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The Hygge Life

Finding contentment the Danish way

Man swimming in lake
Photography by Todd Quackenbush

Modern day society seems to be hysterical about creating a culture of comfort and convenience. Leaving the home, the couch, the desk, or the car is now obsolete. Even cash is becoming obsolete. Clever people have crafted and curated devices to take charge of the tasks that our ancestors would have once labored over for millennia. The very things that our bodies were evolved to continue laboring have been buried under this crazy world of over-convenience. As creatures of comfort we seem to continually be in search of what makes us feel comfortable and ultimately what makes us feel happy. And all of this in the least amount of time. But today, the ever-present ubiquitous allure to instant gratification has sent us into a haze of folly where we seem to have lost sight of what really is comfort and what it is to be content.

Obsolescence holds the carrot on the stick for us to chase in vain what merely are ephemeral pleasures: the shiny trinkets that are purposely designed to tarnish tomorrow; the fad diet that will make us thin; the brand new sneakers that promise to bring us joy. Things like these seem to have become our default fix when we seek to maintain a life of comfort. It’s usually easy and it’s usually fast. It’s almost as if the proverbial carrot on the stick is teasing out our inner desire to be at peace with ourselves (a trait that we share with every other human being). But the promises are empty or at best fleeting.

We seem to have become masters of portraying a life of not comfort and contentment, but one of blissful luxury. We choose to present the bells and whistles of our lives to outwardly celebrate what is but a modicum of our reality and we seem to toss the rest. The argument here is not to debate sharing our lives through social media. It’s more about how we can weave the simpler things into our lives in a more authentic way and put that on a pedestal. Why are we not masters of actually living a life of moderate comfort without seeking to acquire all the shiny objects that come with the noise and the overwhelm?  How do we get there without actually achieving the contrary? How do we get there meaningfully and how do we get there sustainably?

When considering comfort in our lives one might do well to tear a page out of the Danes’ notebook. Often quoted as being one of the happiest nations in the world, Denmark seems to have, long ago, sussed out how to possess an authentic inner calm when it comes to comfort and contentment. It appears to be an innate part of Danish culture that by-passes the noise and reduces the risk of causing its antithesis. The Danes call it hygge (pronounced hyoo-ge). A word that is unique to their culture. Everybody knows it. Everybody does it. And while everybody knows it, it’s not really that easy to put into words. You just know it and it just happens and you know when it happens.

A Dane might define it through words such as: comfort, contentment, wellness, cosiness, calmness, or one might describe a hygge-inducing experience as being akin to snuggling up on the sofa in front of a fire on a cold winter’s night, or a peaceful walk in nature. It doesn’t have to be much and it’s often simple. It’s a democratic concept that’s reserved for everyone and it’s limited to no one. It can’t be forced and it certainly can’t be bought. A Dane would probably be in sheer shock if it were commoditized. You can’t chase it and you can’t replace it. We must make space to let it happen.

Although there is no direct translation for this word, an intrinsic condition of language is that it is imperfect and when a word does not exist for something, one can’t be blamed for not knowing the thing does in fact exist. Languages often serve as a compendium of words and expressions borrowed from other languages to help preserve true meaning. So, what we can do is borrow hygge and learn how to gradually curate our own space to allow room for becoming better observers of the meaning of comfort and its place in our lives.

Getting there might mean taking stock of what is in our minds. Allowing us to be with the things that we do not like about ourselves and exercising a lot less judgement. It might mean stripping down to a simpler version of our life today. It might mean becoming a little more intentional with our actions, our thoughts, and our words. Most of us find immeasurable value in this and much of it aids our betterment. It is simply a plea to serve as a reminder to us that we are still human and we are still in deep need of the forgotten simple things. This probably means we need to slow down—a lot. Perhaps we could pay tribute to the Danes’ hygge by, next time, kneading our own dough for that pie that we desire and then watching it rise. Perhaps we could grind our own coffee beans and take the time to watch the pot brew and then savor the aroma. Or maybe, most importantly, we could simply sit at home quietly once in a while and indulge in what we already have.

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