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Hygge explained: 'Wellness', the Scandinavian way

September 4th 2016 / Anna Hunter

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Forget clean eating, intense HIIT and Instagram obsession; the latest wellbeing trend is much more fun, not to mention relaxed. Here's why hygge is set to be huge...

If gruesome noir dramas and fermented fish are what springs to mind when it comes to contemplating the Nordic nations, it’s time to readjust your mindset. Instead, it’s high time to get on board with hygge, a culture of ‘cosiness’ hailing from the homelands of our northern cousins, in which comfort, small moments of joy and getting together with your nearest and dearest is prized, and experiences take precedence over possessions, although of course a pair of snuggly socks and a luxe candle wouldn’t go amiss.

Exact pronunciation varies between Scandinavian countries (in Iceland and Finland in particular it’s simply ‘done’, rather discussed), but the Danish say ‘hoo-ga’, and given their very successful marketing of the hygge phenomenon, you’d be safe to go with that delivery. Denmark is also clearly especially good at ‘hygge’, given its status as the world’s happiest country, but other northern nations don’t come far behind, with Iceland in third, Norway in fourth, Finland in fifth and Sweden falling slightly off the wagon in tenth place. Having said that, the UK is lurking down at 23, so the Swedes are clearly doing something right. I’ll hand over to Signe Johansen, Norwegian chef, food and drinks expert and author of the soon to be released How to Hygge: The Secret to Nordic Living (Bluebird, £14.99, available in the UK on 20th October ), to explain the principles of the Scandinavian ‘gratitude attitude’, and why we Brits could benefit from lighting a candle and leaving work on time once in awhile, not to mention stepping away from the pressure cooker of social media and wellness fads…

There are no rules

It may seem contradictory to begin a list of fundamentals with the declaration that there is no criteria for hygge, but Signe highlights that that’s kind of the point:

“Every country and family has their own version. It’s kind of a zen-like state. Think mindfulness 2.0. It’s about relishing the simple things in life, stepping back and noticing the things that matter, but instead of looking inwards as you’re encouraged to in context of traditional mindfulness or meditation, it’s centred on looking outwards, restoring yourself socially and simple, everyday indulgences. It’s not concerned with perfection, it’s all about appreciation and living life well, but not necessarily by the book.”

...but there are things it is not

Signe sets a few things straight concerning the current image of hygge pedaled by certain homewear stores:

“Cakes, candles and Ikea are all kind of hygge 101. A great entry point, but not the be all and end all (incidentally the Danes burn more candles per head than any other country according to the European Candle Association). Hygge definitely runs deeper than that. It’s not fussy or materialistic, and it’s definitely not about wealth. In its essence, it’s about balance, self-sufficiency and a certain degree of ‘healthy hedonism.”

Which brings us neatly to the next refreshing characteristic of hygge…

It’s the antithesis to ‘clean living’

Sure, there are the idyllic, interiors magazine worthy Scandinavian dwellings, perfectly concentric cinnamon buns and cream cashmere jumpers, but this ain’t no cookie cutter lifestyle, and there’s no pressure or expectation to conform to a particular standard, as Signe confirms:

“In a way it’s a rejection of the whole ‘clean living’ movement. For instance you can really love the latest superfood, without the associated shunning of pleasure and enjoyment that tends to accompany wellness fads. When I was growing up we ate well, but I never remember being worried about the size of my thighs, and no one else around me seemed to be anxious about that kind of thing either. Hygge allows us to counter the craziness of the health, fashion and beauty industries especially- it’s very grounding.”

It’s not afraid of the dark

If the prospect of autumnal gales and a return to opaque tights makes you feel ‘meh’ already, take a leaf out of the Scandi book and see the light. Cheesy, but actually pretty helpful, especially where mental health is concerned…

“Us Scandinavians have evolved to live this way. Our winters are long, dark and cold, and the change of seasons is harsh rather than gradual. As a result, generally we’re hardy, but also gentle. We were once quite a poor part of the world, but we collaborate, we all chip in and there’s a sense of community, despite the apparently bleak conditions. We choose sustainable wellbeing over transient trends, and that leads to a good quality of life, and I think less anxiety.”

“The community spirit is also reflected in our general society. Scandinavia consistently tops the global tables in terms of gender equality as well as happiness, and for such a tiny region of the world, we have a great amount of ‘soft power’. I think that’s why there’s so much interest in hygge at the moment, and so many books being published on the subject. Hygge revolves around honouring a set of values and prioritising the things that may seem simple, but are actually incredibly important. Hygge can seem like common sense, and some elements of it are obvious, but it gives us a valuable chance to recoup and reassess, rather than get swept up in the hecticness of modern life, which is dynamic and exciting, but can be corrosive.”

It’s outdoorsy

Hygge has cultivated an image of making blanket forts while drinking hot chocolate in front of a roaring log fire, and again while this is certainly a very hygge situation, Hygge also doesn’t sit around on its bum all day waiting for warm and fuzzy feelings. Those Vikings weren’t exactly slobs, and Signe explains that hygge is also ‘earned’; it’s not a free pass to pure, unadulterated indulgence:

“We’re not hermits. Our countries are known for longevity and resilience, and this has been passed down through the generations. Our winters can seem endless, so we need to make as much of the colder months as we do the short summers. Getting outside is integral to our way of life, whether that be taking an hour to walk, ski or skate in the snow or doing some gardening when the weather is a bit warmer.”

