Scandinavian Wisdom

Scandinavian Wisdom

“Lagom” is a Swedish word that I discovered a few years ago.  It means “enough, but not too much” and says a lot about Swedish culture and lifestyle.  The idea of “lagom” allows more than enough for bare necessity while still adhering to limits.  Basically, it means just the right amount and recognizes that “just the right amount” is different for everyone and is always changing.  I’m still working out how to use the word in a daily life that isn’t based in Sweden.

But this post isn’t about Sweden or lagom.  I discovered another Scandinavian word just today, but this time it comes from the Danes.  The word is “Hygge.”  And according to Jim Walsh, describes an intentional chilling out of the spirit as a way to harmonize with – not combat or stave off – the darkness of winter, and an intentional meditative time created out of the much-maligned but potentially fruitful malady we desperately call cabin fever.

Russel McLendon, in an article all about the principles behind Hygge, writes:

It’s not an easy word for outsiders to pronounce — it sounds sort of like HYU-gah — and it’s even harder to translate. Hygge apparently has no direct analogue in English, and related words like “coziness,” “togetherness” and “well-being” only cover a fraction of its nebulous definition. 


English words like “cozy” don’t do it justice. “Coziness relates to physical surroundings — a jersey can be cozy, or a warm bed — whereas hygge has more to do with people’s behavior toward each other,” writes author Helen Dyrbye.  “It is the art of creating intimacy: a sense of comradeship, conviviality and contentment rolled into one.”

Minnesota, where I live, has a climate not so different from the one that  birthed this concept of hygge in Denmark.  Days this time of year – the ones that cozy up to the winter solstice – are short.  And even when temperatures are above average they are still below freezing.  I enjoy winter and all the activities like skiing and ice skating and sledding that are possible when the temperature drops – but I’m not immune to the waning daylight and cold extremities that come with the winter days.  From December to March, northern mid-western America – even for those who love to be outside in the snow – can feel bleak.

And that, my friends, is where hygge comes in.  Hygge is peeling off your frosty winter coat after some frigid laps around the frozen pond and discovering that someone built a fire in the wood stove while you were outside.  Hygge is sipping a craft beer at a local pub and smiling across the room at the stranger who sighs in contentment upon walking into a  room filled with cheerful chatter.  Hygge is sitting down at the kitchen table to journal by candle light in the predawn darkness while the coffee perks.  Hygge is warm blankets, fresh bread straight from the oven, steaming mugs of tea, crackling fires, good books, children whispering in a corner, acoustic guitar music and conversations that mean something.

And most importantly, hygge is taking the time to slow down and savor all those things that lead to a sense of contentment, coziness and community building.  Americans have ways to go when it comes to mastering the art of “savoring,” but when we can figure it out and teach our children to practice it as well, I think we’ll be onto something.  Kind of like the Danes are.  And the Swedes.

I guess Scandinavians know their stuff when it comes to simplicity and making the best of it.  Skål!