Hygge: Danish Comfort versus American Shame

The Comforts of Heath and Home

On the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, I’m sitting in front of a fire, toasting my woolen-sock clad feet on the hearth, drinking a steaming cup of milky Yorkshire black tea, nibbling a slice of the stollen my spouse baked over the weekend, and reading the New Yorker, where I learn that this is hygge According to the New Yorker, hygge (pronounced hoo-guh) is a Danish term, describing an essential Danish national character which appreciates “a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being”.

If recent articles in The New Yorker and the New York Times are any indications, the WASP search for a happier life is morphing from the “life-changing” tidy minimalism imported from Japan (KonMari) to the snug comforts of the hearth imported from Denmark (hygge).

“At least six books about hygge were published in the United States this year, with more to come in 2017. (At the Guardian, Charlotte Higgins has done an investigation into the U.K.’s hygge publishing craze.) Helen Russell, a British journalist who wrote “The Year of Living Danishly,” defines the term as “taking pleasure in the presence of gentle, soothing things”

From the New Yorker

Americans might embrace the trappings of hygge, just as we commodify and consume other imported cultural trends. But we Americans are not going to achieve contentment from buying a few candles any more than we can achieve Zen enlightenment by buying incence and desktop gravel garden.

Whatever satisfaction flows from hygge is not about the trappings. It’s about the Skandinavian mindset environment that not only allows but values modest pleasures. Hygge runs smack up against both our national character and our current economic realities.

Valuing modest pleasures runs smack up against both Americans’ national character and current economic realities.

Anglos (in the USA and UK ) don’t need to learn how to hygge. Any “womens” magazine in the last 70 years is filled with examples. Martha Stewart created a corporate empire on the comforts of home.

What WASPs are seeking is permission to hygge. The recent American/UK fascination with hygge stems from our amazement with a foreign culture where home comforts are not only allowed but accepted and encouraged (even taken to the other extreme of coercive conformity).

American’s Puritans ancestors bestowed the gift of guilt to spoil any pleasure, even simple ones. Americans view the ordinary comfort of hearth and home as silly indulgences or trivialized as feminine. This guilt is so imbued in our culture that we make lists of our “guilty pleasures” and marketers advertise the joy of their wares as “guilt free” or tauntingly “sinfully indulgent”. They push us to consume “because we deserve it”. We have to be convinced that we are worth it because we feel so unworthy of joy.

And the guilt does not come just from our religious heritage. As long as I remember bourgeois has been hurled as an insult by both my more artsy and my politcally active acquantances. The first group hates the bland conformity and the second the danger of being lulled into a kind of comfort that makes us weak and easy prey to the evil at large. Or if they don’t go to that extreme, at least we should feel guilt for enjoying comfort when so many others suffer.

Yet the lesson I see in this sudden interest in the UK and the USA of hygge, is the recognition that the middle class is disappearing and as these comforts become more rare they are more valued.

Again from the New Yorker, “Perhaps Scandinavians are better able to appreciate the small, hygge things in life because they already have all the big ones nailed down: free university education, social security, universal health care, efficient infrastructure, paid family leave, and at least a month of vacation a year. With those necessities secured, according to Wiking, Danes are free to become “aware of the decoupling between wealth and wellbeing’.”

Having been taught Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it seems to be only logical that once our basic needs for survival are met, that we can move to the middle ground of community (love, belonging and esteem), and finally a few of us (like my artsy friends) can reach self-actualization or self-trancendence.

In America it is not enough that the wealthy enjoy every luxury, they are the only ones allowed the luxury of joy. The rest of us must feel guilty for our pleasures and the very poorest among us must be punished for them.

The American Dream is a rags-to-riches story, a story of extremes. And in the current perversion of it, wealth is enjoyable only if one can flaunt it and winning most fun only when you beat someone else out of the prize. To feel like a winner these days, the guys on top now insist on losers.

As more of us get pushed to the losing side, no wonder we gaze upon these boring, conforming, bourgeois, modest middle class comforts as having almost fairy tale magic, a transformational escape from extremes. If it were possible for everyone to have the wherewithal to enjoy small things–hearth and home, kith and kin, health and heartiness–what a vast improvement it would be. We are made to feel shame (guilt again!) for aiming so low, but let’s get everyone to that goal first and then we can aim higher.

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