How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life

How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life

by Signe Johansen


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How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life by Signe Johansen

The “Danish coziness” philosophy is fast becoming the new “French living” in terms of aspirational lifestyle books and blogs. There are countless viral articles comparing the happiness levels of Americans versus Danes. Their homes are more homey; their people are more cheerful. It’s an attitude that defies definition, but there is a name for this slow-moving, stress-free mindset: hygge (pronounced “hoo-ga”). Hygge values the idea of cherishing yourself: candlelight, bakeries, and dinner with friends; a celebration of experiences over possessions, as well as being kind to yourself and treasuring a sense of community.

How to Hygge by chef and author Signe Johansen is a fresh, informative, lighthearted, fully illustrated how-to guide to hygge. It’s a combination of recipes, helpful tips for cozy living at home, and cabin porn: essential elements of living the Danish way—which, incidentally, encourages a daily dose of “healthy hedonism.” Who can resist that?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250122032
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 01/03/2017
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 147,345
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

SIGNE JOHANSEN is a writer and cook who grew up in Norway. After graduating from the University of Cambridge, she trained at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London, worked in several of the UK’s top restaurants, and then completed a master's degree at the University of London. The author of the critically acclaimed Scandilicious cookbooks and contributor to a dozen other books on food and restaurants, her recipes have appeared in The Times, Sunday Times, and Marie Claire. Johansen lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

How to Hygge

The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life

By Signe Johansen

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Signe Johansen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-12204-9


nature & the seasons

Into the Wild

'But just to keep alive is not enough. To live you must have sunshine and freedom, and a little flower to love.'

Hans Christian Andersen

'Come on,' Papa Johansen said one late May evening, interrupting my mewling about how much I hated revision for exams, 'let's go pick some lilies of the valley.'

Off we went to a nearby woodland, just up the hill from our house in Oslo. It wasn't the most accessible of slopes to pick flowers. I recall clambering my way up from a distant main road, sturdy hiking boots squelching flatulently underfoot as we ventured deeper into the woods, trying not to fall over (a common occurrence — I'm extremely clumsy).

Like any surly, borderline histrionic teenager facing a battery of exams that week, I was experiencing that crushing sense of impending doom about life, and resented my dad for badgering me into such a frivolous trek into nature. What a waste of time when I could be revising algebra! It felt like a bit of a mission to get there and I wondered how anyone would normally come across this fabled patch of flowers, either by accident or by design. Being the diligent forager my father is, he'd sniffed out this woodland a few years previously and every May he would return to pick flowers.

Yet as soon as we saw the thousands of delicate lily of the valley plants, all that exam stress and fear vaporized into thin air. Bright little scented flowers as far as the eye could see, half-shaded by the overhanging canopy of trees, the occasional dapple of twilight sunshine to illuminate their long leaves and pretty snowdrop-shaped flowers. Dad and I just looked at each other giddy with glee and spent a good half hour picking as many flowers as we could carry. The field was so abundant with them that we could have decorated our entire neighbourhood with lilies and there would still have been plenty left over.

With its elegant freshness, Convallaria majalis really is that 'little flower to love'. It's hardly a coincidence that lily of the valley is so redolent of happy memories for us as a family; not only do I have those teenage woodland memories to call on when the relentless pace of London starts to grind me down, but it's the flower my mother chose for her wedding bouquet.

As Diane Ackerman writes in A Natural History of the Senses, 'smell is the most direct of all our senses' and thus has the capacity to trigger the most overwhelming nostalgia. While I type this I'm wafting lily of the valley bath essence by London perfumier Floris in front of my nose (and trying not to spill it all over the place). Both my English maternal grandmother and my mother continue to use this bath essence, and I carry on the tradition in spite of the deleterious effect it has on my bank balance (one bottle has lasted nearly two years so it's still cheaper than a daily fancy coffee habit, is my reasoning). It's an olfactory trip down memory lane, and never fails to delight: lily of the valley's bright green top notes have that clean, dewy scent that symbolizes the promise of spring mixed with a musky pungency of sultry summer nights.

A spritz of this cool, fresh scent is more than an olfactory joy; it's a vital part of my connection with nature and part of a sensory map that reflects my own particular narrative in life. You will no doubt have sensory experiences that trigger a similar response, and I bet for many of you who spent time outdoors as children, teenagers and into adulthood, some of those scents will be deeply imprinted on your sensory DNA.

