I’ve always hated winter. I hate the cold, I hate how everything looks gray and barren, and I hate putting on layers upon layers of clothes before going outside. But until I move somewhere tropical, which is unlikely to happen anytime soon, winter is one of those inevitable realities.
Rather than spiraling into despair, I started trying to think of things that might make the cold just a little bit more bearable, and the first thing that came to mind was hygge. Just in case you’ve been living in a tiny home off the grid for the last few years, hygge (pronounced hoo-ga) is the Danish concept of coziness popularized by Meik Wiking’s The Little Book of Hygge. According to the book, hygge is the reason that Denmark is consistently ranked as one of the word’s happiest countries. Making this list is actually pretty astonishing for a country that gets as little as seven hours of daylight in the wintertime.
Although the Danish, in many ways, live more sustainably than we do here in the US, I was always a little hesitant to embrace hygge because it seemed like another consumerist trend, sending people off to buy more mass-produced, polyester pillows and blankets in the name of happiness. However, after learning more about hygge, I decided to attempt to practice it in the purest, most sustainable way possible.
At its core, hygge isn’t about consumerism at all. It’s about warmth, comfort, and togetherness. It’s also worth noting that the concept itself isn’t exclusively Danish; hygge has its counterpart in other Northern European languages and cultures. In Swedish, it’s mysa, in Dutch it’s gezellig, and in Norwegian, it’s koselig, according to this article.
From my understanding, the concept of hygge can be broken down into five main components: lighting, food and drink, clothing, home, and togetherness. Read on to find out how I’ve adapted each of these components to an ethical and sustainable lifestyle.
If you know anything about hygge, then you probably know that candles are considered essential to creating a warm and cozy atmosphere. However, most candles are made from paraffin, a petroleum byproduct that releases toxins when burned. Several of these toxins, including benzene and toluene, are known carcinogens. Many candles also contain synthetic fragrances, which can cause respiratory issues, particularly among those with asthma or allergies.
Candles made from beeswax or vegetable wax (like soy or coconut), on the other hand, are a far more sustainable and ethical alternative. I’m a big fan of the hand-poured soy candles from Organic Savanna, which they kindly sent me to try. Their candles are vegan, cruelty-free, and made from soy wax and essential oils. They also come in upcycled glass holders, collected from the streets and landfills of Nairobi. Once the candle has been burned, the holder can be reused as a drinking glass. Best of all, Organic Savanna creates jobs for Kenyan women, and 100% of the profits from their products are reinvested in social good. If you want to burn candles to cultivate hygge, then I definitely recommend Organic Savanna’s candles as an ethical and sustainable alternative to your average candle.
Food & Drink
On a cold winter day, there are few simple pleasures more relaxing or hyggeligt than drinking a hot cup of tea. Unfortunately, many tea bags contain polypropylene, a plastic polymer that helps them to maintain their shape. The plastic prevents tea bags from decomposing, and when consumed, it can be hazardous to your health. Steeping just one tea bag releases about 11.6 million microplastics, and even more nanoplastics, into each cup. Yuck!
Instead of tea bags, opt for organic, loose-leaf tea and a reuseable tea strainer/infuser. I actually found my strainer in the kitchenware section of a thrift store! If you can find it, it’s also best to buy your tea from bulk bins or in plastic-free packaging. And if you don’t already have a tea strainer, consider using what you have before buying one. A piece of cheese cloth that you can wash and reuse, or a standard stainless steel kitchen strainer will also work for straining out the tea leaves after your tea steeps.
In terms of food, you can’t get much more hyggelig than sweets. According to The Little Book of Hygge, the Danes consume twice as many sweets as the European average. Personally, I’m not sure how I would make it through the winter without baked goods and copious amounts of chocolate. At the same time, though, I don’t want to support companies that have been known to use child labor and slave labor in their cocoa production (hi, Nestlé, Hershey, and Mars), so I always look for fair trade chocolate. This website has a list of companies that use only ethically grown cocoa, and it also shows you which labels to look for when buying chocolate.
Whenever I complain about the cold, somebody inevitably tells me “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” As much as I disagree with this statement (after all, you can’t out-dress a hurricane or a tornado), I will (grudgingly) admit that bad weather is far more bearable when you have the right clothing.
When it comes to winter clothes, the softer and warmer the better! Clothing associated with hygge is typically very casual as well. To dress sustainably, choose natural fibers like wool and organic cotton, but before buying new, look for second-hand items, shop your own closet, or organize a (socially-distanced) clothing swap! One of the few items you’ll probably have to purchase new are socks. I love the organic cotton socks from Pact, pictured below. They are made in fair trade factories from cotton grown without toxic chemicals. When it’s really cold, I sometimes layer a pair of wool socks on top of my cotton ones. This way I don’t have to wash my few wool pairs quite as often!
Hygge is all about staying home, which is fortunate since there are few places one can safely go during a pandemic. According to The Little Book of Hygge, every home needs a hyggekroge, or a nook. This is a space where you can snuggle up with a blanket, a book, and a cup of tea. And if it’s next to a window, even better. I won’t lie—creating my own hyggekroge is probably the best thing I’ve done this winter. I squeezed a second-hand Papasan chair into a corner of my bedroom, next to the window, and added a blanket, a pillow, a plant, and my Organic Savanna candle. There is no better place to read, write, or simply watch the snow fall. In fact, I’m sitting in my hyggekroge as I type this.
To make your own hyggekroge, re-purpose pillows, blankets, and furniture you already have at home, or look for second-hand items. Vintage décor and items from nature are very hyggelig, so instead of buying new, hit up your local thrift shop or antique store to hunt for the perfect chair or lamp. Or, get creative and turn natural elements like pinecones, twigs, leaves, or stones into décor. If you need of inspiration, check out my hygge board on Pinterest!
Last but certainly not least, togetherness is an important aspect of hygge. This one is tricky, because spending time with lots of other people this winter isn’t ethical or sustainable, but luckily, small gatherings are actually more hyggelig than large ones! So grab your roommate, family, or quarantine pod/bubble, and spend some time together. There are lots of hygge activities to choose from, but some of the most sustainable include baking and cooking, playing board games, and sledding. One final idea from The Little Book of Hygge that really struck me is that while sitting inside with a cup of tea is hyggeligt, doing so is even more hyggeligt after you have spent the day playing outside in the snow.
At the end of the day, I still suspect that Denmark’s place on the list of happiest countries might have more to do with the welfare state, relative gender equality, flat power structure, and the high level of trust embedded in the culture than it does with hygge, but hey, if practicing hygge makes me even a little bit happier this winter, then it’s well worth the effort.
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