The Feeling of Hygge: How can you experience Hygge through the Five Senses?

Throughout the day, our eyes dart from one social media post to the next. Unbeknownst to us, each of those visuals create tiny blips of emotion in our minds – most of them negative.  Comparison, insecurity, envy and outrage ebb and flow.

The music that comes out these days often sounds like a cacophony of jarring synthetic noises, and leaves us more agitated than relaxed. Sometimes, all this make me wonder – how can we navigate this non-stop onslaught on our senses? Is there a way to feed our senses, and our hearts, in a way that nourishes us?

This is why the chapter Five Dimensions of Hygge in Meik Wiking‘s book, made me sit up and take note.  Hygge (hyoo-gah) has become quite a catchword in lifestyle since Wiking, a happiness researcher,  wrote a bestseller called The Little Book of Hygge – The Danish Way to Living Well. The word itself is not easily translatable, and stands for an ethereal feeling of cosy comfort that warms up our souls.

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Year after year, a lifestyle founded on the spirit of hygge has put Denmark at the top of the happiness list. That said, how can we take a mystical-sounding concept like the ‘cosiness of the soul’, and sort it into actionable steps to achieve more happiness in our lives? How can we hone our five senses for more hygge experiences?

Magic is really only the utilization of the entire spectrum of the senses.
― Michael Scott, The Alchemyst

SEEING

Danes are obsessed with the quality of their lighting, and understandably so. Good lighting helps them survive their long, dark winters that stretch from October to March, with another 179 days of rain thrown in for good measure. To brighten up these bleak days, people of Denmark install warm lighting in their homes; temperature of those lights close to that of sunset or candlelight (1800 Kelvin).

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It doesn’t require money to light a room correctly, but it does require culture.

– Poul Henningsen (Danish designer of the iconic PH lamps)

Swapping your fluorescent tube for a warm lightbulb is a quick and easy way to add more hygge to your life. And so is burning candles in the evening. Danes have the distinction of being the biggest candle-burners in all of Europe. Nothing fancy, just regular candles. Expensive perfumed candles are considered unnatural and therefore less hygge.

Just like light, colors too influence our emotions. Typical hygge colors are dark and natural. But nature is a riot of colors. Imagine the the sparkling blue ocean stretching to the horizon, or look at a lush green garden after a rain. Blue and green calms us down, and brings out a more serene side of us. A bright red dress or lipstick on a woman is considered sexy by a lot of men. Whereas grey can make you feel dull.

A holistic treatment method called color therapy or chromotherapy uses color and light to balance the body’s energy centers called chakras. Whether we believe in chakras or find it woo-woo, colors do have an effect on our emotions.

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Completely changing the color palette of your home is not easy or practical. You can add a splash of your chosen color  via cushions, artifacts, wall hangings, a painting or flowers. Or even by the color of the clothes you wear. And how about bringing some cheerful plants home?

Another sensory aspect of hygge is watching slow movements like flickering of flames, raindrops dripping from leaves after a shower, a river flowing etc.  Slow natural movements and pleasant colors can together create cosy comfort.

TOUCH

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A loving touch can fix us a happy cocktail of chemicals and hormones, such as endorphins, oxytocin and serotonin. Never miss a chance to hug a loved one, or to give a pat of encouragement.  It can reduce stress, boost our immune system, encourage social bonding and give us an overall sense of well-being.

Natural textures like wood, wool, the fur of your dog, are all high on hygge factor. Running your fingers over them makes you feel warm and cosy. Smaller things made by real craftmanship are more hygge than shiny swanky stuff.

“The rustic, organic surface of something imperfect and something that has been or will be affected by age appeals to the touch of hygge”

-Meik Wiking

SOUNDS

The sounds of hygge are the sounds of a safe environment. The soft conversations in our homes while growing up, the laughter of our best friends, are all music to our ears.  Sound and music stimulte areas of the brain associated with emotion and memory. This is probably why a lot of Youtubers are incorporating ASMR sounds into their videos.

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In his best-selling book, Think Like a Monk, author and  famous podcast host Jay Shetty advises us to sound-engineer our life. Our brain is processing the sounds around us even when we are not conscious of it. Whether it’s playing our favorite music, or chanting, or simply switching to a more pleasant ringtone, we can live happier and healthier lives by being intentional about what we listen to.

It isn’t entirely unexpected that hygge can also be found in the absence of noise. Silence allows us to hear the more subtle sounds of nature, and of our daily lives. The sound of chai frothing as it is poured into cups, birds chirping in the morning, our favorite food sizzling in the pan. Paying attention to this gentle and familiar soundtrack of our lives soothes our soul.

These days while I wash the dishes and wind down for the night, I start the playlist of oldies from my childhood. As Kishore Kumar yodels and croons, I unconsciously smile, and everything feels all right with the world again.

SMELL

Nothing triggers memories the way smell does. The best smells are the ones that take you back to a time and place where you felt safe. 

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When I was a child I used to spend summer holidays at my grandparents’ place up in the mountains. Every morning we kids would wake up to the smell of home-grown coffe brewing, mingled with wood smoke and the hushed voices of adults speaking in the kitchen. To this day, a mix of wood smoke and the mountain air is my drug of choice. It takes me back to how I used to feel as a child, away from the worries of the world.

TASTE

We all have our comfort food. When I get stressed I reach for icecream; if there’s no icecream I can manage with anything high on carbs. We also celebrate with food. We love our traditional food, what is native to us, what we grew up eating. It is the taste of home. And of hygge.

