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Wellness Wednesday

How hygge can help you thrive this winter

‘Hygge’ isn’t just a buzzword, it describes a pattern of habits that can help us stay healthy and contented during the long Minnesota winter.
‘Hygge’ isn’t just a buzzword, it describes a pattern of habits that can help us stay healthy and contented during the long Minnesota winter.Lisa Hupp/USFWS
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by Jill Riley

November 03, 2021

It's fall: the days are getting shorter, the nights are getting longer. Winter is just around the corner, and in Minnesota we’re very proud of our sweater weather. We’re getting ready to cope with the winter months.

There's a word that came into a fashion a few years ago called “hygge.” The concept is nothing new, but I think that the introduction of that word to the rest of the world was very fascinating. Theresa Nutt is a graduate faculty member at the University of Minnesota. She's the co-director of the Integrative Health and Wellbeing Coaching Program at the U of M's Center for Spirituality and Healing.

Every Wednesday morning at 8:30 CST, Jill Riley connects with experts and local personalities for some real talk about keeping our minds and bodies healthy — from staying safe in the music scene, to exercising during a pandemic, to voting and civic engagement. Looking for more resources and support? Visit our friends at Call to Mind, MPR's initiative to foster new conversations about mental health. Subscribe to Wellness Wednesday as a podcast on SpotifyAppleRSSRadio PublicStitcher, or Amazon Music.

Jill Riley: Do you remember hearing the word “hygge” and then thinking, this really does have to do with our way of life and well-being?

Theresa Nutt: I looked at a few different definitions of the word. When you boil it down and translate it, it's about comfort, peace, and connection. Who doesn't need that in the winter, right? Indulgence and gratitude was the other translation. As the seasons change, we do have to be hardy in the winter, but there are creature comforts - for lack of a better word - that can make it more tolerable.People in the Danish part of the world, where this term came from, have very cold winters as well. So we're in good company, to have this invitation to really find to be well.

I think another word that I would use is really making life a little simpler. The days are shorter, so can we simplify our lives? Stay connected to the people we love, and just indulge in some of the simple things that keep us cozy. It's a fun place to start. Actually, traditions of medicine, like Ayurveda, and traditional Chinese medicine, have been telling people to eat and move and be mindful differently in different seasons for thousands of years. So it also shows up in other places.

I also think of the word presence - you know, like being present. Maybe even the word gratitude could come in here. It's not a new concept, but I think it's a hard one for Americans to wrap their head around.

Right, truly. I think we are so used to being overscheduled and really busy and not really doing things differently for different seasons. There are so many how-tos that we can point to that the Danish have figured out as the happiest people in the world - or so we're told.

We hear that about the Danish. We hear that about the Swedish and the Norwegians, that they're the happiest place to live. We want to unlock that secret for sure. What are some of those things that we can point to, that people can start practicing in their own life?

Yeah, absolutely. Well, one of the first things they do is really change up their environment. Softer lighting, practicing gratitude, having simple clean lines in their decor, inviting in plant life, having a very uncluttered environment. We all need that, but we're so busy that we don't actually do it. Also some softer textures - you know, like those throw blankets that are super cozy, and throw rugs that are cozy, and more wood accents. Then lighting…we all think it’s quintessential to have a fireplace, but also [there are] tiny fairy lights or candles. Any of those ways to make our environment more cozy and calming.

Also one of their secrets, which I thought was really helpful, especially for Minnesotans, is they get like an hour of activity outside every day. So they're all about, “Even though we're cozy, we bundle up and we get outside and we move,” so they're not just sitting inside all day.

And then the last thing is really about meaningful, heartfelt connections with others. Who are the people we really love, and can we do simple casual things with them to just be in that cozy space together?

Yeah, I think it's easy to kind of hunker down and hold up for the winter. When I leave for work, It's dark. When I come home from work, it’s dark. But there's something very lonely, I think, about winter, and we forget about that social part.

Yeah, absolutely. And it's such an important thing to point out, I really appreciate that. Because during the pandemic, the isolation has really affected people's mental health. We have this new awareness of that need for connection with others. And so yes, it is imperative to our mental health that we be in relationship with others, and we be doing things that are enjoyable with others. So thank you for bringing that forward.

Teresa, you mentioned practicing gratitude - and I know, it's easier said than done. How do I do that? What will that bring to my everyday? What are the benefits of that? Just in a very practical way, how does one practice gratitude?

Let me start with some of the benefits. I think whenever we can bring our attention to what's right in our world, that is helpful to our nervous system. That is helpful to our mental health. So first of all, we want to be noticing what's right about our world, even when we're struggling, even when the days are short. We want to be paying attention to what's really working in our lives. I think that there are many ways to go about it. My personal favorite is: I have a gratitude jar. Every night before I go to bed, I write down three things I'm grateful for, and I put [them] in my jar. And then once a month, I pull them all out and I read them. So that's my way.

I've heard of families doing that, and then at the end of the month, they sit around the table and read them all. People just write them down: keep a journal, a gratitude journal. So I think it can be that it can also just be simply stopping in a moment when we're experiencing something we really love, and really taking it in and being grateful for it in the moment. So many options.

Maybe we need a deeper understanding of what well-being means and what living well actually means. Living well doesn't necessarily mean living in a huge house and having lots of things.

I think sometimes we do imagine - and this is our Western culture, at its finest or most challenging - that if I have more, then my life will be better or easier. But I think sometimes we lose some of the simple things that bring us the greatest joy. One of the benefits of this time of fall is, we have more time for self-reflection. Really figuring out what does really bring me joy. Maybe it's not more things, maybe it's time with my friends doing something I really love, whatever that is, or maybe it's really having time to just sit quietly without something to do, because we're not always good at that. Every person has a different definition of well-being, and we don't often take the time to figure out what that means to us. We sort of get sold a bill of what we should be seeking, and it often doesn't quite meet the mark for people.

Seasonal affective disorder really affects a lot of people, and I wonder if these these concepts could really help with that.

Yeah, I think so. You know, one of the benefits of hygge is really that it can decrease stress. When we simplify, and we're focusing on what's right in our world, and we're making sure there's time for those connections with the people we care about the most, it decreases stress - and it increases people's sense of contentment, self-worth, and self-compassion, which are huge and would really impact seasonal affective disorder. I think also, it helps with better sleep when our environment is soothing and comforting. It helps with decreasing the release of stress hormones. There's so many benefits to it that I think would really impact seasonal affective disorder.

Wellness Wednesday is hosted by Jill Riley, and produced by Christy Taylor and Jay Gabler. Our theme music is a portion of the song "F.B. One Number 2" by Christian Bjoerklund under the Non Commercial Share Alike 3.0 International License.