“In fact, we prefer to exercise ourselves outdoors, as it exercises our brains too. Working out outdoors is meditative and energising in a way that working out in a stuffy, neon-lit gym just isn’t. Nature allows your mind to wander. We tend to take a more gentle approach, rather than a punishing HIIT session everyday. We don’t sit still, but we find a happy medium by hiking, biking and enjoying exercise with friends. This means that when we do have a hygge slice of cake, it’s not gratuitous, and it's in balance with other activities in our life.”

It’s ingrained into working life

Ahhh, the work-life balance issue. Culturally those Scandinavians don’t do skewed personal and professional priorities. Work, life and everything in between is delicately weighed out, as a matter of principle:

“In the UK and the US, proof of hard work is measured by the hour. I would say that Scandinavian countries on the other hand have ‘enlightened employment’ policies. You work hard during your allocated hours, and then you go home, hang out, cook, go for a run and see your partner, kids and friends. Our companies want happy employees, not wage slaves, and if you’re staying late to make a good impression, it’s actually likely that that kind of behaviour will have the opposite effect to the one you intended. Employers want staff to be efficient and fulfilled, not burned out. It’s great that more and more businesses in the UK are becoming progressive in this way, particularly in the tech industries, as exploring new ways of working and offering greater flexibility can have a brilliant impact in terms of wellbeing.”

“The Scandinavians are generally aware that high achieving doesn’t mean ‘happy’. Living in a hygge way can mean questioning what is actually aspirational in life. Most of the time it’s not money, even though many people I know from university in the UK rushed into high paying jobs, only to find themselves very unhappy a few months or years down the line. Living in such an extreme way can make you age twice as fast in my experience. From rigidly counting the steps you’ve walked to the hours you’ve clocked and emails you’ve sent, this way of quantifying life adds to daily stress, and it isn’t viable in the long term. It’s not healthy, and it’s not hygge.”

There’s coffee, and cake

Pass the Danish pastries, it’s Fika time:

“Fika is a concept that incorporates coffee, cake and conviviality. It’s a Swedish phrase, and the Swedes are adamant that having a moment to chat over cake and coffee during the day makes them not only happy, but more active and harmonious as a society. It’s an incentive to work hard in many an office, and it connects you socially as a team.”

“As for the coffee, what can I say, we drink a lot of it. When it’s so dark and chilly, it becomes an essential.”

Hold out hope for that Scandinavian wedding invitation too; it’s likely the closest you’ll get to feeling like a Great British Bake Off judge, and sounds familiarly like your average village fête:

“Hold out for the cake table. Typically women, and probably men now too, will all bring something homemade. It’s a joint effort, and it creates a great sense of inclusion and communion. Just be aware of which auntie’s cake you’re eating. You don’t want any cake related faux-pas to sour the mood.”

There is also booze

Yet tellingly, binge drinking is definitely not on the hygge radar:

“We enjoy a tipple for the taste, for the bonding experience and for the quality of the drink. We definitely don’t cut it out completely. Some of my friends in the UK swing between all or nothing, and I don’t really get that. The hygge approach is a nice contrast to an evangelical avoidance or, on the flipside, a bender. We enjoy alcohol, but most of us find a moderate balance.”

Remember though, that there are no rules. The odd wild night happens, no biggie.

The hygge edit

We know, we know, hygge is about an outlook, not outgoing funds. That being said, here are a few Scandi delights to help you to set the scene. Deprivation isn’t hygge after all…

Skandinavisk Hygge Candle, £25

Cosiness and contentment in slow burning form, I picked up this candle on my last trip to Copenhagen, and it’s been evoking woody, floral scenes for many a tucked-up evening since. The neutral packaging and wooden lid are pure minimalist hygge too. Hygglicious.

Aevi Box

The name Aevi originates from Old Norse, and it means ‘life’. This holistic, lovingly edited beauty and wellness box is curated by founders Natalie and Marie, who hail from Sweden and Germany respectively, and is beautifully stashed with pure, natural products to nurture your body, the environment and your mental health. The new season box has a ‘transformation’ focus, and I’m told it includes a face serum to ease your skin into winter in comfort, along with a mood boosting nail colour and a journal in which to jot down your thoughts, amongst other treasures. Receiving an Aevi Box is like getting a care package from your mum, if she had really, really good taste. Which most mothers do but...these two nail it every time.

Björk and Berries Skincare, from £16

A Swedish ‘eco luxury’ brand, Björk and Berries, like Aevi, takes inspiration from Sweden’s seasonal weather and natural environment, be it wild and rainy or sunbathed and blooming. Ingredients such as bark and birch leaf are rough and ready yet therapeutic, and the hygge sense of community is alive and well in the brand’s formulations; products are conceived, blended and tested by a motley crew of skincare experts, scientists, perfumers, botanists and of course family and friends.

&OtherStories, shop online here

With scents crafted by Byredo’s Jerome Epinette, affordable price points and low key yet chic packaging, &OtherStories bath, body and fragrance range is hygge living, bottled. The clothing offering is also a pleasing blend of the practical, the stylish and the sustainable. Good luck practising moderation on the shop floor.

Finisterre knits, from £65

Admittedly not cheap, but with the company ethos of ‘product, environment, people’, the outerwear that comes out of Finisterre’s Cornwall based workshops are lovingly crafted, hardy and infused with traceability. You know where it came from, you know exactly what it’s made of and you can probably find out who made it, which is rare in the apparel market these days. It’s also made of sturdy stuff; the founder is an all-weather surfer.

Neutrogena Norwegian Formula Hand Cream, £3.69

The slightly herbal, medicinal smell of this balmy, heavy duty hand cream takes me right back, even though I’ve umm, never been to Norway. This stuff could take on even the toughest Scandinavian winters, however, preventing chapping, cracking and other cold weather skin miseries.

Follow Signe on Instagram @signesjohansen and Anna @annyhunter

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