Illustration by Victoria Fernandez.
A little over a year ago, the word hygge started to appear everywhere on social media. Various magazine and newspaper articles reported about this new “Nordic trend.” Within this huge topic you can find everything from remarks on Danish minimalism, to how to receive guests in your home in the typical hygge style. After all this discussion, we thought we would get to the bottom of what makes this word so special — and why cozy words in other languages have become so popular in general lately. Here’s what we found!
What Does Hygge Really Mean?
According to the book, The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living, this cozy word originated in Norway, which was part of the Danish kingdom between 1397 and 1814. Throughout history, despite the political separation of the two countries, this Norwegian word remained popular in Danish vocabulary.
In the original (but somehow less famous) Norwegian take on the word, hygge means “wellbeing.” The Danish concept encompasses both physical and emotional wellness, along with being around 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 a singular concept.
Hygge can be a cozy place where one is comfortable, feels safe, or is surrounded by loved ones. This might mean a rainy afternoon in winter snuggled under blankets, or a sunny day with friends at a pool. Depending on where you live, hygge can be related to different scenarios. Danes associated this word with things like candles, wool socks and hot chocolate. But hygge isn’t mere 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.
Cozy Words 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 nice 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 often 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 “intimate” or “cozy.”
The closely-related German language not only has a direct equivalent to gezelligheid: Geselligkeit. It also has a very similar cozy word: Gemütlichkeit. This directly translates as “coziness,” but it actually means much more. It’s a warm feeling of comfort or togetherness in a friendly atmosphere. In American English, “homey” has a similar meaning, in that it refers to everything that reminds us of home.
Ikigai, The Japanese Meaning Of Life
While exploring these Germanic cozy words, we came across a Japanese word that fits perfectly into this conversation: Ikigai. This Japanese word conveys a concept 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. This book 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 it’s 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 any case, these cozy words represent philosophies that are strangely complementary, and they might be worth incorporating into our own lifestyles.