Why Are Americans So Obsessed With Scandinavian Culture?

Mittens, mugs and chunky-knit socks: ‘hygge’ is the new ‘je ne sais quoi.’

The wave of “hygge” probably already crested in America when it made the Oxford English Dictionary’s shortlist for Word of the Year in 2016. But that hasn’t necessarily slowed the tide of fascination with all things “functional chic” in our best efforts to mimic Scandinavian design, and it certainly hasn’t diminished the role of their egalitarian utopia in our cultural imagination.

The American obsession with Scandinavian culture encompasses a lot of things (including the entire IKEA catalog), but “hygge” is a good place to start. The Danish word, pronounced “HOO-guh,” has no exact translation, but is generally understood to stand for coziness, comfort and the feeling you get when you’re sitting around a fire, burrowed in chunky-knit blankets with your best friends and a mug of mulled wine.

“Hygge’s been called many things,” said Meik Wiking, author of “The Little Book Of Hygge” and CEO of The Happiness Research Institute in Denmark, on NPR. “It’s been called the art of creating a nice atmosphere. It’s been called the pursuit of everyday happiness. But it’s basically building in elements of togetherness, of savoring simple pleasures, of relaxation, of comfort on an everyday basis.”

Over at The New Yorker, journalist Anna Altman counted at least six books that were published about hygge in the United States in 2016 (to say nothing of this year). In The Guardian, Charlotte Higgins offered a much more skeptical take, noting that hygge is not actually that Scandinavian. She argues it’s a British invention designed to sell everything ranging from cashmere cardigans to “teeny-tiny festive harnesses for dachshunds.”

This certainly isn’t the first time a cultural trope has been used as a marketing tactic (see: “the French girl“). But to understand why hygge has so captivated our hearts, you’d have to dig past the cardamom buns and minimalist furniture and consider what it is about countries like Denmark that make well-being and comfort so readily accessible to its inhabitants.

“It’s basically building in elements of togetherness, of savoring simple pleasures, of relaxation, of comfort on an everyday basis.”

One prevailing and somewhat obvious theory: when you’re not scrambling in survival mode to cover your basic needs, it’s a lot easier to operate from a hygge mindset, which is one that prioritizes health and quality of life above all. Having free university, universal health care, paid family leave, ample vacation time and gender equality is certainly one way to get there, and it’s a big part of the reason why Scandinavian society is so appealing to a certain subset of Americans. That, and the consistent ranking of Scandinavian countries at the top of the World Happiness Report.

“The Scandinavian dream isn’t just about foraging for food, however,” writes The Independent‘s Susie Mesure. “With my return to work looming, I’m obsessed with the philosophy of working to live rather than living to work. While we in Britain are all stuck at our office desks, the Scandinavians are all back at home having supper together. Even the dads. Or rather, especially the dads, because Nordic parenting is famously two-sided.”

Of course, many people have been quick to point out that things aren’t quite as sunny as they seem among the fjords (figuratively, but also literally — seasonal depression is no joke). You need high taxes to maintain that cushy welfare state, which some people would argue is a bad thing. Also, a big part of the reason things are so much less dysfunctional up there is the smallness and the sameness of those countries. The less savory reality is that anti-immigrant sentiment exists in Nordic countries (despite, and perhaps because of, the fact that Sweden took in such a high proportion of refugees).

Beyond that, quiet conformity is a cultural expectation, and anything that might disrupt the hygge — controversial opinions, tough conversations, unpleasant emotions — is discouraged. Hygge has even been co-opted by the right-wing, anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party as a symbol of everything the country stands to lose by allowing foreign influences to co-exist within its borders.

Still, the differences between “here” and “there” probably run much deeper than political persuasions. In The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, British author Michael Booth points out that there’s a fundamental difference in how our cultures conceive of “freedom.” In Norway, there’s the “freedom to be.” In America, there’s the “freedom to do.” What’s more, “control” means being protected from risk in Sweden. In America, “control” is something that’s left up to the individual.

Perhaps, at the end of the day, our cultural fascination is not really about vintage wooden children’s toys, but rather a more deep-seated desire to shift the locus of control and possibility — to experience the comfort of a less aggressively self-determined stance.

If not that, then it’s definitely the lingonberry jam.

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