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Article 7 min read

"Alexa, what is hygge?"

Par Laura Shear

Dernière mise à jour December 22, 2020

Have you noticed that you can’t open a magazine or visit a lifestyle website these days without encountering the word “hygge?” It’s Danish and it means–basically–“cozy.” Given Denmark’s long, bleak winters, Danish culture abounds with efforts to connect with a general state of coziness. As this winter in the U.S. feels longer and bleaker than usual, I recently jumped on board the hygge bandwagon.

How to get hygge with it

To be hygge–as I understand it–is to be immersed in warmth and coziness. Overstuffed couches are hygge, as are kittens and wool sweaters. As explained in The New Yorker, “It’s possible to hygge alone, wrapped in a flannel blanket with a cup of tea, but the true expression of hygge is joining with loved ones in a relaxed and intimate atmosphere.”

To feel hygge, I walk around the house these days wrapped in an alpaca throw blanket. I’ve scattered strings of tiny LED lights around and invested in new board games, a European literary quarterly, and decadent hot cocoa mixes. My family mostly indulges me in my quest for cozy: we light candles at dinner and sometimes play Pictionary by the fire before bed.

As it turns out, hygge is a pretty good way to banish the winter blues. Consciously treating our home as a veritable cocoon has had its intended effect. By making time and space for life’s simple pleasures–conversation, home cooked meals, crafts–I do feel I’ve alleviated some of the dreariness that February can bring.

Can helpful be hygge? Can hygge be helpful?

Given that courting hygge feels like a doubling down on the “haven” aspect of home and revisiting activities born of a simpler time, I’ve been wondering recently how hygge relates to another popular home trend, smart home devices. According to a 2016 study on home renovations, “The average renovating homeowner adds one smart system or device to the home in the course of renovation…. One in ten renovated homes has five or more smart devices after a renovation.”

It feels like this movement toward efficient, technologically sophisticated home products is at odds with the infatuation with hygge. Smart homes certainly offer peace of mind, by allowing you to lock your front door remotely or track the movements of a pet left home during the day. For people living with disabilities, smart technology allows greater freedom to accomplish tasks around the house that they might otherwise not be able to. Increasingly, smart homes are enabled by digital assistant devices like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Google’s Assistant. Activated by specific spoken phrases (“Alexa” and “Okay, Google”) these digital butlers are in a constant state of dormant listening, awaiting your command. Want to hear music, find a recipe, turn off the lights, or turn up the thermostat? Just say so, and your smart home assistant will oblige. The concept of an all-knowing, always listening home assistant may or may not be your cup of tea. What I want to know is: Can a home that’s been infiltrated, ahem, enabled by a smart home assistant be hygge?

Alexa the omnipotent

If you need hard evidence that Amazon’s Alexa is here to stay, this year’s Consumer Electronic Show (CES) featured a host of new products designed to interface with Alexa, from a smart clock that plays customized alarms and offers sleep coaching to a fridge that can order groceries. Alexa’s household is one of precision and customization: she can manage voice-activated lights including dimmer settings, a smart TV that finds specific shows via voice command, and a smart toaster that knows what’s being toasted (bagel, English muffin). She’ll even send a notification when it’s done to perfection.

One writer who recounted her experience with Amazon’s Alexa noted that for people who live in suburbs, a half hour drive to the nearest convenience store, the chance to order a household product as soon as the thought enters your mind is attractive: “That’s the entire enticing promise of Amazon and Alexa: a much more efficient and manageable life, one in which you can outsource mundane tasks while you do something more important, like spend time with your family.”

Given smart home products can save us time and money in the long run, I wondered about the impact on household harmony. Is Alexa a boorish house guest who butts into everything or an affable roommate who smooths over the rough edges of domestic life?

Alexa has moved in

Friends in Boston, a couple with two children, live in the smartest home I know. They’re united in their love for their TOTO Washlet—a smart toilet that boasts a warm seat, blow dryer, and night light—among other features. They were split on the value of smart shades in their bedroom: one likes the subtle signal that comes at dawn and dusk when the roller shades automatically move up or down. But the other finds the ghost-like motion unsettling. And of course, they have Alexa.

I asked if a smart home, like theirs, could be hygge. It wasn’t an idea that immediately resonated. For starters, given Alexa’s preference for loud, curt commands, their home ricochets with the sounds of barked out orders: “ALEXA, WHAT IS THE WEATHER” and “ALEXA, TURN ON THE MUSIC.” Concerned that their children are using their Alexa voices outside of the home they try to insist on “Alexa, please…” but to little avail. On the other hand, they noted, using a voice-activated home assistant rather than a digital device like a smartphone or iPad keeps family members much more engaged and present. There’s less of a chance of falling down the Google rabbit hole when you get your information from an omnipresent listening device versus a screen. To be sure, a conversational interface precludes the option of private searches, but perhaps that’s for the best, too.

Bringing it back to the hygge

These days, family dynamics (and thus the serenity of one’s home) are impacted by the way others view our screen time, and the value they associate with it. With Alexa, queries are right out in the open and typically relate to the task at hand. For this family, the ability to play music without leaving a laptop open on the kitchen counter meant they enjoy music throughout the day, minus the headache of screen time arguments. Hygge?

I wanted to believe that by utilizing the latest technologies we can empower our homes to do more for us. After all, less time spent pondering grocery lists or trudging through Target can easily translate into more time playing Scrabble with friends or interacting with our kids. Perhaps the very idea of home, as a passive retreat where you go to escape information overload, is hopelessly outdated in this digital age.

In the end, my friends in Boston revealed one aspect of their relationship with Alexa that has brought a true sense of hygge to their home. By calling on Alexa to find recipes, set oven timers, and answer questions about measurements, preparing meals together has become a relaxed and enjoyable family affair.

I like this vision of a family of four spending time in the kitchen with their internet-powered Nonna, preparing a home cooked meal with ease. No burnt pine nuts, no measurement conversion errors, just helpful culinary tips at the ready for all to hear. It’s easy for me to believe that a family meal enjoyed at the end of an Alexa-enabled cooking session would be hygge. If she could do dishes, I’d probably invite her to my house.

Original illustration by Andrea Mongia.

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