Hygge 1: What’s the British Equivalent?

Great Britain


You can’t get away from hygge in the London bubble; it’s in shops, in books, at dinner parties, everywhere at once. If you’ve experienced hygge you’ll know it’s a simple pleasure. For those who’ve been living away from the chattering classes this winter, hygge is a Danish word describing a feeling or mood that comes from enjoying everyday moments in cosy, safe surroundings.

It manifests itself in baggy cable-knit jumpers, deep sofas, open fires, mugs of chocolate, frosty windows, warmth and retrenchment. There’s an equivalent in most languages; in Germany I suppose it would be gemütlich or heimat or something similar. I seem to recall that unheimlich means the revelation of what is hidden, and hygge has a sense of privacy about it.

When my partner first arrived in the UK, he professed mystification about the peculiarly English concept of ‘indoors’. It was, I explained, where most things happened; inside a warm house, or if outside, in a neutral communal space of an English pub. Very little English life occurs in the open air anymore, which is why I’ve always partly lived in other countries. The freedom to spend time in the outside world is a huge relief. I think of Alison Steadman in Mike Leigh’s ‘Life Is Sweet’, horrified that her daughter thought she’d gone for a walk. ‘I’ve never been for a walk in my life, have I?’

In Britain there was often nothing to go out for, the weather was bad, the shops were shut, bars and restaurants existed for the well-off. Outdoors was also rather common. Men with suntans were regarded suspiciously because it meant they had spent time outdoors, i.e. in poorly paid jobs. Indoor work in the city was clerical.

So could ‘indoors’ be the English equivalent of hygge?

The concept of relaxing indoors has changed greatly in my lifetime, from a three-piece suite arranged around a fireplace, then a TV. Now more than half British homes no longer have a dedicated dining table and a third of all family eat sandwiches on a Sunday instead of a roast (although not on my watch). Does this mean that hygge now consists of children locked in their bedrooms playing ‘Gangsta Kill 4’ while dad and mum go out? We have more leisure time, but the largest part of that is spent shopping, not playing sports, going to museums and art galleries.

We do have a better idea of physical health now, though, and ‘getting your steps in’ has certainly become a Thing. There’s also more to do outside in the winter, and it’s possible that with global warming comes further encouragement to step beyond the great indoors.


9 comments on “Hygge 1: What’s the British Equivalent?”

  1. Wayne #1 says:

    Live by the Sea in the UK and you will be drawn outside. It won’t matter if its summer or winter or the season in-between (we only get three seasons here in the uk apparently) I am out everyday and its those moments sitting outside drinking a Coffee watching the Sea that gives me that feeling (hygge) it doesn’t matter if its a wild winter day, getting under the canopy and sitting watching the sea in its winter turmoil or in the summer with all the day trippers walking past thats when you get the feeling.

  2. Rachel Green says:

    Dog walkers and poets 🙂

  3. Peter Dixon says:

    Arthur Daley always used to refer to ‘Her indoors’, but he was usually at the Winchester club having a G&T. Meanwhile Terry was usually seeking comfort in the arms of a nurse/secretary/stripper. The feeling of being somewhere that’s just right is different for everyone – you can’t have all your hygges in one basket.

    PS. The unheimlich manoeuvre is the act of forcing something back down the throat of a choking person.

  4. Brian Evans says:

    Going to southern Europe is an eyeopener. The local streets come to life in the evening. Everybody intermingles with each other and it is so nice. Admittedly we don’t have the weather in Britain, yet this did not put people off in the past.
    Middle-class people in Britain are so up themselves that street life is beneath them-most don’t even know their neighbours in South East England. But in working-class areas people used to socialise together.

    It was very noticeable recently when I was in an inner city Muslim area of Nottingham on a warm Sunday, and ditto in Glasgow on an other occasion on a warm Summer evening. It was just like it used to be-the streets were alive, , doors were open and children were playing. A lovely atmosphere! It always makes me laugh when UK citizens accuse others of not integrating- we are about the last nation on Earth to lecture others, being so bad at it ourselves.

  5. Jan says:

    What Brian’s saying just above is right when I visited North Harrow twelve months back walking back from the tube to my neighbours house where I was staying the night was a real surprise the shopping centre which is deserted during the daytime was alive vibrant interesting because the local Indian population were all out for the evening visiting the pastries, ice cream and Kulfi (Indian ice cream ) shops. Shopping at the green grocers, convenience stores and large supermarket. This was a relatively new development becase when I used to walk/stagger back from the tube in the mid evening many times a few years back it wasn’t really like that. North Harrow had always been a real mix of people all the time I lived there but balance of population changes kick in quite quickly.
    I reckon we use the weather as an excuse not to socialise outside. If you go down the Edgware road to Paddington all the cafes have outdoor sections which are full of the local Arab population eating and drinking. No matter what the weather! Same over in Green Lanes over in Haringey. The local population which is a proper mix of people are out strolling, eating drinking. It’s notable over Haringey how the male and female population don’t socialise so much together. When I was researching my great literary work a guide to the kebab shops of London some of the venues I attended were full of blokes not a lady in sight.

  6. Brian Evans says:

    Now Jan mentions it, some years back the centre of Neasden was full of people one pleasant summer Sat evening.
    It was very mixed race, including some white Brits.

  7. Vivienne says:

    Surely English hygge would have to feature a nice cup of tea?

    If I ever have to stay indoors all day, I feel as if I have been imprisoned forever. As children we always had to go outside at some time, even if just into the garden. Schools used not to allow children to stay indoors at break and lunchtimes. Fresh air and exercise were deemed healthy, perhaps left over from the 1930s health trend. Total hygge would have been frowned upon.

  8. Roger says:

    “hygge is a Danish word describing a feeling or mood that comes from enjoying everyday moments in cosy, safe surroundings.”

    The faces along the bar
    Cling to their average day:
    The lights must never go out,
    The music must always play,
    All the conventions conspire
    To make this fort assume
    The furniture of home;
    Lest we should see where we are,
    Lost in a haunted wood,
    Children afraid of the night
    Who have never been happy or good.

  9. John Howard says:

    Definitely Vivienne. Tea and for me a slice of cake ( or two ). Go to Betty’s tea rooms in Yorkshire and hygge just swirls around.

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