Hygge (n): A Danish concept of a complete absence of anything annoying or emotionally overwhelming; taking pleasure from the presence of gentle soothing things such as good food and wine with your favourite people.
A definition of Hygge (Pinterest)
Of huddles and home
Having young kids I sometimes try and recall what life felt like when I was their age. Kids seem to live much more in touch with their feelings than us oldies and I can still recall something of the intensity of the emotions of childhood even when the actual details have faded from my mind.
If summers felt full of warm sunlight, tired limbs and wide horizons then winter was almost the opposite; we hunkered down around an open fire where there was TV and board games, chestnuts to roast with home baked cookies to nibble. Winter felt snuggly- there were two heated spaces in our home (living room and kitchen) and seven of us huddling as close as possible to the fire and each other to escape the blasts of icy air from ill-fitting doors and windows.
I’ve recently discovered that this feeling of warmth and cosiness that marked my childhood winters has become all the rage and is expressed in the Danish word ‘hygge’. Hygge (pronounced ‘hoo-ga’) was one of the ‘words of the year’ in 2016, according to the Collins Dictionary, after Brexit and Trumpism. A plethora of books have been published with titles such as ‘The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well’ and ‘Keep Calm and Hygge’. The Daily Mash responded with an article: Hygge is Byllshytte! John Lewis got on board with an autumn ‘Hyggelig’ theme at its Oxford Street flagship store displaying hot-water bottles, Scottish woollen blankets and hyggelig tableware.
Cosiness for the soul
Collins defines hygge as ‘a concept of creating cosy and convivial atmospheres that promote well-being’. Hygge is a way of life in its native Denmark. It symbolises a ‘feeling of calm togetherness and an enjoyment of simple pleasures’ according to a recent Guardian article. Typical images are of candles and bonfires, home baking, woollen (hand knitted) socks, mugs of hot coffee: anything that suggests ‘cosy, safe, warm and known’ (Wikipedia).
Helen Russell, author of ‘The Year of Living Danishly’ sums up the hygge phenomenon: ‘The rest of the world seems to be slowly waking up to what Danes have been wise to for generations – that having a relaxed, cosy time with friends and family, often with coffee, cake or beer, can be good for the soul’.
For many people 2016 seems a very good year for pulling up the drawbridge. After the seismic shocks of Brexit and Trump there is certainly an appetite for shutting the door on the craziness and uncertainty outside and retreating into the safe space and familiar surroundings of family and friends. Outside the warm cocoon of the secure and comfortable there are the dark uncontrollable forces at work: best to stay within the candlelight and try and forget about what’s been unleashed ‘out there’.
In praise of simplicity
There is much about hygge that I find appealing. It reminds me of some of the fondest memories of childhood. Many of my most magical moments with my own kids are definitely hyggelig moments. I doubt that I will ever forget childhood experiences of Julehygge (Christmas hygge) with an open fire, low lighting, simple food, board games and happy laughter. Hygge moments contain such unpretentious pleasures: sharing (hygge is nearly always communal), laughter, homemade food, and the feeling of being secure, known and loved. Mobile phones are un-hygge; as are political (or any) arguments, modern furniture and fashionable clothing.
Everyone should, I suggest, build some hygge moments into their lives. Modern life, certainly here in London, can be the very opposite of cosy, safe, intimate and relaxed. We all need chill-time when we can kick off our shoes, pour ourselves some vino and just relax and enjoy the company of long time friends and family.
Mains or pudding?
But hygge, I would suggest, can’t really satisfy as a comprehensive way of life. It’s a dessert but not a main course. If we try to approach the whole of life from a hyggeligt perspective we risk becoming unadventurous, suburban conformists avoiding unpleasantness and messy people and emotions. When we turn down the lights and get comfortable too often we will find we are shutting out much more than we are letting in: injustice remains un-challenged, relationships stay unhealed and our spiritual edge is blunted.
The way things ought to be
I’d like to propose an alternative word to hygge. This word is similar in many ways: it, too, is of foreign extraction and notoriously hard to define. Like hygge it can be used as a greeting and expresses a unique approach to life. It’s core meaning, like hygge, is closely related to well being.
The word is the Hebrew shalom. Just as hygge can be reduced unhelpfully to cosiness, so shalom can is so often understood in terms of the rather flaccid word peace. Peace often suggests the absence of conflict in national or personal affairs but this misses the depth and immensity of the words true meaning. Shalom is one of those words, rather like love or faith, which holds a rich tapestry of meanings and implications that encompasses the emotional, the social, the political, and even the cosmic and transcendent dimensions of human experience. It embodies inner tranquility, harmony in our personal relationships and a resonance with the rest of the created order. In the Bible it is the gift of God and inseparable from a relationship with him- “There is no shalom”, says the Lord, “for the wicked…” (Isaiah 48:22).
Cornelius Plantinga in his book ‘Not the way it’s supposed to be’ defines it like this: ‘In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be’.
If hygge is a huddling around the light and finding a refuge from the night outside, then shalom is a reaching out into the darkness to spread Gods light. In ancient Israel the outsiders such as widows, orphans and foreigners were all included in shalom.
If hygge is a gathering together of close friends and familiar faces, shalom is the warm embrace of the unfamiliar and those far off. Sometimes hygge has been used in right wing Danish politics to put up walls against refugees and migrants: shalom invites them in as equals.
If hygge can sometimes lead to avoiding difficult issues and unresolved hurts then shalom speaks of the restoring what’s broken and confronting the issues head on.
If an enduring image of hygge is two hands cupped round a steaming mug then shalom would have two arms flung upwards and outwards in a gesture of adoration and embrace.
If hygge can tend to reject tensions and opposites, shalom, which can be used for both hello and goodbye, is the joining together of contraries to bring wholeness. It is the people with whom we disagree that can bring us the greatest gift.
Hygge speaks of a enjoying the present moment but with a nostalgic glance towards an (imagined) golden past. Shalom, however, has a peculiar forward bent: a vision of relationships restored, creation healed- lambs lying down with lions- and nations fashioning garden implements instead of AK-47’s.
Of fads and fulfillment
Hygge is really not that different from any other modern lifestyle trend. There is a bewildering choice out there: French chic, Japanese tidying, minimalism, holistic consumerism, health and wellness, fitness fetishes- as well as this Danish offering of hygge. They all lack one main thing- a vertical axis. In seeking to address psychological and emotional needs for creativity, fun, adventure, health, friendship and intimacy they fail to recognize our deeper existential needs. These fads are scratching the surface but the itch is deep in the soul.
Turning off the lights and lighting a few candles won’t connect you to wonder or transcendence. Warm feelings and pleasant conversation won’t help you feel unconditional love and acceptance. Simple but delicious food, even with a few home-brewed beers, can’t replace the craving for meaning and significance. We humans are the meaning-seeking animals; we crave significance beyond the cuddly and the self-seeking.
The media circus around hygge will, I’m sure, soon move onto the next big thing. The questions we all want answered, though, are always the same: What does it mean to live well? What does human flourishing look like? How can I live the good life? Part of the answer may well be some good old-fashioned hygge. By all means switch off the phone, pull on the old sweater, grab a glass of Chardonnay and invite round some friends. Our souls certainly need some occasional cosiness. But lets not settle for just comfy. Our planet and our souls were created for the ‘universal flourishing, wholeness and delight’ (Plantinga) that only shalom can bring and we are invited to be not just recipients but harbingers.