This winter, in preparation for what looks to be a terrifying year, millions of people traumatized by the ceaseless death and social turmoil of 2016 have decided to crawl back into the womb. Their return to fetal bliss is an Instagram-ready remake of the second half of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, complete with knitted sweaters, “adult” coloring books, and copious cups of calming teas. There are candles everywhere.
With a bilious mess of daddy-didn’t-love-me assuming the U.S. presidency in a matter of days and the Britain slowly inching its way out into the Atlantic, hygge—the Danish aesthetic import that elaborates comfort into a life philosophy—has crept towards the English-speaking West at just the right time. The endless stream of books published on the subject stress the benefits of Ugg-booted inertia and snug living rooms, covers pulled right up around adherents’ necks against the chilly world outside. These stocking-filler texts drive us towards a definition, too: The Little Book of Hygge has it as “cosiness of the soul;” Hygge, the Danish Art of Happiness compares it to “a compass, steering us towards small moments that money cannot buy.”
It’s with a terrifying but unwitting accuracy, though, that Helen Russell, in The Year of Living Danishly, calls hygge a “complete absence of anything annoying or emotionally overwhelming.” Hygge is against conflict and discomfort, distrustful of newness or challenging viewpoints. It is a closed system. Or, as Charlotte Abrahams, author of Hygge: A Celebration of Simple Pleasures, Living the Danish Way has it: “Hygge is very gentle. There is no discussion of politics or anything controversial that makes you feel uptight.”
This all makes sense. A collective craving for childlike comforts in response to social trauma is a psychoanalytic classic. It was Carl Jung who wrote in The Practice of Psychotherapy, “The patient’s regressive tendency[...] is not just relapse into infantilism, but an attempt to get at something necessary[…] the universal feeling of childhood innocence, the sense of security, or protection, or reciprocated love, of trust.” He was a half-sentence away from extolling the virtues of homemade yogurt, eye contact with close family, and a deep, abiding hygge.
Hygge’s turning inward against the world outside comes with a more sinister edge, however. As Charlotte Higgins pointed out in her deep dive for the Guardian last month, hygge’s ties to the far-right in Denmark are remarkably strong. Pia Kjærsgaard, the leader of the right-wing, anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party, has publicly extolled the virtues of the lifestyle, insisting that her office remain cozy and hyggelig at all times. Denmark’s welfare state and reputation for tolerance may be admired by progressives in the U.K. and U.S., but, as Higgins points out, the country’s love of hyggefied thatched cottages with closed doors suggests a conservative undercurrent. “Anything that threatens that safe community, including alien values and ideologies, cannot be tolerated,” she writes.
The journalist and author Michael Booth had the same sensation when he moved from England to Denmark. “Hygge can seem like self-administered social gagging, characterized more by a self-satisfied sense of its own exclusivity than notions of shared conviviality,” he wrote in The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle. Bloom says that it falls in line with a “postcolonial drawbridge theory—the ‘What was lost without [will be found within]’ way of valuing what little cultural and economic capital Denmark had left after the loss of its empire.”
Indeed, Denmark has been struggling with its colonial legacy lately; a rise in the number of refugees over the past two years has uncovered the limits of Denmark’s famously progressive outlook. The government can now seize any item worth more than $1,450 from a refugee in order to pay for their sustenance and upkeep in the country. And after slashing refugee benefits last year, the government advertised the news in Lebanese newspapers, just to be sure that the country didn’t seem quite so attractive to newcomers. The far right Danskernes Parti, or “Danes’ Party,” handed out ‘Asylum Spray’ in the port town of Haderslev in September. Pepper spray being illegal, they filled the cans with hairspray instead, but the message remained hideously clear. “We wanted to figure out a way for Danish people, in particular women, to protect themselves,” party leader Daniel Carlsen said. “In the short run we want to provide solutions to make life better and safer for the Danish people.”
If his words sounded a little hyggelig, it’s no coincidence. Poured into hygge’s candlelit sweetness, like a cloying cream filling, are inevitable and explicit cases of xenophobia and racism. In their recent study of online communities in Denmark, Ahmad Beltagui and Thomas Schmidt explored the hygge of the closed chat room. In one instance, this sense of community was fostered with “what one [user] referred to as a ‘‘little Hyggelig racist joke’.” This online interaction had an unsavory conclusion: “The rapid escalation saw the opponent being addressed in upper case text and accused of both not speaking Danish and being homosexual.” Though such bullying, the researchers write, would not ordinarily be particularly hyggelig, the abuse came “from a user with the word Hygge in their username.” With racist, homophobic abuse online being a cornerstone of right-wing populism today, this little hyggelig anecdote should raise doubts about just how apolitical hygge can claim to be.
The next year promises to make good on all of 2016’s ominous misery. Responding to that in any meaningful way will mean dousing the log fire, leaving the house, and feeling a chill. It will mean engaging with other people, not just those we feel comfortable with. It will require collaboration, energy, and work. The ex-pat website Your Danish Life says that things are “only hyggelig when you meet up with people with whom you feel safe enough to be yourself,” where “you can share the vicissitudes of life, knowing that no one will challenge you on your opinions, and where their difficulties most likely resemble yours.” We tried that already; we’ll be dealing with the consequences for four more years.