Gather your friends, as many candles as you can find, cook up some meatballs or cinnamon rolls, and enjoy your time together.
It took me one long sentence to explain the cosy, positive feeling that comes from togetherness paired with comforting food and surroundings. The Danes can say it in just one word, which can be a verb or noun (the adjective is hyggeligt). It’s pronounced hue-gah, making it nearly as pleasurable to say as it is to experience.
The concept has, in recent years, spread far beyond the borders of the Scandinavian country (population: 5.7 million) – with its neighbour, the UK, picking it up and making something of a fuss about it (read: sales opportunity). Interest in the practice of hygge spread to the US, with The New York Times covering it at the end of 2016, and articles about candles, blankets and dozens of books have being written on the subject.
And while Denmark does reportedly burn more candles than any other country, it is also known for being less consumerist than other nations, and, overall, one of the happiest places on earth. Part of that national happiness, say the actual sociologists who have the happy job of studying happiness, comes down to the Danes’ in-built need for hygge. (Another part of Danish happiness? The whopping taxes the Danes pay, which fund a supportive welfare system, and a covetable work-life balance.)
Let’s allow a Danish person to explain.
‘Hygge, to me, is about moments that are priceless, with almost no cost attached,’ says Nancy Pav, a Dubai-based Dane who works in PR. ‘It is about making a special moment, in which you feel safe, happy and at peace. Think cosy!’
She’s been in the UAE for nearly three-and-a-half years, but easily recounts a hygge moment in all its Danish glory. ‘It is when I was sat on the sofa with a woven blanket and a colourful Royal Copenhagen mug in one hand… candles lit and the rain pouring down outside.’
Sigh. Don’t you feel a bit hygge already?
It’s no wonder the world had its own hygge moment in 2016 – it was an unsettling year, to say the least, and the temptation to pull your woven blanket over your head and go back to bed was great – but then you’d be missing out on one of the best things about hygge: Gathering with loved ones.
‘For me, it is always about being together with your family or friends, and having a cosy time, eating “comfy food”,’ Marianne Brondsager Mussi, a Denmark-born chef, tells me. ‘It is not really the food that is hygge, but who is around the table, and who you are sharing your meal with.’
Nonetheless, she names a few dishes – mostly warming, traditional Danish ones – that would typically grace the table when someone says ‘come to mine and we’ll hygge’. Tartelette, a chicken stew with asparagus in a crispy bread shell; or at lunch, an open sandwich, including the beautifully evocative Dyrlægens natmad – ‘the vet’s late dinner’ – rye bread with liver pâté, salted meat and onion. Sweet dishes were what sprung to mind when Marianne first thought of hygge, such as aeble kage – a trifle-like dish of vanilla-scented apple purée layered with macaroons and topped with whipped cream – or cinnamon buns.
The best things in life are free
Speak to Danes – there are an estimated 5,000 residing in the UAE – and you’ll quickly discover hygge doesn’t depend on buying things, however.
‘Hygge doesn’t cost money, hygge isn’t a smell or a science. You’re already doing it and it’s free,’ says Sofie Hagen, a London-based Danish comedian who performed in Dubai earlier this month. ‘It’s not even Danish. It’s universal.’
‘The only way it’s particularly Danish is the amount we use the word. I was on a train with my sister and the conductor came to check our tickets. He said, “Oh, you’re eating clementines, that’s hygge!” and I said, “Yeah, we were just at my grandmother’s doing hygge.” He said, “We usually hygge with clementines at home as well.” It’s probably being said by every Danish person 10 times a day.’
The term ‘cosy’ is used a lot when describing hygge, but motivational speaker Mogens Jensen, who moved with his family to Dubai seven months ago, puts it in language that might make it clearer: He calls it being present.
‘Positive psychology is about making a platform for flourishing, and hygge is just that, a spiritual thing, not a physical thing. You do positive activities.’ For him, those have included family visits to a food truck event in a park, local markets, and setting up a tent in his garden for storytime with his two children.