Setting the Pace

To echo Ralph Waldo Emerson, nature sets the pace across the Nordic region and 'her secret is patience'. Everything that is compelling and vital about the Nordic countries, be it our food culture(s), great design, architecture, arguably even our social democratic traditions, is in some way grounded in a deep respect for nature and the elements. Rather than fight the long, dark winters we've learned how to embrace the cold, how to prepare for it and how to find joy in being indoors when it's miserable outside — themes I'll return to in later chapters.

Hygge is about getting back to basics, about prioritizing what's important in life, and that means nothing without context and an understanding of what makes us Nordics tick. In fact, it's impossible to fully understand hygge and therefore life in general in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden without a close look at nature and the seasons and how central they are to our identity. To be Nordic is by definition to be both a keen observer of and participant in nature. We're a people who throughout history have developed strategies to cope with the stark contrasts of short, ecstatic summers and long, harsh winters. While our love of great cakes, twinkling votives and beautiful interiors is a crucial part of that, our love of 'friluftsliv', or the slightly less evocative English rendition 'free air life', is as important a factor. Henrik Ibsen is thought to have been the first to coin this phrase in his poem 'På Viddene', or 'On the Heights', in 1859. It's a rather long poem so I'll spare you the whole thing and share this nugget:

In the lonely mountain farm,
My abundant catch I take.
There is a hearth, and table,
And friluftsliv for my thoughts.

What Ibsen was suggesting, and what I suspect most Nordics will recognize, is a yearning for getting away from it all, of seeking solace in nature, preferably in a cabin far away from the nearest main road, with the odd moose or sheep here and there for company. That isn't necessarily a uniquely Nordic experience, and I'm acutely aware that this veers into stereotyping territory. What is distinctively Nordic is the freedom to roam in nature at any time of year, a right that is considered sacrosanct across the region. As Robert Macfarlane writes in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot:

'I ... envy the Scandinavian customary right of Allemansrätten ("Everyman's right"). This convention — born of a region that did not pass through centuries of feudalism, and therefore has no inherited deference to a landowning class — allows a citizen to walk anywhere on uncultivated land provided that he or she cause no harm; to light fires; to sleep anywhere beyond the curtilage of a dwelling; to gather flowers, nuts and berries; and to swim in any watercourse (rights to which the newly enlightened access laws of Scotland increasingly approximate).'

It is essentially a human right to have access to nature, a benefit that is available to everyone, not just the privileged few. You don't have to own fancy, branded outdoor gear, or spend lots of money to be in nature; status doesn't matter once you're in the wild — it's the ultimate democratic ideal.

Someone asked me recently what the defining characteristics of being a Norwegian are, and I struggled to come up with a succinct answer other than a love of skiing, cabin porn, an addiction to coffee and the invention of the paper clip. In hindsight, I should have been a little less flippant and thought a little harder. What I would say now is that many of us share that craving for the friluftsliv of being in nature that Ibsen cites in his poem, and across the Nordic region we are proud of the freedom to roam in the wild as enshrined in our laws which Macfarlane identified. This doesn't mean we're solitary creatures per se, or that we're in denial about modernity and exist in some sort of permanent escapist fantasy, but we feel an intense need to escape the hustle and bustle of modern life in order to reflect, to gather our thoughts and to gain a sense of perspective.

According to the UN, over 50 per cent of the world's population now lives in urban areas, and that figure is forecast to rise to 66 per cent by 2050. While the cultural, economic, political and social opportunities afforded byliving in cities are unquestionably immense, studies also show a correlation between living in cities and a rise in mental illness, a fact that we will need to address as the world becomes more and more urbanized. The pace of our modern lives is draining us, and studies further show that in our increasingly deracinated urban existence we reap the benefits for both our mental and our physical health of switching off from work, everyday worries and, crucially, untethering ourselves from mobile phones and tablets. 'Digital detoxing' is becoming more commonplace, and what better way to disengage from the nagging notifications of your mobile phone than to head into the wilderness where WiFi is out of bounds?

