It’s 10 below zero. The wind is whipping. The trees are bare, and the ice in your backyard is frozen solid. During times like these, it may be difficult love winter here in Maine.
But hygge, a Danish word used to describe a certain coziness or comfort in a simple life, is helping some winter-weary Mainers find the joy in winter.
Really more of a way of life and thinking during the winter in Scandinavian countries, hygge (pronounced HOO-gah, only with your throat closed a little for the “hoo”) can involve everything from comfort food and candles to cozy blankets, hand-knit items, and a lot of snuggle time. Denmark consistently ranks as one of the happiest countries in the world, and it seems the Danish have long held a secret to happiness during winter that may be beneficial to those of us here in Maine.
Marie Tourell Soderberg, author of the 2016 book “Hygge: The Danish Art of Happiness,” says that the key is to not let the rough winter weather get you down and to change your mindset about the cold and the dark. Retreating inside and making your home a warm and cozy place — a place you like to be — is an important part of hygge. She says hygge is about “finding pleasure in your surroundings.” This could mean “having a favorite chair in the corner where you read a book or drink a cup of tea while looking out on the wild weather outside.”
Topsham resident Chris Wolff, who was born in Denmark, grew up mostly in the United States but was raised with Danish traditions. She says that the Danish find ways to embrace the long dark winters and make efforts to keep their homes bright, cheerful, and simple. That includes whitewash wood and lightly colored walls and furniture. These aesthetic choices help the Danish bring in as much light as possible during the dark months, which helps with their mental outlook toward the darkness.
How to Hygge
While hygge is really about your approach to winter and focusing on the positive aspects — warm fires, time with family and good food, for example — it may be difficult to shift how we see winter.
“We are constantly moving toward bigger, better, faster, stronger. This leaves very little attention for the small, everyday moments of happiness,” Soderberg said.
So one of the first steps to hygge is about taking the time to find the joy in the little pleasures of winter. This can begin simply by working with the things you have in your home and activities you’re already doing — and just making the joy a focus.
Cherie Galyean of Bar Harbor says that she and her family were practicing hygge before it was such a big thing. “I struggle mightily with seasonal depression,” Galyean said. She and her family took steps to embrace winter and live a hygge life during the winter months.
“I leave a few strands of twinkle lights up after Christmas because I like the soft lighting. Candles every night at dinner, no exceptions. Build a fire in the wood stove and make sure we take time to enjoy it,” Galyean said. “Lots of baking, both for comfort food and to make the house smell good. For me, it really is less about stuff — or even doing things differently — and more about intention and appreciation.”
Hygge on a Budget
Although there are certainly things you can buy to help you enjoy hygge in your home, it’s not about the things or the money. In fact, there are many things around our homes to help in hygge efforts. Using old candles at meals or in the evenings, playing board games, snuggling up with a favorite blanket and book are excellent ways to practice hygge. Hanging Christmas lights in the kitchen or just leaving your Christmas lights up until the weather warms are other excellent ways to hygge without spending money.
“In our [American] culture, we try so hard to acquire so much, but part of the Danish aesthetic is more simplicity. It’s more about loving the things you bring into your house,” Wolff said.
Indeed, hygge is most certainly not about buying products from a hygge website. “I think that Americans have sort of glommed onto this concept of hygge, and, in our way, made it into a thing about having the right stuff. In doing that, we miss the point, which is to focus on what makes life fun and the dark, cold months bearable: friends, warm food, and maybe a soft blanket and some twinkly lights,” says Brittany Kallman Arneson, an editor and academic who spent time understanding hygge while visiting Norway and Iceland this year.
Nature Is Essential
While warm and cozy are essential to hygge, getting outside in winter is equally important. It’s important not to let the snow and ice keep us indoors too much, as being active and getting some sunshine will make a big difference when it comes to our winter mental health.
Heading outside for a long winter walk and then coming inside for some hot cocoa by the fire is a perfect way to practice hygge and celebrate winter. Wolff says she walks her dog every day and then comes in to her wood stove, which feels especially warm after a good long walk.
After the holidays, winter is often most difficult for many of us here in Maine, but with a little hygge in our lives, it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s much joy to be had in our lives during the long, cold winter. According to Soderberg, “learning to hygge means slowing down a little, making a space, and opening up to all the small, magical moments that are right in front of us.”