Danes are supposedly the happiest people in the world, according to a recent poll that purports to measure happiness.They have universal health care, more equal income levels, and lots of delicious beer. But they also have high taxes and winters that can average one hour of sunlight per day.
So what’s their secret? Hygge. I discovered hygge, aka “the art of relaxation,” when I studied abroad in Denmark last fall. The Danish terms hygge and hyggelig translate very basically to “nice,” or “cozy” but, as with many languages, individual words can really stand for a whole concept. In this case, a state of being where one is in the presence of company or close friends, feeling comfortable and warm, with candles, coffee, conversation, and other good things. (Hyggelig, by the way, is tricky to pronounce and I still don’t know if it’s “hooguhly” or “hewgerli.”)
Hygge becomes easy to understand once winter hits – the lack of sunlight means it’s good to keep your connections with the outside world going, lest you become a bed-ridden winter troll. There was nothing I’d rather do when I got home than put on my warmest clothes, snuggle in a blanket on the couch, put a cup of tea in my hand, and watch TV or listen to music with the rest of my host family.
Once I returned home from studying abroad, I realized that hygge had larger implications beyond the winter season. As in, it’s important to make an effort to be a good friend/relative/neighbor to other. It’s important to be a good host, to provide comfort, to reach out and create spaces where folks can get together to converse and eat. In a world of take-out and stand-up dinners, I came to appreciate the ritualized nature of visiting on weekends. My host family would take me from house to house, sometimes two or three in a day, and we’d pay our respects, catch up on the latest news, drink dark coffee or eat cake, always bringing a little something as gracious guests – beer, dried fruit, a little chocolate.
Other Saturdays, I’d wake up early, as my family prepared a breakfast spread – delicious pancakes, toppings, some eggs, tea. Nothing was ever overly fancy, but care was put into making a nice-looking table, and a decent variety of food. The Danes are very polite and treat even the smallest visits with a slight air of formality, without seeming like they are trying or getting stressed out. It was a good lesson to take back with me. As I prepare to move into an apartment post-college, I will ensure that I have fridge essentials for any impromptu guests or get-togethers to prepare for experiences like these.
The following is a simple pancake recipe that I got from my Danish host family: most of these ingredients, including the cheap beer, can be found around the home, so it’s great to have on hand! Top it with anything you’d like: ice cream & jam, baked apples, ham with cream cheese & chives, whipped cream & chocolate chips…
Kenzie Zimmer was shocked to find out that the concept of “snacking” isn’t really a big thing in Denmark, but carried on the American tradition to the detriment of her host family’s jar of Nutella.
scant 1 cup flour
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
little less than 1/2 cup milk
3 tablespoons light beer
Combine ingredients together in one bowl with a hand mixer or whisk. Let the mixture chill for half an hour. Drink the remaining beer while you wait. Pour into a frying pan and cook over medium heat in butter, flipping once.