I know from my own experience of living nearly a decade in London that I feel a visceral urge to get out of the city every few weeks. The sirens, the traffic, the cyclists trying to jump red lights, the strident march and tense jaws of commuters ... A world-class city this may be, but it gets to a point where I physically can't tolerate it anymore and have to escape, which isn't unique to this Londoner, of course. When we lived in Norway, I could go flower-picking in the woods a few hundred metres from our house, or put on a pair of skis and go for a cross-country ski run up and around the hill after school.

Those little daily diversions from the pressure of modern life could be made much more easily, more freely. We lived in a capital city that had crystal-clear fjords, excellent ski tracks and a vast wilderness called Nordmarka within thirty minutes of the city centre. And it was just so safe. I could go into nature on my own, or with friends, and no parent ever seemed worried about paedophiles or serial killers hunting children down and doing unspeakable things to them. Other Nordic capitals share a similar urban–nature landscape that makes it easy for their citizens to be outdoors in nature at any time of the year, and that feature alone I reckon has a huge influence on the high quality of living they can offer. In the book Happy City, Copenhagen is cited as a model of town planning, designed so as to accommodate the needs of its residents. Wide bicycle lanes are a prime example: the city council built them in recognition of the fact that cyclists like to chat to each other as they zip around town. Small details like this make for much more liveable places.

Nature calms you, it settles you and allows you to step back and reflect on the very essence of what living is about. To my mind, if your thoughts are clouded by anxiety, fear and stress then a getaway to a green wood, a walk by the sea or a gentle hike up a mountain does more to lift the spirits than any expensive handbag or latest must-have gadget could ever do.

* * *

Seeking solace in nature is at the heart of Nordic hygge

Keep Calm & Hug a Tree: The Benefits of Ecotherapy

Anthropologist Margaret Mead once wrote about the 'spiritual and mental ancestors' that form our identity and, whether or not you buy into that idea, I'd wager that there is definitely a therapeutic benefit to returning to our ancestral landscape. Lest you think I'm a tree-hugging hippie, let me assure you I'm not. Every encounter with nature is one that has reaped unexpected rewards and helped to soothe any latent anxieties about school, friends and fears about the future, but I'm wary of the pseudo-spiritual and clean-living types dominating the current narrative on health and well-being. What I find continually fascinating about nature is the way it brings about a feeling of clarity, a renewed focus and sense of purpose, as well as its healing properties. Time spent in nature has profound therapeutic benefits, something most of us who spend time outdoors probably realized on an intuitive level, and the recognition of this fact is increasingly gaining traction beyond the field of 'ecotherapy'.

'In its most basic sense, ecotherapy is about the healing and psychological benefits of being in nature and natural settings. In a modern context the links between nature and positive effects on mental health can be traced back to the early part of the last century.'

— Martin Jordan, 'Back to Nature', Therapy Today, April 2009

According to a 2015 Stanford University study with the catchy title of 'Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation', spending time in nature means you're less prone to brooding. Nature's nurturing properties aren't yet fully understood, but scientists and medical professionals are beginning to advocate more time spent in the great outdoors. The relationship between humans and nature has to be a reciprocal one, which means we have to know how to look after the outdoors, how to maintain it for the future. While the Vikings may have had a reputation for plunder, modern Nordics understand you can't just wander into the wild and take whatever you want from it. Even if you're completely clueless about a lot of nature's secrets you can volunteer to help maintain a garden, or a nature reserve in your local area. According to a Guardian report, physicians are now advising patients to spend more time gardening to improve their mental health, and gardeners have long advocated that getting one's hands dirty rummaging around in soil is good for our immune systems. Consider adopting a tree. Take part in community-led activities that teach you about nature and responsible stewardship. Baby steps can make all the difference, so don't be daunted if you live somewhere with limited access to nature and wilderness. Even looking at images of nature can have a restorative effect, something Henry David Thoreau wrote about in an essay on healthcare design in The Atlantic magazine way back in 1862. Patients in hospitals who had a view of trees outdoors were found to recover much faster from their illness than those who only had a wall to look at. Whether it's a photo of a waterfall, a picture of baby animals or a view of trees outside your window, nature has a near-magical ability to restore you.

