Illustration by Victoria Fernandez.
A little over a year ago, the word hygge started to appear everywhere on social media, as well as in various newspaper articles and magazines proclaiming a “Nordic trend.” Within this huge topic, you can find everything from comments on Danish minimalism to how to receive guests in your home in the typical hygge style. After all this discussion, I was curious to know what makes this word so special and why foreign cozy words have generally become so popular. Here’s what I found:
What Does Hygge Mean?
According to the book The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living, the word originated in Norway, which was part of the Danish kingdom between 1397 and 1814. Throughout history, despite the political separation between the two countries, this Norwegian word remained popular in Danish vocabulary.
In the original (but somehow less famous) Norwegian, hygge means “well-being.” The Danish concept encompasses both physical and emotional wellness, as well as being with people you love in a cozy environment. In the end, hygge doesn’t just describe a feeling; it’s one of those untranslatable words that expresses more than one concept.
So hygge is a cozy place where everyone feels safe, comfortable, and surrounded by the people they love. This means a rainy afternoon in winter under blankets, or a sunny day with friends at a pool. Depending on where you live, hygge can be related to different scenarios. For the Danes, this word is associated with elements like candles, wool socks and hot chocolate. But hygge isn’t just coziness, but rather a central aspect of Danish culture and an important part of Danish vocabulary. Fixed expressions like Hyggeligt at møde dig (Nice to meet you) are used all the time in daily life.
Coziness Continued: Gezelligheid
In the Netherlands, the Dutch have one of their own cozy words: gezelligheid. It’s quite similar to hygge, but it means being somewhere with people, visiting someone or doing something with others that makes you feel at ease. The concept of gezelligheid can also be used to generally describe a cozy atmosphere or a feeling of comfort.
You can regularly hear Dutch people proclaim that their favorite restaurant is very gezellig. And like hygge, it can be used in any season but is more closely related to fall and winter. If you wanted to find an English equivalent, it would be roughly something like “fun” or “cozy.”
The closely-related German language has a similar word to gezelligheid: Gemütlichkeit. This is directly translated as “coziness,” but actually means much more. It’s a warm feeling of comfort or togetherness in a friendly atmosphere. In Canadian and American English, “hominess” has a similar meaning, in that it refers to everything that reminds us of home.
Ikigai, The Japanese Meaning Of Life
After these Germanic cozy words, I came across another intriguing word that fits perfectly into this conversation: Ikigai. This Japanese word is a concept word that literally means “reason of being.” Unlike hygge, which expresses a moment or experience, Ikigai has a much broader meaning: It refers to actions that give life meaning and bring us happiness.
This word spawned the book Ikigai: The Secret for a Happy Long Life, where authors Héctor Garcia and Francesc Miralles investigate the secret of longevity on the island of Okinawa and present readers with paths to find their own ikigai. In an interview with The Kitchn, Garcia says ikigai is the thing that gets you out of bed each morning and is considered of great importance to the Japanese. He continued, “The people of Japan keep doing what they love, what they are good at, and what the world needs even after they have left the office for the last time.”
In the end, ikigai has much more to do with a process than an end in itself. Doing something well, the best way you can, can make your life more meaningful.
So does having hygge moments lead us to our ikigai? Or does finding our ikigai lead us to more gezellig experiences? In whatever case, these cozy words spawn philosophies that are strangely complementary, and might be worth integrating into our own lifestyles.