Mornings boast a certain silence that allows anxiety to sleep-in before worries bounce from ear to ear.
It is a calm that sits patiently on the rim of that first cup of coffee, swallowing the weight of yesterday with the possibility of today.
This quiet is why Paul Olsen loves mornings. He is a self-proclaimed “crazy morning person,” waking up as early as 4:30 a.m. to take in a moment of serenity.
“I would look outside my condo over the lake and every morning I would see four or five deer walk by,” he reminisced about his spring mornings. “I would take that in, and it was just so peaceful.” This is Olsen’s quintessential hygge moment.
Hygge (pronounced hoo-gah) is a Danish word that loosely translates to “coziness,” but to Olsen and many others, it is so much more.
“It’s surrounding yourself with things that bring you joy, peace and contentment,” he said. “It’s that favorite sweatshirt, favorite blanket, favorite book that you’re reading and trying to be present and enjoy that time.”
Olsen is a first-generation American, with Danish roots, who lives in Burlington. He centers his home around hygge by decorating with a collection of treasures that evoke feeling like his late parent’s dining room table brought over from Denmark.
“It’s this table that we had every Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner on for as long as I’ve lived. It’s things like that, that you walk by and glance at and there’s this feeling of peace around it,” he said.
Though hygge has long been at the core of Denmark’s national identity, it became a buzzword in the United States in 2016.
Four years later, on the verge of a second COVID-19 wave with new shutdowns on the horizon and the days simultaneously growing shorter and colder, the concept seems more important than ever.
The winter looks stark and the image of people stuck inside, warmed only by the hearth of their computer is a harrowing one.
Since the pandemic, Katina Idol, a licensed clinical mental health counselor in Morrisville, has seen increased rates of anxiety and depression in all age groups along with negative effects of social isolation.
“It’s important for people to know they’re not alone,” she said. “There’s a lot of hard out there right now and I keep reminding myself and my staff of the importance of being gentile and kind to yourself.”
In Idol’s experience, when people find flexible, creative ways to live in tough times, they are able to adapt and build resilience.
“It doesn’t mean you get over the hard time or that the hard time ends. It means that you learn how to navigate a hard time without it overwhelming you,” she said.
Idol is used to managing a busy life. She’s a mother of two, working from home along with her husband, navigating online school and living with her father in a multigenerational household.
To combat stress, she creates little moments of hygge by expressing daily gratitude, allowing herself to take breaks and switching up her surroundings.
“It’s been really important throughout this to change the space from time to time to make it feel different and new,” she said.
A weekly “reset” paired with periodic furniture rearrangements give her a sense of agency and a feeling of control in a world riddled with uncertainty.
How to hygge
Niki Brantmark, author of “Lagom: Not Too Little, Not Too Much: The Swedish Art of Living a Balanced, Happy Life,” would agree that hygge lies in the little things that are “unpretentious” and simply make us feel good.
“It’s just living the simple life, going back to basics and just making it cozy and comfortable,” she said.
Brantmark is an interior designer whose popular blog, My Scandinavian Home, embodies the spirit of hygge. She said, “If you just change a few things in a room by lighting some candles, having a great big pile of blankets and dimming down the lights to create a warm glow, you’ll automatically get more of a hygge feeling.”
While Brantmark’s designs are stunning, hygge is not about perfection — “You don’t need everything Martha Stewart perfect to enjoy a cozy supper by the fire, you’re just going to enjoy the cozy supper and not worry,” said Margret Woodruff, the Charlotte Public Library director whose Danish heritage inspired hygge-themed programming at the library.
For Woodruff, it’s about dodging the pressure and rolling with the punches, an attitude that has come in handy since her hygge library programs have changed with every new restriction.
In typical hygge fashion, the library made the best of the cards they were delt, pivoting the programs to virtual, making grab-bags of cozy treats and digitally displaying the prizes for its Get Cozy Raffle, currently underway.
“There’s going to be issues. You might run out of spaghetti sauce or if you’re playing a game on Zoom with your family, the connection might drop or you might forget to get everything ready, but it’s not that big of a deal,” Woodruff said. “The best thing is that you’re trying.”
So whether it’s reveling in the quiet mornings like Paul Olsen, switching things up like Katina Idol, lighting a daily candle like Niki Brantmark or just relaxing like Margret Woodruff; hygge can replace the cold forced-to-stay-home feeling with the warmth of, “I’m so glad I’m home.”