When I first learned about the fire at the Notre Dame cathedral on Monday, my word for the week had already been chosen and this post partially written. As the news updates about the incident began pouring in, I considered choosing different word, a French one that could somehow capture all the feelings surrounding the disaster, and saving my progress on this one for next week. But amid photos of Parisians holding each other in the streets and videos of vigilant mourners joined in the harmony of the hymns they sang — a city ravaged by riots and protests, uniting in the wake of a tragedy — it struck me how powerful a thing togetherness is. I found myself inspired by the human tendency not just to find comfort in times of trouble, but to create it. There couldn’t be a better week for hygge.
To be clear, there’s a difference between the feelings communicated by hygge and those captured in the heartbroken singing of hundreds of united Parisians. Rather to the contrary, hygge is at least partly defined by shutting out the outside world. It describes the feeling, for example, of snuggling under a blanket with a significant other while a favorite movie plays. Or staying up late with a group of close friends or family, talking about life into the wee hours of the morning. It shares the same etymology as the English word “hug”, which I think illustrates the concept quite well: a shared moment of warmth and intimacy, a symbol of comfort and protection. It reminds me of so many of my happiest memories — special times shared with special people. There’s a particular kind of feeling that seems to warm the air during such times, a blend of affection, happiness, and coziness that I never felt could be quite be captured in a single word. But now I know that it has a name: hygge, the feeling that’s like a warm hug. And hygge doesn’t stop there. It’s also a verb: “May you hygge” is a common way to bid someone farewell in Denmark. Its adjective form, hyggelig, is used as a greeting in Norwegian.
There seem to be many ways to define exactly what constitutes hygge. However, the general consensus is that it should be a safe haven in a homey environment, and that it involves the people you know and cherish best. Some Danes insist that hygge must involve lighting candles. Talking about problems, discussing controversial topics, and bragging about achievements are not hyggelig; hostility and disagreement are not welcome. Hygge is about camaraderie: an environment where everyone is perfectly comfortable with themselves and each other, and able to be their most true selves. A place where you can hygge is somewhere safe from the troubles of the world, and the people with whom you can hygge are those with whom you can open up and let loose. And as much as it can be a social thing, taking shape as a celebration of friendship, love, and togetherness, it can just as equally take place on an individual level, like a night at home in bed with Netflix and a bowl of popcorn. Ultimately, how you define and partake in hygge is up to you.
That’s why I chose to stick with this word in response to the tragedy at Notre Dame. The circumstances themselves aren’t very hyggelig, but the fact that it managed to bring the people of Paris together — that it prompted them to create their own troubled, yet hopeful sort of hygge — is what struck me as beautiful.
As much as our society stresses the importance of being engaged with the world around us, and all the ugliness that often comes with it, it’s just as important to remember that we need to come up for air. Sometimes it’s for our own good to escape from the strife and the troubles of the outside world for a little while — to take some time to hygge. Like the people of Paris coming together to mourn and heal, putting the riots behind them at least for now, sometimes there are bigger things than the conflicts and disagreements. In trying times when it seems like the world is driving people apart, we must resist by reminding ourselves how beautiful a thing it is to be together.