How to bring the gezelligheid this pandemic winter into your home

One of the things we will miss possibly the most this pandemic winter in the Northern Hemisphere is gezelligheid [ɣəˈzɛləxɛit]. No real English equivalent of gezelligheid exists; the closest word in the English vernacular - coziness - still doesn’t capture the same feeling of intimacy and belonging. What does communicate a similar sentiment and is more familiar to US ears is the Danish concept hygge [hʊɡə] and the Swedish concept of lagom. Wikipedia describes gezelligheid as “'conviviality', 'coziness', 'fun'” or “just the general togetherness that gives people a warm feeling”. Perhaps the best description of gezelligheid is the sense of belonging when sitting around a warm fire during a cold Christmas. But gezelligheid undeniably extends beyond the nuclear family; when you are outside in the shops where strangers gather and you experience that conviviality so typical of the current time of the year it is also “gezellig”. None of this will be something we will encounter much this winter. 

Gezelligheid, as it may be, is one way to socially cope with a cold and dark winter. Regulation of temperature is a driving force behind feeling close, being intimate, and feeling loved. Across the animal kingdom, the regulation of temperature is crucial to survival. Not being able to regulate one’s temperature leads to certain death. When temperatures drop, animals (including humans) use more energy to warm themselves up. The cost of temperature regulation is often countered by distributing it across kin, a phenomenon called social thermoregulation. Take penguins, for instance. When dealing with the harsh winters of Antarctica, they get together and “huddle” in a circle. Even if the ambient temperature is -40 degrees the temperature at the center of  the huddle can rise to a whopping 99.5 degrees

But penguins are not humans and humans are not penguins. Humans deal with fluctuating temperatures in modern times in many more sophisticated ways than penguins (i.e., relying on central heaters or warm clothes). But this has not been true for most of human history, so the imprint of what we call social thermoregulation has definitely left its mark on human culture:  Different languages, for instance, have a different number of temperature terms. Some languages distinguish between cold, lukewarm, and warm; others only have two temperature terms, like cold and warm. And languages differ whether they use metaphors where they combine warmth and affection. In Dutch, for example, you can refer to someone that you are not particularly fond of as “Zij laat me koud” (literally “she leaves me cold”), while in English one can say that you have a fond and warm memory of someone. Out of 84 languages the linguist Masha Koptjesvkaja-Tamm sampled in her research, 52 use metaphors combining warmth and affection – the others do not. 

The imprint of social thermoregulation is not limited to language. A team of researchers for example found that people who live in more “clement” climates (climates with an average temperature close to 71.6 °F) score higher on personality factors related to socialization and stability as well as on personality traits related to personal growth and plasticity. In one set of our own studies, we observed to what extent people would like to call or email a loved one and relate this to outside temperatures. We repeatedly find that if temperatures are lower, people have a higher desire to call or email other people. In other studies, when we experimentally manipulated temperature to be lower or higher, in lower temperature conditions people tend to think more about people they feel close to. Perhaps one of the effects that represents the Dutch concept of gezelligheid we detected in a sample of over 1500 people in 12 countries, where we found that one of the best predictors of people’s core body temperature was the diversity of their social network, meaning the more types of social groups they participated in (e.g., a volunteer group, a group at work, a sports team, a family group) the better protected their core body temperatures were if they lived in a colder climate. Gezelligheid, after all, is not just sitting around the warm fire during Christmas, it is also being in a shopping mall and sharing stories with your sports team or your local faith group. 

It won’t come as a surprise that as psychologists, we worry. We worry about the lack of gezelligheid this pandemic winter. And we worry that people miss out on gezelligheid because we suspect that social thermoregulation is mostly achieved successfully when being physically proximate, which is why Zoom calls likely won’t cut it. And yet, humans have been flexible in adapting to nearly every physical environment in history, which is why there must be ways we can cope, even if it is temporarily. A startup out of MIT has developed a bracelet that allows users to send each other warmth, years back, Sony patented a controller for its playstation for temperature feedback, and Japanese engineers are developing a robot that transmits warmth while hand-holding. We had imagined developing a “relationship simulator” to reduce the lack of intimacy intimate partners may have had while apart during the pandemic.  

Yet the research we are engaged in cannot (nor should) rival the research currently being conducted on vaccines, where BioNTech received a 375 EUR Million grant from the German government to solve one the worst crises in recent human history to develop a vaccine against Covid-19. Compared to that, our research is on a shoestring budget. That means that the work we have done does not achieve what researchers in other disciplines would call a high Technology Readiness Level, or, better, we don’t have comparable confidence in our work as one can have for a Phase III trial for the Moderna or Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines. Providing concrete advice on how to resolve the lack of gezelligheid is not psychology’s forte, but having an insight into the mechanisms behind social thermoregulation will make you all the wiser on how to make educated guesses to help you deal with the lack of gezelligheid.   

Hans Rocha IJzerman is the author of Heartwarming: How Our Inner Thermostat Made Us Human.