Here’s Why We’re All Obsessed with the Scandinavian Lifestyle

published Sep 28, 2018
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Welcome to Scandi Week—Apartment Therapy’s seven-day focus on all-things Scandinavia (often defined as the countries of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway). Sometimes it seems like the whole world is obsessed with trying to copy this corner of the globe, from its timeless style aesthetic to its now-famous coziness rituals. For the next week, we’ll take a look at all of it—cleaning, pop culture, and of course tons of eye-popping design inspiration. Pull up a blanket and get hygge with us.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

It’s official. We’re infatuated with the Scandi way of life.

Americans can’t stop Googling “hygge”—the Danish word for that cozy, gentle, happy way of life—to the tune of about 121,000 Google searches per month among U.S. users, according to search analytics firm SEMrush. The Danes don’t have a lock on hard-to-pronounce words related to happiness, though. Norway brought us “koselig,” and Sweden delivered “lagom”—a term which is up more than 900 percent year over year on Pinterest searches.

It’s not just hygge et al. The Scandinavian influence is bigger than vocabulary—ask anyone who’s visited a design blog in the past decade or so. Someone from the future looking back at the twenty-teens might well think whitewashed, minimal Scandinavian design was the mandated style of the era (even down to dollhouses). We want our dinners to look like we’re dining at Noma, Scandophile or not. And oh, one word: IKEA.

Who can blame us for our infatuation? People in those northern countries know what’s what. In 2018, Finland topped the list for happiest country on the World Happiness Report—and before that, Norway was happiest in 2017, and Denmark in 2016. (Even when they’re not chart-toppers, the Scandinavian countries still dominate the top 10.) And Scandinavians aren’t just happy, they’re healthy. Iceland is in the top three healthiest countries in the world, according to the Bloomberg Global Health Index. Sweden lands in the top 10, with Finland not far behind at 11. (For comparison, the United States landed 34th.)

It makes sense we’d want to be a little more like the happy, healthy people living in such cozy and beautiful homes, eating such pleasing food.

The locals don’t consider their cozy and happy lifestyle a trend, by the way, according to Psychology researcher Kari Leibowitz, who lived above the Arctic Circle in Tromsø, Norway. The last time she spoke with Apartment Therapy, she explained “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.” They may even be more obsessed with it than we are, she said, just not in a voguish way.

Maybe. But American interest in Nordic life seems to be cranked up full-throttle.

We Think Hygge Is a Shortcut to Happiness

Scandinavian living is not our first nationwide mania, nor will it be our last. Allyson Rees is the Senior Retail Lifestyles Editor at WGSN Lifestyle & Interiors; basically she understands lifestyle trends for a living. She’s observed how the Scandi-all-the-time thing fits in perfectly with some broader U.S. trends, and with our history of chasing the latest, greatest thing.

Americans have always been plagued by self-improvement, she pointed out: “We’re one of unhealthiest societies in the the western world but we’re obsessed with health and wellness.” What’s more, she explains, “We’re optimistic, hopeful people, and these trends promise… ‘If I make one little change everything will fall into place and I’ll be happy.'”

So when you consider a trend like the comfy, warm, and inviting idea of hygge? It’s easy to see the appeal, “particularly right now [at] such an uneasy time,” she said.

Consider the context in which hygge blew onto the scene. “It became a thing in the holidays of 2016,” according to Rees, right after the election. “I think you saw people wanting to make home a sanctuary and place of calm and wellness and mindfulness, and it was a backlash to not only the election but the noise around the election.”

This preoccupation goes way back, though. “As a society we are trying to make ourselves better, which has to do with the American dream,” Rees said. She refers to the first English settlers as an example. “What we learned in history books was they came here for religious freedom but they actually wanted to be way more pious and strict and regimented. So it even goes back to that, this idea of self-betterment and self-perfection.”

The spirit of American self-improvement has taken various shapes over the years. Think feng shui, new-age fulfillment, back-to-the-earth organic, all the way up to modern-day movements and brands like Goop, the Paleo diet, and the Marie Kondo method.

“The kicker with Marie Kondo is it launched after the tsunami and earthquake in Japan when people were evaluating what was important in their lives,” Rees said. “It caught on a little in Japan but worked really well in the U.S.” It’s that same appeal, whatever the trend, “that if you do this one thing you’ll have more clarity, be more organized, be happy,” she explained.

Of course nothing is that easy.

The Problem Is We’re Not Translating It Properly

Nordic expert Michael Booth takes on the obsession with the Scandinavian way of life in his book “The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia.” While retailers and designers co-opt hygge in order to market to people trying to buy their way into a Scandinavian lifestyle, Booth’s book isn’t trying to sell anything. In fact, he said, “The absolute antithesis of hygge is going out and buying fancy candles.”

Booth wants us to understand that what doesn’t make it into those “Top Ten Ways To Hygge-ify Your Life” articles is the journey these Scandinavian cultures have taken to arrive at this modern snapshot of life. “If you mistake the window dressing for the fundamental structure of society, that’s the mistake,” he said.

In these perennially happy countries there is economic equality and gender equality, Booth described. “They’re the best countries to be a woman. You have free education and health care.” They also have a grip on work-life balance, he pointed out: “[That’s] the biggest one for Americans. They don’t live to work, they work to live.”

Booth traces our Scandi fixation to the global economic crisis. “I think that changed the way a lot of people approached their life and having lived a highly consumerist, conspicuous spending kind of lifestyle in the States and western Europe, when the economy went down the tubes, people wanted to look somewhere else for utopia and a better way to live. In Scandinavia, they’re not so much into flashing their cash. It’s somewhat frowned upon to be boastful and flaunt your wealth, and that ties into the aesthetic and design, which is about simplicity and natural materials.”

It all eventually tied together, he explained: As Americans started looking for a different way of living, they learned about Scandinavia and “discovered these countries are the most successful places on earth, the richest, most educated, equal, and most famous of all, the happiest. It was the perfect storm; the rest of the world going through turmoil and Scandinavia having the answers.”

But chunky throw blankets are not a shortcut to contentment.

“If you think you can buy the wonderful things by buying some candles that’s really stupid,” Booth said, delivering the bitter pill we probably need. “Also the idea that they are utopia is faintly ridiculous. ‘Utopia’ was coined to mean ‘does not exist.'”