression, stress and anxiety, and an increased sense of optimism, self-worth, mindfulness and gratitude. And because hygge puts an emphasis on nurturing relationships and building connections with others, this creates a sense of belonging that also has social benefits such as increased trust and intimacy, openness to practicing vulnerability with others and less reliance on social media.

zen atmosphere

Hygge for a cozy winter

You don’t have to be Danish to incorporate hygge into your life, but there are certain steps to do it correctly. Implementing the following during winter will bring you feelings of peace, connection and comfort. So long winter blues!

1. Lighting.

The dimmer and warmer the lighting is, the more “hyggeligt” the atmosphere becomes. The Danish favor lighting at the scale of 1800K; a sunset, a fire in a hearth, and candle flames are around this level of warmth. A good hygge lighting hack for your living room is to place a floor lamp with soft and warm light next to the couch or on a corner — the Danish view bright ceiling lamps as torture devices for the eyes.

Peace of mind for your colleagues

2. Start doing hygge from the moment you wake up.

Many people insist on the fact that the way you start your morning sets the tone for the rest of the day, so why not infuse it with hygge from the moment you wake up? One of my favorite ways to do this is by lighting candles all over my bedroom when I get out of bed. Not only does this create a very zen atmosphere, it also helps my eyes slowly and softly adjust to the light of the day. This is followed by the Ayurvedic recommendation of a cup of warm water with a few drops of fresh lemon, and I do so while wearing warm clothes and many times while in bed! The whole world can surely wait until I am done with these moments of warmth, peace and comfort. (Do make sure to air out the places where you lit the candles when you’re done.)

3. Togetherness, pleasure & comfort.

When the weather gets really cold, we might be more reluctant to spend time outside, especially at night. Hygge has you covered! Invite your friends over for an evening of togetherness, pleasure and comfort! The point of this is that everyone feels comfortable in their skin, literally and figuratively. Ask everyone to dress comfortably, light candles in the living room, cook or bake together, make mulled wine or some other non-alcoholic drink and sip it over a drama-free chat or a fun board game. Nobody needs to be at the center of attention and prove their worthiness (everyone loves each other already!), relax and give everyone time to speak and listen. Repeat these sessions as often as possible.

4. Practice mindfulness, gratitude & harmony.

The word solstice comes from the Latin “sol,” which means sun, and “sistere,” which means to stand still. Winter gives us the opportunity to rest and turn our attention inward, so this is the perfect time to practice gratitude for the good and simple things we have in our lives. No matter how short, take a moment every day to turn off all your devices and take your attention inward, try to tap into your current feelings of safety and warmth and give thanks for that. When you’re with your loved ones, appreciate their presence and maintain a kind attitude towards those around you, feel gratitude for the moments you get to spend in the company of these amazing human beings.

a person drinking a hot drink

5. Do nothing.

Rainy or snowy weekend? That makes the moment all the more hygge! Put on your warmest and comfiest clothes, bundle up in your thickest blanket and cozy up in bed or on the couch with a hot drink in hand and just watch the rain or snow fall, watch a romantic comedy based around the holiday season or bake your favorite cookies. Give yourself permission to do nothing and fully enjoy it!

Hygge has helped me embrace and even enjoy winter time. I hope it does the same for you!

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