When you ask someone from Scandinavia, Germany or The Netherlands about the concept of "hygge," their voice lightens, their eyes light up, and they smile knowingly.
When asked to define the term, it takes them a while to articulate it, since it's almost instinctual.
The concept, pronounced "hoo-gah," is not coincidentally similar to the English word hug. It is an old European concept, but fairly new to the U.S., lately being capitalized upon by home decor brands like Wayfair, Crate & Barrel or even Rachael Ray. Chunky knit or faux fur blankets, rugs and plush pillows can be found under the hygge tab.
"The Danish have championed hygge since the 1800s, and the rest of us are finally catching on to the magic of embracing the cozy mindset, especially during the winter months," said Vicki Lang, director of public relations and community affairs for Crate & Barrel, which has a store at Stanford Shopping Center.
Lang said the company aims to use the concept to inspire consumers to buy a bit of hygge for themselves.
"Hygge emphasizes enjoying the simple pleasures of life, so when creating hygge-inspired decor we focus on products that set the stage for a cozy night in," Lang said, pointing to examples like soft throws, plush pillows or soft sheepskin rugs. Hygge also inspires entertaining, she said, with "hearty one-dish meals served in your favorite Dutch oven ... and lots of candlelight."
Palo Alto resident Anneke Dempsey, who is Dutch, would agree about the "night in" part, but the rest, she said, is about "atmosphere." Her word for hygge would be the Dutch "Gezelligheid," and the German word is "Gemuetlichkeit."
Dempsey demonstrated the concept in her own home, lighting candles, turning on her fireplace, putting on warmly lit wall sconces and baking an almond tart, the aroma floating throughout her home.
"I think what you see is atmosphere," she said, "where people feel comfortable and totally at home ... people being with each other in good spirit."
She said growing up in Holland, the days wouldn't start until 9:30 in the morning in winter, and the northern latitude meant shivering cold. Riding home from school on her bicycle in the cold, she would see her house, always a warm place to come home to, be together with family and eat warm food.
"You don't have to be rich to have hygge," she said. "It has to do with wanting to spend time together in a comfortable setting."
For some, this could extend outdoors. Palo Alto Realtor Dulcy Freeman, who stages many homes to get them ready to sell, said hygge comes up in her work "when having exterior patios and little nook areas staged," especially in homes with wide, open floor plans.
Mountain View interior designer Susan Bacchi said the concept may extend beyond Scandinavia, to include the de-cluttered aspects of midcentury-modern furniture design and the Japanese concept of Zen for creating a "calm and pleasant" environment.
The idea, she said, is "helping people to live in their home and love where they're living."
It may not be a coincidence that for several consecutive years, Scandinavian countries, including Denmark and Finland, have ranked among the top 3 happiest countries in the world, according to the World Happiness Report released annually by the United Nations' Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
"I think when discovering hygge, customers are drawn to it because it helps them create a spirit of simple warmth and welcome throughout their home," Lang said.
"For us, it was coming home where it was warm and safe," she said. Now in her own Bryant Street home, some of that safe feeling comes from the smells of cooking. "I like making strong chicken stock with a bouquet garni and making fresh banana bread," she said, closing her eyes and breathing a contented sigh.
Dempsey's close friend, former Palo Altan Kirsten Harbott, who is Danish, said it isn't about what you buy, but how you use what you have.
"(Hygge) is a difficult thing to describe as it is so nebulous ... It is being with friends and family, maybe on a winter's evening, with the rain pouring outside the drawn curtains, the fire lit, many candles burning.
"It is feeling safe and secure with the people around you. It is pulling on a big woolly pair of socks and not worrying about what you look like."
Then she painted a word picture: "I remember evenings as a child sitting in our living room with the stove lit and the door open so we could see the flames and my father reading aloud from Victor Hugo — this in the days before we had television — and us listening avidly. That was hyggeligt."