Hygge (hoo-gah) is a Danish and Norwegian term. As a song by that name in the Disney musical Frozen explains: “Hygge means comfortable/Hygge means cozy/Hygge means sitting by the fire with your cheeks all rosy.” More broadly, hygge means suffusing your life and environment with a spirit of calm conviviality and an appreciation of shared, simple pleasures, as English-speaking audiences have been instructed in a series of popular books including Hygge, the Danish Art of Happiness.
Interestingly, Wikipedia tells us that hygge is a recent (late twentieth-century) coinage; perhaps it’s a sign of how disconnected and alienated our lives have become that we’ve popularized a word that helps us aspire to the opposite state. It’s striking, too, that while its associations with home décor and material comforts have brought it some critique as a bourgeois notion, some trace the word’s roots to old Norse terms related to the mind, soul, and consciousness. It’s about bringing comfort and joy to the spirit, about nurturance that leads us not only to rest and relax, but also to re-create, to generate, and to forge connections that help us to act.
In thinking about it, I was reminded of Learning True Love, the spiritual autobiography of Buddhist Sister Chan Khong, a Buddhist nun who is a close associate of the late monk and writer Thich Nhat Hanh. She tells the story of building a meditation hut for social workers who were ministering to villagers during the Vietnam War. She was criticized for spending resources on it while being surrounded on all sides by dire material need. But she knew it was essential for those helping others to take at least one morning a week to nurture their own spirits. Only in a protected space of their own, where they felt calm and safe and good, would they be able to replenish their capacity to carry on.
The Nordic origins of the term reminded me, too, of my youthful discovery of Ibsen. Together with a friend whose parents had furnished their living room with antiques, I sat nestled in a window-seat and read Hedda Gabler and Ghosts from pages musty with age. There was a sense of intimacy along with intense drama; it was as if we’d slipped through a wormhole and gone somewhere unfamiliar, faraway in space and time. Perhaps that too was hygge, though I didn’t know it then.
So I wish you, as you read, a few such wormhole-moments: of escape, of solace, and of thoughts of something new.
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