The hustle and bustle of the holidays are nearly behind us, leaving us in that period of winter that can bring even the hardiest of cold-lovers into the doldrums of January and February. In this Sunday’s service, we’ll learn how the Danish concept of “hygge” (pronounced “hoo-gah”) can help center us during this season when many of us are anxious for spring to arrive.
Before we begin this morning, I want to try a little test. Close your eyes and imagine your “happy place.” As you do this, imagine using all five of your senses. Where are you? What do you hear around you? What do you smell? How does it feel? Really soak it in for a few moments.
Now, in the chat, write a brief description of where you are…
Interesting things coming through in the chat. We’ll come back to that in a bit.
In July of 2011, the United Nations adopted resolution 65/309 Happiness: Towards a Holistic Definition of Development, inviting member countries to measure the happiness of their people and to use that data to help guide public policy. To support that resolution, in April of 2012, the UN released the first World Happiness Report outlining the state of world happiness, the causes of happiness and misery, and policy implications highlighted by case studies. For each of the past eight years, a new World Happiness Report has been published, using several different elements to calculate a nation’s happiness: individual prosperity, social support systems, life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, perceptions of corruption, and self-reported happiness levels.
Interestingly, although not necessarily too surprising, as I look through the happy places entered in the chat, I don’t see a lot of cold, dark seascapes listed as “happy places,” and yet according to the annual World Happiness Report, the Nordic countries of Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland have consistently ranked in the top 5 happiest countries in the world for the last five years. (The United States is ranked 18th in the 2020 report.)
When you think about the Nordic countries, you probably imagine a scene not too unlike what you have outside your window right now – but maybe with more pine trees and water. The winters are cold and dark, and they last from October to May. This morning in Elgin, the sun rose at 7:21am and it will set at 4:33pm, giving us 9 hours and 12 minutes of daylight. In Copenhagen, Denmark this morning, the sun didn’t rise until 8:38am and it will set at 3:50pm, giving them almost two hours less daylight than us.
And yet the people of Demark are happier than us. How is that possible when so much of their year is comparable to our own January and February – months of the year many of us struggle to get through because of the cold and dark?
For the Nordic countries, much of it comes down to their outlook on life and a way of living which we will be exploring today: Hygge.
Planning the Service
In hindsight, the timing of today’s service is kind of interesting. Over the summer, the Worship Team met to outline the services for the upcoming church year period. In many cases, we knew what we wanted to present based on religious Holidays or other national events that take place throughout the year. In other cases though, we had just a general idea of something that might be interesting so we put it down as sort of a placeholder, knowing that if something else came up we could always slot it in instead.
That was kind of the case for this service. Remember, this was back in late July when we were only four months into the pandemic and the election season was just heating up. The weather outside was warm, the days were long, and here we were thinking about what to present for our first service of 2021. I mentioned that I like ot use the week between Christmas and New Year’s to sort of reset my life in preparation for the coming year. When I think about this time of year, I imagine dimly lit rooms with Christmas lights, snow covering the ground, and keeping warm with blankets and hot chocolate. In many ways without intending to, my mind naturally incorporates the spirit of hygge into my imaginings of this special week of the year – so I volunteered to introduce hygge for today’s service and how we can all incorporate it into our daily lives.
Now fast-forward five months and here we are entering that time of the year when Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) begins to creep into our lives. The sun rises later and sets earlier, plunging us into the cold and dark for 15 hours at a time, leaving us tired, sluggish, and not ready to face 2-3 more months until Spring starts peeking its head around the corner. As I began researching today’s topic, I was fascinated to find other UU churches across the country are also focusing on Hygge for their services at this time of the year. Apparently many of us could use a little Hygge in our lives.
So what is Hygge? And I have to be upfront and apologize if I mispronounce hygge this morning – before I knew how to actually pronounce it, I liked to say it like the Swedish Chef – hergu hergu hergu – and sometimes that still comes out of my mouth…
In The Little Book of Hygge, Meik Wiking, founder and CEO of the Copenhagen-based Happiness Research Institute writes:
Unfortunately, understanding the definition of hygge isn’t enough for us to go forthing and be hyggelig (the adjective form of hygge; to be hygge-like). Without appropriating their culture, how can we embrace aspects of what is, at its core, a part of the Danish way of life into our own lives?
The first thing to remember, and this is very important, is that hygge is not about material things. If, like many Americans, your initial exposure to hygge comes from glossy magazines and Facebook posts, you might think that hygge is all about the things in your hygge space: the fleece blanket from Target, the pine-scented candles from Yankee Candle, the tea from Adagio, or the journal from Barnes and Noble. And while all these things can contribute to the cozy environment, one spiritual aspect of hygge is satisfaction with what you have, so it can be achieved with the things you already have in your house instead of buying new.
