HEALTH AND WELLNESS Why people are so obsessed with ‘hygge,’ the cozy Danish lifestyle movement

You may not know how to pronounce it, but chances are you’ve felt “hygge” before.

“Hygge” — pronounced hyoo-guh — is a Danish word that loosely translates to “coziness” or “comfort,” and it’s often used to describe a vibe or feeling that you’d get from snuggling indoors on a cold day. Since the word entered the American lexicon, hygge has become a full-blown, Instagram-worthy lifestyle filled with warm blankets and glowing candles.

Ask a Dane to explain the concept, and they’ll probably say hygge is socializing with loved ones at home, snuggling in warm clothes, feeling sheltered and safe, enjoying indulgent foods, drinking mulled wine and soft lighting.

“What is uniquely Danish is that we have a word that describe that situation,” Meik Wiking, a happiness researcher based in Copenhagen, tells CNBC Make It. “But there are similar words around the world that I think captures some of the same things.”

Although Wiking didn’t invent hygge, his 2017 New York Times bestselling book “The Little Book of Hygge” put hygge on the map and introduced the Danish comfort theory to an international audience. Google searches for “hygge” in the United States peaked that December, according to Google Trends data. On Instagram, people started tagging #hygge photos of piles of blankets on a bed, candles in their home, mugs of steaming cocoa and chunky knit socks. In March 2018, the Broadway musical “Frozen” debuted, with an original song called “Hygge,” with lyrics like, “Hygge means comfortable, hygge means cozy, hygge means sitting by the fire with your cheeks all rosy.”

There’s even a hygge board game sold by Hygge Games that’s “designed to spark cozy conversation.” And Nashville-based candle company Paddywax sells a collection of hygge candles with scents like cedar and rosewood. Hygge Life, a retailer that launched in 2014 in Avon, Colorado, specializes in hygge-inspired European home goods, such as sheepskin rugs and blankets. And if that’s not enough, Hygge Box is a subscription service that sends you everything you’d need to hygge for $38 a month.

But why are people so obsessed with hygge?

Hygge is more than just an excuse to hibernate or redecorate. Hygge could also be a way to feel happier during an otherwise dark and cold season — something Denmark knows a lot about.

Humans today are desperate for anything that provides the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, like friendship, human contact and hugs, explains A. K. Pradeep, a neuromarketer and author of “The Buying Brain.”

“Peel away the commercial label of hygge, and what it is at the core of it is a serotonin booster,” Dr. Pradeep tells CNBC Make It. During the winter months (prime hygge season) people around the world might be craving activities that boost serotonin and minimize stress.

Wiking says that hygge is “a survival strategy” in Nordic countries, where the winters are long, and it tends to get very dark around 4 p.m. (However, it can be practiced all year round. “It’s hygge to have a picnic in the park with your friends or barbecue,” he says.)

Alex Calvert, a geophysicist who moved to Copenhagen from the U.S. nine years ago, tells CNBC Make It that he was initially worried how the bleak winters and long nights would affect his mood.

“But honestly, if you’re walking the streets, there’s fires and candles in the windows, that are glowing with everyone sitting around in blankets, having a good chat,” he tells CNBC Make It. “So, even in the depths of winter, there’s still this sense of warmth.

According to Dr. Avery, some of the tenets of hygge, particularly socializing, could help someone coping with the blues.

People who are depressed tend to isolate themselves, which only intensifies their feelings, and leads them to isolate more, Dr. Avery explains. “Socializing with friends is important for any kind of depression,” he adds, “it’s important to be around people.”

Hygge gatherings serve as a mini ritual for people to enjoy friendship and “the warmth of human company,” Dr. Pradeep says.

Another surprising scientific benefit of hygge? Americans tend to spend a lot of time on computers or watching TV late into the night, which can interfere with their sleep, Dr. Avery says.

Hygge, on the other hand, encourages screen-free activities, such as reading a book, playing games or simply chatting with friends, which could have a more positive effect on your well-being in the long run, he adds.

Calvert says that he doesn’t have a TV in his living room, but that hasn’t been a problem. During the winter, his hygge routine involves sitting by the fire, reading a book and having a cup of tea or glass of wine.

(For the record, consuming alcohol is a hygge habit that Dr. Avery wouldn’t recommend, especially for people with depression. Alcohol not only interferes with your sleep quality, but also can make depressive symptoms worse.)

Some people, Danes included, believe that hygge isn’t worth the hype. Oliver Enné, a 30-year-old creative director who lives in Copenhagen tells CNBC Make It that he doesn’t understand “why it’s become such a thing.”

“As a Dane who follows media outlets in the U.S., I hate the word hygge,” Enné says. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

The habits often associated with hygge, like spending time with friends or lying down by a fire, also sound miserable to Enné. “I think the idea of being bored with someone else is excruciatingly painful,” he says. “And I would rather be bored on my own than with someone else.”

Another criticism of hygge, at least the way Americans do it, is that there’s too much focus on hygge products, which takes away from its true spirit. In a 2018 Mashable article, Danish-born writer Laura Byager wrote: ”[A]s soon as hygge is being used to sell you stuff you don’t need, it loses its meaning.”

But from a health perspective, hygge’s value is clearly positive, Dr. Pradeep says. “It’s good we’re doing it, and it’s good we have clever and smart ways to do it,” he says. “No one needs to be mad that some concept from Denmark is being adopted elsewhere.”