Essay: Why Cycling is a Hygge High

cycling + hygge
There's more to the Scandi-trend than hunkering down. Here's how cycling helps you get your hygge on.

Scandinavian culture continues to have a moment in the U.S. and the byword is hygge. The Danish word (pronounced HOO-gah) translates loosely to cozy, as in candlelight, steaming mugs, crackling fires and woolens. Not to mention houseplants, linen throws and cardamom-flavored berry compote.

We could all be forgiven for assuming that hygge’s meaning is limited to hunkering down indoors. But this buzzy Nordic style of comfort actually is rooted in deep reverence for nature, one that equates daily activity outdoors with a sense of being alive. That places all-season cycling among the happy embodiments of hygge, along with typically Nordic pursuits of skiing, fishing and hiking in the woods.

Hygge at its heart is about living life to the fullest. And while the tenets of hygge begin with connection to nature and the outdoors, they extend to simplicity, togetherness and eco-friendliness, all qualities that we crave in our lives today.

Within that context, I’ve been reflecting on the ways in which cycling and hygge are interwoven, and particularly how those threads improve the experience of urban living. To me, the core of the Nordic outlook feels more relevant than ever, whether in individual lifestyle or the collective pursuit of policies (and here I include urban transportation) that put human beings first.

Something about the hygge philosophy must be working, because Scandinavian countries consistently rank among the happiest of cultures according to the annual World Happiness Report, which considers happiness to be a measure of social progress and a goal of public policy.

Nature’s Road to Well-Being

Writes Signe Johansen in her book How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life:  

Everything that is compelling and vital about the Nordic countries, be it our food culture(s), great design, architecture, arguably even our social democratic traditions, is in some way grounded in a deep respect for nature and the elements…In fact, it’s impossible to fully understand hygge and therefore life in general in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden without a close look at nature and the seasons and how central they are to our identity.

The benefits of being outdoors in nature are real. Scientific studies show that being active in nature affects our brains in ways that increase well-being: relieving stress, increasing happiness, reducing fatigue, boosting creativity, enhancing generosity and making us feel more alive.

You don’t have to live near an Alpine forest to soak in the benefits of nature. As city dwellers we can get our fix with year-around pedaling through parks, along greenways or amidst the salt air and breezes of ocean parkways. Beyond city limits, bike camping and touring, which deliver off-the-beaten-path outdoor adventures, are increasingly popular, with more bicycles and gear designed for getting the most out of those experiences. (In the NYC area, see for example microtours.) The point, Johansen notes in her book, is to be active, to experience and celebrate the potential of the body and to create joy through physical activity in nature.

Cycling is Simplicity Itself

Joahnsen’s book, as well as titles like The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living are among several volumes bolstering the hygge trend in the U.S. They are joined by Pinterest boards brimming with Nordic goodness, photos of enviably spare, blue- and gray-hued interiors on Instagram and a lively market for vintage Scandinavian furnishings and decorative objects.

The influential Swedish designer Ilse Crawford, who as author of The Sensual Home in 1997, was way ahead of the curve in design for well-being, focuses on appreciation of ordinary things and on imbuing these with a special feeling. To Crawford, depth is in the details. “Hygge weaves together the intimate daily things we do into a warm web that supports us,” she writes in a more recent book, Framework for Living (which I leaned on heavily in the recent renovation of my own home).

Simplifying, paring back and embracing timeless essentials are the focus.

When I think about the design of a bicycle, virtually unchanged since the first “safety” models were introduced in the late 19th century, what could be more simple? The bicycle’s essence, the diamond frame, has stood the test of time and endures to this day. It is the humblest and most democratic of machines, converting human muscle power into movement through space, enabling travel, yes, but also delivering the life-affirming qualities of independence, fitness and joy.

Perhaps appreciation for simplicity is part of what drives today’s craving for hand-made objects, as well. Celebration of the purpose-built bicycle, along with passion for craft, were on abundant display during my recent visit to the North American Handbuilt Bicycle Show. There, the emphasis was on achieving fit that conforms uniquely to the body and esthetic details that reflect beauty and meaning to makers and owners.

Slowing Down in a Sped-Up World

Speed and sport have dominated the image of cycling in the U.S. since the 1970s. Appreciation for using an upright European-style bicycle for transportation or for leisure, what has even been termed “slow cycling,” is newer here and fosters a different sensual experience. One geared toward seeing the world from a different perspective, allowing contemplation — and sometimes, counterintuitively, even discovery of the potential to find peace amidst seeming chaos of city streets.

While being in our own heads is necessary and desirable at times, hygge coziness emphasizes togetherness, whether in making a ritual of pausing for afternoon coffee and conversation (in Sweden, it’s known as fika) or gathering with family and friends at table for dinner. Here too cycling and the communal meet in the shared ride, organized or spontaneous, to work, to a bar or beach or trail. Some of the very best times of my life have been rooted in the enjoyment of cycling adventures outdoors with friends. And the memories, whether of local rides or longer hauls across mountains in far-off destinations, likely include the companionable savoring of coffee or a pastry (or two) or a plate of something delicious.

To put hygge into a broader context of urban living, I approached Claus Meyer at a talk he gave. Why hygge and why now? I asked. Meyer co-founded Noma restaurant in Copenhagen and is a creator of New Nordic Cuisine, which emphasizes, fresh, organic and local ingredients. He is also the man behind the Great Northern Food Hall and Agern restaurant in Grand Central Terminal, among other New York City enterprises. Meyer speculated on a “reaction to a cold world.”

“There’s a recognition that we have to get together, to sit down, to talk, to slow down — everything that hygge stands for,” he says.

Traveling the Green Way

Finally, there’s a connection between the Nordic outlook and cycling in eco-friendliness. In that culture, revering nature means helping protect it through conservation and by limiting pollution. Nordic countries are among leaders in the percentages of citizens who use bicycles for daily transportation — for example, Copenhagen tops the list with 62 percent of citizens using a bicycle to get to work or school. There, you’ll see people from tots to seniors traveling on two wheels – more if a cargo bike is the preferred mode – along a well-developed network of bike lanes. In fact, certain bike lane designs that have been adopted in New York City, as well as the concept of Vision Zero, originated in Nordic lands.

So maybe we can all benefit from adding a little hygge to our lives in whatever forms speak to us, including spending more time outdoors and embracing the simpler things in life. And remember that the same philosophy that sustains people through dark winters makes the celebration of longer, warmer days even sweeter and more ecstatic.

Photo: Everton Vila 

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