The International Obsession With Cozy — More Than Just a Fleeting Trend?

published Feb 6, 2018
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(Image credit: Cathy Pyle)

What does cozy mean to you? I’m writing this story wrapped in a wool tartan blanket, my big dog at my feet, wearing a fuzzy sweater (hand knitted by a Norwegian, I kid you not). It would be better if the fireplace in the room where I’m writing worked, but late afternoon sunlight is pouring in the window and that’s almost as good.

Over the new year’s weekend we happened to host a lovely family from Norway in our Airbnb and it was the greatest compliment ever when the mother’s first words upon seeing the space were “it’s just as cozy as I hoped it would be!” She was here along with her son to see her daughter, a teen exchange student in my city, and her only request ahead of time was to ask if we had a DVD player and where they could order in food, as all they wanted to do was snuggle on the couch together, watch movies, and order in. Can we say cozy!?

Straight From the Source

We had the chance to chat while they were here, so I confess to throwing a few questions their way about what cozy means to them. They were sweet enough to cite our attic space, with its small scale, sloped ceilings, and exposed rafters, as an example of coziness, but explained that coziness is more than just aesthetics. It’s a feeling, too, and an outlook. We grudgingly bear winter here; in Norway they relish it. It’s a time for fun in the snow—the teenage son got new skis for Christmas—followed by relaxing with a cup of hot cocoa and being around people you love.

They didn’t seem to know about our mania with hygge here and it seemed silly as I explained how we obsess over it. Although of course we do; what’s not to love about curling up in front of a fireplace with a warm cuppa, snug and content while winter and the scary world rage on outside?

Funnily enough, though, everyone attributes hygge (that nearly intangible warm, cozy feeling you get from simple pleasures) to their neighbors the Danish, the word itself derives from a 16th century Norwegian term. But today Norwegians call it koz, our new friends said (later Googling told me that’s short for koselig). They explained they also achieve koz with lots of color—forget Scandi white, they have an “aubergine” sofa—and no window coverings. Well yeah, if you can look at Norway out the window, who wants curtains?

(Image credit: alexmaster)

Cozy Where the Sun Doesn’t Shine

For more insights into hygge/koz/cosy, I talked with an Arctic researcher who studied winter mindsets. Psychology researcher Kari Leibowitz lived above the Arctic circle in Tromsø, Norway, as part of a U.S. Norway Fulbright grant—there because she wanted to know how people who live somewhere that the sun literally doesn’t rise for months can be so happy. And no matter what you call it, or what country you’re in, the quest for cozy is quintessential.

“It’s very trendy right now,” she says, when it comes to this side of the Atlantic. But over there, “it’s not so much this cool new thing, but a really important part of their culture. I think it’s been that way for a long time.” If anything, she says, they’re even more obsessed with it than we are, just not in the “trendy” way we are.

It’s also more far reaching, she says. “Here we think of space and maybe a time of year [as being cozy] and over there it’s anything—a conversation, a business meeting, it’s what you’re striving for all the time.”

Wait. A business meeting, hygge?

Totally, she says. It’s anything “that gives you warm intimate feelings. Think about a conference where you feel a kinship, you’re drinking tea, there’s this idea that you’re connected in this warm way. Even in the psych department in Tromsø, they would light candles for meetings and make that environment feel very cozy which is something I’ve brought back to California. At my office we never use overhead lights—we use string lights and lamps. It’s something you can do anywhere.”

(Image credit: Cathy Pyle)

A Cozy By Any Other Name?

Maybe it can be anywhere, but for sure it’s the real deal in northern countries that share something in common—long, dark, cold winters.

Denmark, of course, burst onto the scene with hygge. Then there’s Norway with koselig. The Dutch have gezellig which is cozy-plus, with the inclusion of more raucous affairs. Sweden’s lagom leans toward finding a good balance—enjoying the nicer things in life, yes, but in moderation. The Welsh get snuggly with cwtch. And not to be outdone, the Scottish tourism folks have launched a cozy campaign around something they call còsagach, or coorie, which is funny, because apparently some Scots will tell you that’s not a real thing. At least one person can get behind it though; the person running this Instagram account says they have no relation to Visit Scotland—they’re just a fan of all things còsagach.

And I, too, am on board, at least with the way this ‘grammer describes it: Like hygge but with more gin, whisky, tartan and shortbread.