Hygge: The Danish Art of Happiness (2016)

The Potential in Hygge

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The Danish hygge has been criticized politically from both the right and left wing in Denmark.

The left wing criticizes hygge for being alienating, introvert and fearful of cultures different from the Scandinavian. The right wing criticizes hygge for being a barrier to ambition, intensity and growth. If we hygge too much it is bad for productivity, effectiveness and development, they argue.

But there is potential in the core values of hygge according to the twenty-five-year-old entrepreneur and folk high school teacher Mikkel Vinther. The Danish Ministry of Culture has asked a number of Danes – including Mikkel Vinther – to put forward their views on Danish culture, and to identify which elements could qualify for a place on UNESCO’s list of intangible culture heritage. A list that accepts cultural phenomena such as customs, traditions and knowledge of crafts. And maybe hygge. Which is what Mikkel Vinther is keen to see happen.

Hygge is when we say: ‘There is no discussing politics now – now we are going to hygge.’ It is when we put aside our differences and cooperate. Hygge is where we meet each other as fellow human beings rather than as opposites, and this is where we recognize that we are all in the same boat. Hygge, therefore, is a kind of anti-competitiveness.

I would argue that hygge as anti-competitiveness has been, in our world view, the basis for characteristic Danish societal movements such as the folk high school movement, the cooperative movement and our strong Danish volunteer culture.

The folk high school movement in Denmark established contemporary learning centres for adults, where the rural population in particular was ‘enlightened and enlivened’. The idea behind the folk high school was that students and teachers already came with their own skills and, therefore, each individual always had something to contribute to the community, and everyone has something they would like to be better at. A spell at a folk high school is about finding the desire for learning. There are no exams or grades, and so there is little internal competition. Students as well as teachers enter into new communities, come up with new ideas and create a more community-orientated society – to the benefit of both society and the individual.

One idea stemming from the communal thinking of the folk high school was the cooperative movement. Here, those in agriculture, in particular, stood together firmly against a price-squeezing external market. And instead of entering internal price wars, important, widespread decisions were taken in local areas to start a joint movement where all farmers, dairymen and grocers could have a share – with a corresponding share from the profits.

Both societal movements are examples of how hygge as anti-competitiveness made community and local areas stronger in Denmark.

And, I believe, the world needs hygge – as an antidote to polarization. We need hygge to put a lid on all our differences and focus on the enormous set of common values that all people have. Just like the folk high school and the cooperative movement.

Unfortunately, hygge ‘works’ best in homogeneous groups – like the Danish population in the late 1800s – and, therefore, it can sometimes be perceived as introverted and exclusionary. The world needs ‘Hygge 2.0’, which not only bears all of hygge’s positive values, but which is also outgoing, open and inclusive. Hygge creates a breeding ground for fellowship, cooperation and love – values, I believe, every person can agree upon.

How Does Hygge Thrive Today?

Hygge is thriving in today’s Denmark but is threatened by health ideals, digital media and society’s demands for efficiency. If hygge is to maintain its position as a favourite pursuit of the Danes, it must rethink itself, according to a leading lifestyle expert, Anne Glad. She says:

Hygge thrives and will always have good and favourable conditions in Denmark. The dark time is an eternal valid basis for hygge. This is where Danes snuggle up indoors and invite guests over. The home is hygge’s cathedral, and it has been for thousands of years. Even the Vikings invited guests to feast in winter, where they enjoyed the hygge and planned summer trips. It is that basic home culture that the Danes have continued until today.

Conditions for hygge are particularly good during times of economic crises. Due to the recent crisis, our lifestyles have become more introspective, and Danes have spent more time at home. We have become closer in our families and with close friends. We have lit fires in our hearths, we have something simmering on the hob and we have taken out the board games. There is more space for reflection. Instead of it being smart to own something, it has become smart to know something. Therefore we are reading more books, taking courses and attending more lectures in times of crisis. It has also become prestigious to accept positions of trust within the local community, such as on a kindergarten committee, whereas in times of economic growth the classic prestige committee post was outside of familial obligations.

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But there are trends in today’s society that threaten hygge. The enthusiastic worship of the body and health in some parts of the population threatens those joys, which are often associated with foods such as sweets, cakes, beer and wine. The number of fitness centres is increasing, Danes are measuring their blood pressures and cholesterol levels like never before, and thousands are suddenly running marathons; a niche sport that was reserved for a few eager fools in the old days and was never intended to become a popular sport. Seen in this light, hygge has a serious image problem, and if the health wave continues to roar and hits the broader population, hygge will face an uphill struggle.

Digital and social media are also a threat. Studies show that a large number of Danish families have experienced feeling stressed at times. But Danish parents are not working longer hours, and the amount of leisure time is also the same. What has changed is the number of hours we are spending on digital media, and then, in turn, our need for individualization. It is not enough to be a good citizen who pays their taxes and behaves well; no, we have to have a career, a family, a beautiful home, care for our personal appearance, realize ourselves – and talk about it on social media. These media take time away from time that could be spent together as a family, are disruptive to the presence of our children and can be sources of conflict if parents try to set limits on each other’s and their children’s use of them.

The good, old-fashioned television is not without its problems, because we risk not being aware of the hygge at all when the TV is just blabbering away. Our main components for hygge involve bringing family members and sweets together, but when Friday’s entertainment rolls across the screen, we gorge on sweets without tasting them and we forget to be present with those we are sitting beside on the sofa. Moreover, it is widely believed that a sneak peek at Facebook is allowed when the TV screen is turned on.

To conquer these threats and retain its popularity with the healthy, modern individual, hygge needs to rethink itself. Hygge can give us community, presence, contemplation and rest. It can do all this, which is the new luxury; that which we spend so much money on achieving through hiking and yoga holidays – but it needs to get itself off the sofa more often and go out into the fresh air. Hygge needs to be something that is done when standing, walking and conversing. Hygge needs to be active rather than passive. Hygge is being with the kids in the forest. Walking in a child’s footsteps and taking the time to cultivate microscopic experiences like watching a beetle walking across a leaf. Hygge needs to convince us that it will follow us if we take the freshly baked rolls outside for a picnic instead of taking them over to the sofa.

Hygge needs to ally itself with some of the new players in the market such as audio products of all kinds. Sales of audio books have just overtaken the sales of e-books. Podcasts and radio programmes are becoming more and more popular. Listening to something instead of taking in knowledge and entertainment visually demands more presence, and that means better conditions for hygge.

Most importantly, hygge needs to stand tall and remember its history. Hygge is the cool thing about being Scandinavian. It is the reason we have a home life that includes others, and not just ourselves. It is the reason why people get together and talk in relaxed and informal gatherings and it is the light in the darkness, which carries us through six cold winter months, and it has done so for more than a thousand years.

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