With many dull winter days ahead, Elettra Scrivo looks at how concepts of cosiness may help.

Colder months can seem dull and gloomy, but they don’t have to be melancholic.

Turning to some of our northern European counterparts, it’s clear there are many ways to keep snug and happy in the depths of winter.

The Danes, for example, make use of their long winter nights by practising the concept of hygge, described as a sense cosiness ‘that makes a person feel content or comfortable’.

Hygge in Danish

Imagine a cosy winter evening, snuggled on a sofa in front of a fireplace, sipping a cup of hot chocolate or a glass of wine with loved ones; that’s hygge.

Meik Wiking, author of The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well, describes it as a mix of atmosphere, presence, pleasure, comfort and togetherness.

In 2016, hygge made the Collins Dictionary Top 10 Words of the Year and is now seeing a resurgence thanks to lockdown.

But hygge is more than just snug surroundings and hibernation; it is a lifestyle centred on taking time away from the daily rush to enjoy small and often overlooked moments, whether that be at home or in nature.

“Hygge gives us the language, the objective and the methods for planning and preserving happiness — and for getting a little bit more of it every day,” says Wiking.

“There is always something to feel grateful for — focus on that.”

Gezelligheid in Dutch

Hygge is a popular and well-known practice in Denmark, but Danes are not the only people to have a culture with concepts of wellbeing and cosiness that are difficult to translate into English.

Take the Dutch word gezelligheid, which derives from the word gezel or companion, and is used to describe the warm feeling of being surrounded by people and places that are comforting and calming.

Amsterdam resident Chris Dekkers says: “The first translation I’d think of is cosy but that doesn’t do it justice. It is also warmth, comfort, togetherness and fun.”

In fact, it can be applied to so many different scenarios that Dekkers says she uses it around seven times a day.

“It’s gezellig if you’re sitting by the fireplace with your family or friends in winter, but you can also say you’re gezellig if you’re going to town or sitting on the sofa.

“There’s a gezellig café, a gezellig situation when walking into a room, or it can simply be an exclamation — ‘Want to come over for dinner tonight?’…‘Gezellig!’”

The common denominator among these scenarios is a feeling of general wellbeing that applies to even the smallest of things.

Gemütlichkeit in German

The Netherlands’ German-speaking neighbours also have their own version of gezelligheid; gemütlichkeit, which, in both Austria and Germany, indicates a combination of cosiness and intimacy, and relaxed wellbeing and welcoming attitude.

According to Jay Maddock, a professor of public health at Texas A&M University, USA, the term focuses a lot on slowing down, being mindful and living in the moment, without getting sucked into the frantic pace of daily life.

“Unlike the US, which is very schedule-centred, when I was in Austria we enjoyed every meal, even if we had meetings,” he says.

“It was a relaxed environment where you’d always get offered a drink and had a chat before coming down to business.

“One day, we had a meeting in the rooftop garden because it was a beautiful day. It wasn’t planned; we just sat outside to enjoy the sunshine for a two-hour meeting where we felt comfortable and relaxed and also took care of business.”

Like gezelligheid, gemütlichkeit is very much about being present in the moment and finding slivers of happiness in everyday actions, allowing people to de-stress and focus on comfort, family, friends and wellbeing.

Lagom in Swedish

When Niki Brantmark, author of Lagom: The Swedish Art of Balanced Living, moved from the UK to Sweden, she immediately noticed stark differences between life in London and life in Malmö.

She realised the changes could be described through lagom, a term that describes having everything in the right amount, not too little, not too much.

Lagom is a lifestyle in itself because it applies to all aspects of life; eating and drinking, home decor, career and wealth.

One of the first times Brantmark experienced lagom was on the streets of Malmö. To her, everyone appeared less stressed and were going at a lagom pace; not too slow or too fast.

“I was walking down the road about five times the pace of anyone else,” she recalls. “Then, I realised ‘maybe I don’t need to rush’ and I got just as much done by slowing down. It was such a nice revelation.”

The concept of equilibrium inherent to lagom also affects Swedes’ working routine.

From taking a proper lunch break to never working until the late hours of the evening, Swedes make time for themselves and their lives outside of work, be that spending time with family, going for a walk or playing sport.

“In Sweden, even CEOs take a decent lunch break,” says Brantmark.

“They’ll drop their tools and go out to have a 45 minute lunch break away from their desk… By taking a decent break, you have so much more energy for your work in the afternoon.

“You’re more satisfied and relaxed, which overall is much better for your stress levels and mental wellbeing.”

Embracing a balanced lifestyle provides a framework for long term sustainability, in contrast to working long hours for prolonged periods which may lead to burnout.

Striking that balance in an often turbulent world could be the key to happiness and mental wellbeing, together with taking a moment to appreciate a gezellig lunch with friends or enjoying a hygge night at home, snuggled in the warm.

Enjoyed this article?

Read about an ethical, budget-friendly alternative to roast turkey

For articles and recipes subscribe to the Optimum Nutrition newsletter

Discover our courses in nutrition