The Danes are among the world’s hap­pi­est peo­ple. Curl up with our guide to their pos­i­tive phi­los­o­phy — UAE style


Gather your friends, as many can­dles as you can find, cook up some meat­balls or cin­na­mon rolls, and en­joy your time to­gether. That’s hygge. It took me one long sen­tence to ex­plain the cosy, pos­i­tive feel­ing that comes from to­geth­er­ness paired with com­fort­ing food and sur­round­ings. The Danes can say it in just one word, which can be a verb or noun (the ad­jec­tive is hyggeligt). It’s pro­nounced hue-gah, mak­ing it nearly as plea­sur­able to say as it is to ex­pe­ri­ence.

The con­cept has, in re­cent years, spread far be­yond the bor­ders of the Scan­di­na­vian coun­try (pop­u­la­tion: 5.7 mil­lion) – with its neigh­bour, the UK, pick­ing it up and mak­ing some­thing of a fuss about it (read: sales op­por­tu­nity). In­ter­est in the prac­tice of hygge spread to the US, with The New York Times cov­er­ing it at the end of 2016, and ar­ti­cles about can­dles, blan­kets and dozens of books have be­ing writ­ten on the sub­ject.

And while Den­mark does re­port­edly burn more can­dles than any other coun­try, it is also known for be­ing less con­sumerist than other na­tions, and, over­all, one of the hap­pi­est places on earth. Part of that national hap­pi­ness, say the ac­tual so­ci­ol­o­gists who have the happy job of study­ing hap­pi­ness, comes down to the Danes’ in-built need for hygge. (An­other part of Dan­ish hap­pi­ness? The whop­ping taxes the Danes pay, which

‘Hygge doesn’t cost money, hygge ISN’T a smell or a SCI­ENCE. You’re al­ready do­ing it and it’s FREE. It’s not even Dan­ish. It’s uni­ver­sal. The only way it’s par­tic­u­larly Dan­ish is the AMOUNT we use the WORD’

fund a sup­port­ive wel­fare sys­tem, and a cov­etable work-life bal­ance.) Let’s al­low a Dan­ish per­son to ex­plain. ‘Hygge, to me, is about mo­ments that are price­less, with al­most no cost at­tached,’ says Nancy Pav, a Dubai-based Dane who works in PR. ‘It is about mak­ing a spe­cial mo­ment, in which you feel safe, happy and at peace. Think cosy!’

She’s been in the UAE for nearly three­and-a-half years, but eas­ily re­counts a hygge mo­ment in all its Dan­ish glory. ‘It is when I was sat on the sofa with a wo­ven blan­ket and a colour­ful Royal Copen­hagen mug in one hand… can­dles lit and the rain pour­ing down out­side.’ Sigh. Don’t you feel a bit hygge al­ready? It’s no won­der the world had its own hygge mo­ment in 2016 – it was an un­set­tling year, to say the least, and the temp­ta­tion to pull your wo­ven blan­ket over your head and go back to bed was great – but then you’d be miss­ing out on one of the best things about hygge: Gath­er­ing with loved ones.

‘For me, it is al­ways about be­ing to­gether with your fam­ily or friends, and hav­ing a cosy time, eat­ing “comfy food”,’ Mar­i­anne Brond­sager Mussi, a Den­mark-born chef, tells me. ‘It is not re­ally the food that is hygge, but who is around the ta­ble, and who you are shar­ing your meal with.’

None­the­less, she names a few dishes – mostly warm­ing, tra­di­tional Dan­ish ones –

that would typ­i­cally grace the ta­ble when some­one says ‘come to mine and we’ll hygge’. Tartelette, a chicken stew with as­para­gus in a crispy bread shell; or at lunch, an open sandwich, in­clud­ing the beau­ti­fully evoca­tive Dyr­lae­gens nat­mad – ‘the vet’s late din­ner’ – rye bread with liver pâté, salted meat and onion. Sweet dishes were what sprung to mind when Mar­i­anne first thought of hygge, such as ae­ble kage – a tri­fle-like dish of vanilla-scented ap­ple purée lay­ered with mac­a­roons and topped with whipped cream – or cin­na­mon buns.

The best things in life are free

Speak to Danes – there are an es­ti­mated 5,000 re­sid­ing in the UAE – and you’ll quickly dis­cover hygge doesn’t de­pend on buy­ing things, how­ever.