Hygge ‘can be an intersocial activity but can also be intrasocial,’ something one does alone. ‘A good description is doing activities for their own good – you are not trying to achieve something. It’s very much about being present, but also taking time out.’
That’s not always an easy thing to do, for some of us – making a conscious effort to be positive. Is hygge going to be hard work?
‘If you are in a room with someone you don’t like, you don’t do hygge,’ Mogens chuckles. ‘You have to be very mindful, you observe, you don’t judge, you have to take everything in, you be in the moment. You don’t need [activities], those are just platforms.’
Ali Ghiai, born and raised in Copenhagen and working in Dubai since 2013, also calls hygge a state of mind. ‘The ingredients differ a lot from person to person, but overall it’s… peaceful and positive thinking in a calm environment.’
He also points to the plethora of coffee shops and food trucks in Dubai as locales for local hygge. ‘I think these elements are contributing to a different way of engagement with the community and create a unique atmosphere. This is definitely a hyggeligt thing and I would like to see more and more of this covering the landscape of a hyggeligt Dubai.’
So while we don’t have long, cold winters – the most hyggeligt time of year for Danes is around Christmas – practising the mindfulness, peace and social warmth of hygge is more than possible in the hot, sunny, fast-paced UAE. The first Dane I thought of when starting this article was one of the busiest people I know – event organiser Thomas Ovesen of 117 Live. If he was doing hygge, then it must be possible. ‘It is certainly the opposite of stress and hype, but not at all something you cannot create and enjoy anywhere, including here,’ he says. ‘I share it all the time but [friends] not being Danish probably don’t know they are enjoying a spot of hygge,’ he adds with a smile.
‘It is hard to get the fancy long candles going in the UAE, as the AC turns it into a wax fest,’ says Nancy of her attempts at UAE hygge. ‘But I have found other ways to hygge, such as meeting up with girls at a cake boutique and discussing life and love. Or better yet, cooking a nice dinner and having everyone gather around and catch up.’
Now, curl up with a Hygge book Anita Quade picks the tomes to kick-start your modern living regime.
The Book of Hygge: The Danish Art of Living Well by Louisa Thomsen Brits. Learn all the basics of this lifestyle philosophy for living better, from making a pot of coffee to relaxing at home.
The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well by Meik Wiking. If there is one person that should know how to live this trend it’s this writer – CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. His inspiring read will help you set the mood, from perfecting the right lighting to planning a dinner party. Our personal favourite? He recommends cocoa by candlelight.
The Art of Hygge: How To Bring Danish Cosiness Into Your Life by Jonny Jackson and Elias Larsen. This book is jam-packed with inspiring recipes, inspirational quotes and ideas on how to bring more happiness into your life by slowing down.
Dishes perfect for an evening of hygge
‘This is a rice “pudding” we eat as a main course in winter,’ says chef Marianne Brondsager Mussi, who provided these two traditional recipes.
1 l full-fat milk
180g rice (short-grain pudding rice or sushi rice)
¼ tsp salt
Cold butter and cinnamon sugar, to serve
Mix the ingredients and boil while stirring continuously for 15 minutes. Cover, turn off the heat, and leave for 30-40 minutes until thick. Add butter and sugar on top.
Boller I karry (Meatballs in curry sauce)
For the meatballs:
300g ground chicken
½ large onion, chopped
4 tbsp flour
¾ tsp salt
½ tsp pepper
For the mild curry sauce:
½ small onion, chopped
3 tsp mild curry powder
2 tbsp flour
100ml whipped or double cream
1 apple, cut in small cubes
Rice, to serve
Mix the meatball ingredients together very well, and let the mixture cool in the fridge for an hour. When ready to cook, bring the water to the boil. Form the meatballs with a tablespoon. Dip the spoon in the water to help shape the meatballs. Cook the meatballs in boiling water for 10-12 minutes. Once cooked, drain them, but keep some of the meatball stock for the sauce.
Melt the butter in a pan, add onion, curry powder and flour, and cook on low heat. Add the hot stock and boil the sauce for a few minutes, stirring, until thickened and the flour has cooked. Add the cream and the apple and pour over the meatballs.
Serve with rice.