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Generally, hygge is sweet. But comfort food has been found to vary with gender. While men favor savory food like steak, women like myself usually go for ice cream and chocolate.

THE SIXTH SENSE OF HYGGE

PIGLET: “How do you spell love?”

WINNIE THE POOH: “You don’t spell it, you feel it.”

Finally, everything considered, hygge is a feeling. You trust the ones you are with and you feel safe. You feel you can be completely yourself around these people. And in life you get a feeling about the path you need to take next. This inner knowing is sometimes more valuable than what you experience through your senses. Do enjoy the pleasant sensations of your senses, and stay open to the sixth sense of hygge.

What is Hygge? Can you Hygge if you are not from Denmark?

With a few simple steps, you can add more hygge to your life.

Hygge – The Danish Way to Living Well by Meik Wiking kept me going through a particularly difficult week of the pandemic. With splendid photographs and a research-based look at what makes people truly happy, it was the perfect balm for a frazzled mind.

Denmark often ranks as the happiest country in the world and through the course of the book, Wiking explores how a Dane’s happiness is linked to a lifestyle deeply rooted in the concept of hygge. So, what exactly is hygge? Pronounced hyoo-guh, it is one of those magnificent, culturally rooted words, that evades direct translation. Perhaps, ‘Cosiness of the Soul’ is the description that is closest to this deep feeling of comfort bordering on the spiritual. And don’t we all want more of that comfort in our lives… Now more than ever.

Denmark is also not your average country. It is an affluent welfare State, with guaranteed healthcare, free university education and unemployment benefits, protecting its citizens against most uncertainties of life. It’s a country where people feel safe enough to leave their babies in their prams outside cafes. And this is where my cynicism sets in.

I live in a hot and dusty, third world country with its intense third world problems. ‘Cocoa by candlelight’ (another description for hygge) doesn’t quite cut it for me. All the same, there’s a faith in the idea that we can all ‘bloom from where we are planted’.

So I combed through the book again looking for clues. How can I bring some hygge into my life when my environment is so far-removed from the Danes’?

RELATIONSHIPS

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The first clue comes quite early on in the book. And well, nobody is saying that you can hygge if you are hungry. According to World Happiness Report commissioned by United Nations, “While basic living standards are essential for happiness, after the baseline has been met, happiness varies more with the quality of human relationships than income”.

This is quite heartening. No matter where we are, we can all have a small group of people to call our own. For some it’s their family. For others it’s a group of friends – more family than family. We can also build good work relationships too. Relationships give us a sense of acceptance and safety. A space to be our authentic selves, where we can bring both the finest and oddest parts of ourselves, and be truly accepted and loved. True belonging could be one of the most important keys to happiness anywhere in the world.

Happiness depends more on the quality of human relationships than income.”

THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE ARE FREE

If we think a Dane’s experience of hygge has everything to do with the luxuries of European life, we are wrong. In fact, in a way reminiscent of many Eastern cultures, bragging and flaunting designer items are considered to be in poor taste in Denmark. Instead, imagine rustic surroundings, cosy home-made stuff, warm lighting and good food; all in the company of people you love. Now we are getting the picture.

Humility is a key ingredient of the Hygge experience. 

Humility and modesty are key ingredients of a hygge experience. You could be a monk in Tibet or a vegetable vendor in Puerto Rico (another country high up on the happiness list), yet this is one way of life that brings joy across the board.

FOOD

There isn’t a place in the world where food is not an integral part of culture. The food on our plate might not have fancy names like Skibberlabskovs or Ableskiver, and we don’t need to switch to hot chocolate as our preferred beverage.

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For most of us, our native food is our hygge food. So curl up with a plate of hot banana fritters and piping hot tea, or whatever you crave, and watch your favourite funny movie, laughing out loud with friends. Let’s keep the world at bay for some precious hygge hours.

BEING IN THE PRESENT MOMENT

I have done a lot of work on this by now. And it still isn’t any easier. The mind races, broods, worries. And in all that hornet’s buzz inside our heads, we lose sense of the great gift that this present moment is.

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Life is always lived in the present moment. True purpose, passion, connection, salvation, all lies in this moment.

Breathe. Stay fully present to the people around you. Your kids telling you that story you only half understand, your spouse going on about something at their workplace which you understand nothing of; feel the breeze, listen to birdsong, bring all of you to this moment, and discover hygge.

FESTIVALS AND TRADITIONS

The most hygge festival of Denmark is probably Christmas, which brings warm glow and cheer to a long bleak winter. My country of diverse faiths celebrates countless festivals including Christmas.

At its heart, all those festivals are the same – bright colours, flowers, oil lamps, sweets, sumptuous feasts and family gatherings. The traditions attached to festivals brings us joy, and they root us in our cultures, even when we move far away from our homes.

At its heart, all festivals are the same

SPENDING TIME IN NATURE

Have you felt a weight leave your body as you take that first whiff of mountain air on a long drive? Your body calms down, Your mind goes still. And you come back with renewed energy; sometimes with fresh ideas to take on your life afresh. Blessed are all of us who find pockets of nature, still preserved, a short drive away.

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Hygge is a feel-good book for sure. Meik Wiking sums up everything that helps the Danes live the happiest lives in the world,
in spite of their abysmally long, cold and dark winters – emphasizing each point with charming photographs that are a treat for eyes tired from watching too much news.

Candlelight and hot drinks warm up the Danes . We eat our fried spicy pakoras, drink our chai. And both the Danes and us chat and laugh with friends till our tummies ache. There’s more in common to human experience everywhere than what meets the eye.

Buy The Little Book of Hygge here

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