‘Hygge doesn’t cost money, hygge isn’t a smell or a sci­ence. You’re al­ready do­ing it and it’s free,’ says Sofie Ha­gen, a Lon­don­based Dan­ish co­me­dian who per­formed in Dubai ear­lier this month. ‘It’s not even Dan­ish. It’s uni­ver­sal.’

‘The only way it’s par­tic­u­larly Dan­ish is the amount we use the word. I was on a train with my sis­ter and the con­duc­tor came to check our tick­ets. He said, “Oh, you’re eat­ing clemen­tines, that’s hygge!” and I said, “Yeah, we were just at my grand­mother’s do­ing hygge.” He said, “We usu­ally hygge with clemen­tines at home as well.” It’s prob­a­bly be­ing said by ev­ery Dan­ish per­son 10 times a day.’

The term ‘cosy’ is used a lot when de­scrib­ing hygge, but mo­ti­va­tional speaker Mo­gens Jensen, who moved with his fam­ily to Dubai seven months ago, puts it in lan­guage that might make it clearer: He calls it be­ing present.

‘Pos­i­tive psy­chol­ogy is about mak­ing a plat­form for flour­ish­ing, and hygge is just that, a spir­i­tual thing, not a phys­i­cal thing. You do pos­i­tive ac­tiv­i­ties.’ For him, those have in­cluded fam­ily vis­its to a food truck event in a park, lo­cal mar­kets, and set­ting up a tent in his gar­den for sto­ry­time with his two chil­dren.

Hygge ‘can be an in­ter­so­cial ac­tiv­ity but can also be in­traso­cial,’ some­thing one does alone. ‘A good de­scrip­tion is do­ing ac­tiv­i­ties for their own good – you are not try­ing to achieve some­thing. It’s very much about be­ing present, but also tak­ing time out.’

That’s not al­ways an easy thing to do, for some of us – mak­ing a con­scious ef­fort to be pos­i­tive. Is hygge go­ing to be hard work?

‘If you are in a room with some­one you don’t like, you don’t do hygge,’ Mo­gens chuck­les. ‘You have to be very mind­ful, you ob­serve, you don’t judge, you have to take ev­ery­thing in, you be in the mo­ment. You don’t need [ac­tiv­i­ties], those are just plat­forms.’

Ali Ghiai, born and raised in Copen­hagen and work­ing in Dubai since 2013, also calls hygge a state of mind. ‘The in­gre­di­ents dif­fer a lot from per­son to per­son, but over­all it’s… peace­ful and pos­i­tive think­ing in a calm en­vi­ron­ment.’

He also points to the plethora of cof­fee shops and food trucks in Dubai as lo­cales for lo­cal hygge. ‘I think these el­e­ments are con­tribut­ing to a dif­fer­ent way of en­gage­ment with the com­mu­nity and cre­ate a unique at­mos­phere. This is def­i­nitely a hyggeligt thing and I would like to see more and more of this cov­er­ing the land­scape of a hyggeligt Dubai.’

So while we don’t have long, cold win­ters – the most hyggeligt time of year for Danes is around Christ­mas – prac­tis­ing the mind­ful­ness, peace and so­cial warmth of hygge is more than pos­si­ble in the hot, sunny, fast-paced UAE. The first Dane I thought of when start­ing this ar­ti­cle was one of the busiest peo­ple I know – event or­gan­iser Thomas Ovesen of 117 Live. If he was do­ing hygge, then it must be pos­si­ble. ‘It is cer­tainly the op­po­site of stress and hype, but not at all some­thing you can­not cre­ate and en­joy any­where, in­clud­ing here,’ he says. ‘I share it all the time but [friends] not be­ing Dan­ish prob­a­bly don’t know they are en­joy­ing a spot of hygge,’ he adds with a smile.

‘It is hard to get the fancy long can­dles go­ing in the UAE, as the AC turns it into a wax fest,’ says Nancy of her at­tempts at UAE hygge. ‘But I have found other ways to hygge, such as meet­ing up with girls at a cake bou­tique and dis­cussing life and love. Or bet­ter yet, cook­ing a nice din­ner and hav­ing ev­ery­one gather around and catch up.’

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