In fact, UK charity Mind and the University of Essex found that the benefits of ecotherapy for mental health were substantial and applicable to everyone, regardless of whether they suffer from mental health issues. They found that time spent in nature:

* Boosts self-esteem

* Helps people with mental health problems return to work

* Improves physical health

* Reduces social isolation

What's also becoming clear are the health benefits of nature on children and adolescents, particularly when it comes to concentration at school and helping to establish good habits in their formative years. Kids who spend time in nature are more focused, better behaved and show increased levels of creativity. Be it tree-climbing or tree-hugging, we all benefit from spending time in nature as often as possible.

The Seasons: Listless Insomnia & Long Hibernation

Det finnes ikke dårlig vær — bare dårlige klær (No such thing as bad weather — only bad clothing) Another key aspect of the Nordic love of nature is to never let bad weather get in the way of venturing outdoors. Except, of course, when there's a serious weather warning. We're talking the miserable end of the clement weather spectrum. Minus 20°C is the limit for cold, anything lower than that and you'd better invest in some arctic weatherproof gear. It's common sense, though: no matter whether it's raining, snowing or looking grey and blah outside, you have to get out.

While we're famous for our long, dark winters, those outside of the Nordic region are often surprised to hear that midsummer is celebrated with as much gusto as Christmas. Brief though Nordic summers may be, they are enchanting, and we need the winter months to fully appreciate summer's spectacular fecundity. Most Nordic children will have some memory of summers spent eating intensely flavoured berries, enriched thanks to the long hours of midsummer sunshine. Fjords shimmering indigo. Games played in the woods, long hikes with family and/or friends. We also go a bit crazy at midsummer, and the outdoors is our playground. Bonfires are lit, wild flowers are picked, and people gather for large parties that never seem to end. The annual festival of Sankt Hans is a celebration of surviving winter, and of making the most of the short summer. To my mind, Norwegian painter Nikolai Astrup best portrayed that restless energy of Nordic midsummer celebrations with vivid depictions of bold, orange fires set against a viridian mountainscape; people gathering; music flowing. Astrup identified that midsummer rapture as a quintessentially Norwegian (and by extension Nordic) trait, which we still celebrate nearly a century after he painted those images.

* * *

Midsummer is a time of celebration, when we go a bit crazy & the outdoors is our playground

Most Nordics will have some story to tell of magical midsummer days and nights, when they were slightly delirious with sleep deprivation. In my experience, those days were filled with activities like playing hide and seek in the woods, foraging for wild strawberries in secret nooks dotted around the Aurland valley on the west coast of Norway, making crowns from wild flowers to put in our hair and splashing about in the ice-cold fjord nearby. In the evening, food brought us all together again. Friends and visitors would drop by, while Papa J barbecued the crayfish he'd caught that day in the fjord. Or my grandmother would fire up every hob available and, like the best line cook in a restaurant kitchen, sauté local mountain trout — enough for twenty people! — frying each fillet in fresh farmhouse butter and making a simple sauce of lemon, sour cream and dill. Who needed a restaurant when you had perfection like this at home? The grandchildren would always get stuck in and help lay the table, dress the salads, make desserts with the berries we had picked that day, and then we would join the grown-ups for these long evening feasts. It rarely mattered what the weather was like: days and nights were to be spent outdoors as much as possible.


Excerpted from How to Hygge by Signe Johansen. Copyright © 2016 Signe Johansen. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1 Nature & the Seasons

2 Outdoor Pursuits

3 The Joy of Fikap

4 The Nordic Kitchen

- Sweetness & Light

- Speedy Savoury Bites

- Greens & Grains

- Fish & Meat

- Pickles

5Healthy Hedonism

6 Life Skills

7 Design & Home

8 Kinship, Conviviality & Openness


Scandi Stockists

Further Reading

Acknowledgements & Picture Credits

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How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Buecherwurm161 More than 1 year ago
Its more like a Cookbook. I got the book because in this day and age I really wanted to incorporate more of the Hygge lifestyle that I kept hearing about. Unfortunately I ordered the book as soon as it came out and did not read any reviews about it beforehand, if I had I would have shopped around for other books on the subject. The book was lovely to look at but it really did not inspire me as much as I thought it would and I pretty much did all the things already, apart from fishing and hiking. For whatever reason I expected something a little different from the book, also not as many recipes for main dishes, I thought it would deal more with making your home comfortable and get together for coffee and easy entertaining, but I assume that is my fault.