With that understanding, here are some steps to help you create the right atmosphere for an afternoon of Hygge:
Lighting is Important
Remember that the winters in Demark are cold, cloudy, and dimly lit. The best way to combat against that is with warm light – especially in the form of flames from candles or a fireplace. If you need more light than you can get from natural sources, turn to warm lighting instead of the harsh whites of fluorescent bulbs. According to The Little Book of Hygge, the rule of thumb is:
Think loungewear. Cozy socks. A pair of hyggebuskers (that favorite pair of pants you’d never wear in public). A warm, fleece blanket and a comfy chair or couch. Remember that this is “you-time” so don’t bother with make-up or fancy hair-dos.
Find a Relaxing Activity
For a hygge-purist, this would be an electronic-free activity like reading, journaling, or playing cards on a boardgame with friends or family (who are also wearing their hyggebuskers) with some gentle music in the background. A more modern interpretation of hygge allows for watching TV or movies curled up on the couch – but without any email or social media. Those are the antithesis of hygge – uhyggelight.
Food and drink can add to your hygge atmosphere – think warm, comfort-foods like stews and warm drinks like hot chocolate, tea, or coffee. It’s the height of winter, when our bodies naturally want to hibernate, so indulging a bit and giving yourself a break from healthy eating is okay.
So there you go, three easy steps to disconnecting from the world, re-centering yourself, and possibly reconnecting with your loved ones with a hygge afternoon. But hygge isn’t just about a cozy afternoon on the couch. The elements of hygge can be applied to all aspects of your life and your relationships – whether it’s making dinner for your family, sitting through another Zoom meeting, or sitting in traffic. Meik Wiking’s Little Book of Hygge outlines the ten elements of everyday Hygge in its “Hygge Manifesto”:
- Atmosphere: turn down the lights and turn on the background music.
- Presence: be here now. Turn off the phones and social media.
- Pleasure: coffee, chocolate, cookies, etc.
- Equality: “we” over “me”. If you have a partner or spouse, include them in your plans. In other words, hygge doesn’t work if you are on the couch while they’re cleaning the kitchen. Take pleasure in helping.
- Gratitude: savor what you have.
- Harmony: be at peace with yourself and with others. Life is not a competition, we already like you and you should like yourself. There is no need to brag about your achievements.
- Comfort: get comfy. Take a break. It’s all about relaxation.
- Truce: no drama. Leave politics and the outside world for another day.
- Togetherness: build relationships and narratives with others.
- Shelter: this is your tribe. This is a place of peace and security.
But it doesn’t have to stop there. While Hygge is a Danish concept, other Nordic countries share similar lifestyles, which isn’t surprising since they share the same long, cold winters.
Just across the Sound from Denmark lies Sweden where you’ll find the Swedish way of life: Lagom. Roughly translated as “just the right amount,” Lagom can be applied to all areas of your life like setting realistic goals, a good work-life balance, and appreciating what you have instead of always chasing after new-and-better things. Unlike hygge, which has been described as “healthy hedonism,” Lagom focuses on a life well-lived, both for yourself, for society, and for the world around you. Unlike Hygge, Lagom doesn’t embrace unhealthy eating, even if it’s only occasionally. Instead, Lagom focuses on food and activities that are good for your body and soul. .By practicing Lagom, you know when you have enough and when to say stop, whether it’s material things or commitments to your time.
Sometimes though, the bleak days and nights of winter require something more than what Hygge and Lagom can provide. For those times, there’s the Finnish option: Kalsarikannit, a term that literally means “underwear intoxication” but has been described (by the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, no less) as “the feeling when you are going to get drunk home alone in your underwear with no intention of going out.”
While the idea of getting Pantsdrunk (as the West has stylized the word) sounds like something Homer Simpson would embrace, it’s not necessarily only about getting wasted. Instead it incorporates many of the same lifestyle elements of Hygge and Logam without the need for creating the perfect ambiance or worrying whether the hot-chocolate you’re drinking is fair-trade or not. It’s an attitude towards life that starts from inner-peace, knowing when you need to set time aside for yourself, shedding uncomfortable clothing, and chilling with some Netflix and a drink of your choice (alcoholic or otherwise).
So whichever lifestyle appeals to you the most, much like meditation, yoga, or other spiritual practices, incorporating some Hygge, Logam, or Pantsdrunk into your life can help get you through these winter months – especially this year as we continue to be socially separated by the pandemic.
I challenge you to find some time in the coming week – perhaps this afternoon even – to incorporate some hygge into your daily life. May it be so.