The Danish word “hygge” broke into American popular consciousness sometime in 2016, about the time it was shortlisted as Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year. Since then, hygge has appeared in everything from coffee-table books to a Hygge card game. It’s put forward as a magic bullet for our anxieties, collective loneliness and seasonal depression.
Surely there must be something to hygge, given that Denmark has been repeatedly found to be the happiest country in the world. But what, exactly, does it mean?
In English, it doesn't actually have a meaning. It's an untranslatable word — one that defines emotions, experiences or ways of being that we all share, just in a language other than our own.
Niels Malskær, a native Danish speaker living in Washington, has had to define hygge over and over again in conversations with English-speaking friends. “It's sort of the fuzziness, the comfort and the sense of the lack of polish — but on purpose,” he said. “You're not in a magazine home, you're in an actual home. There might be a lot of clutter around, but it doesn't really matter. You're just comfortable.”
Many of the articles and books written about hygge have lists of suggestions for what you can buy to make your space more “hyggelig,” a concept that Malskær finds puzzling. “You cannot buy hygge,” he said. “It's physically impossible.”