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Hygge

When we do hygge we feel that all is well.  We feel safe and calm.  There is a sense of comfort, kindness, harmony and belonging.  Hygge is about a quality of togetherness or a quality of time.  It is life-quality.  This means we are activating the ‘Connected/Contented’ network.  It is part ‘reward’ for our work but it is also a reprieve from work and a way to switch off from being productive, from doing, from achieving. Hygge is a different way of being.

Hygge.

This week we experience the shortest day of the week. It is dark and it is cold, even here in Newcastle.  On Sunday I was interviewed on ABC Radio National – Melbourne by Lisa Leong on the topic of ‘hygge’.  The context was to support listeners coping with the dark winter in Melbourne.  I was quite excited as she hosts ‘This Working Life’ on the same station, a program I really enjoy.

By now most people have a sense of what hygge is as it has become quite popular outside Denmark, where it originates. It conjures an image of a cosy, candle-lit, harmonious gathering with warm drinks and big socks!  

High season for hygge is winter.  Hygge is illusive, and it does not require any particular materials or settings, however some settings support it and some make it more challenging to hygge.  Whether we do it by ourselves or with others it is about a certain feeling and key ingredients are that we are calm and present, feeling ease and pleasure.  There is also an inbuilt equality in doing hygge.  No one is more important than any other.  

Being invited to explore the topic made me dive a little deeper.  The word derives from an old Norwegian word ‘hugga’ meaning to comfort or soothe.  (The English word ‘hug’ comes from this too.) Hygge became popular in the 18th century when a middle class was emerging as a way for them to differentiate themselves from the upper and lower classes.  Their home values are reflected in hygge: the importance of feeling safe, closeness, stability and creating a place to enjoy.  

Hygge is also about a shared experience, the way we are with each other, so you could not hygge (yes, it’s a verb as well as a noun!) if everyone was on their phone and everyone reading their own book is stretching it.  Ideally you watch the same film and then talk about it afterwards, or everyone is involved in conversation or you play games, or you do craft together.  The activity though is not outcome-focused, that would also shift it to no longer being ‘hygge’. 

During the week in the Mindful Leadership sessions, there are always quite a few participants close to burnout.  This is particularly common with women who are mothers.  They often comment ‘I have no time for myself, I get up around 5.30, do an hour of work, get the kids up and ready for school, drop them off, go to work, eat lunch at my desk.  At pick up time I rush to get the kids, followed by homework, dinner, bedtime story, then a bit more work perhaps with a glass of wine or other treat, finally collapse in bed and at 5.30 the next morning it starts again.  There is no me time, no time for self-care’.

From the perspective of the Three Emotional Regulation Systems, many of us live in a combination of ‘drive’” and ‘threat’ states.  The focus is on me and my task and me dealing with a ‘danger’ like missing a note from the school, not getting through all the emails, missing an appointment etc.  This way of functioning means high activation in the insula and striatum, regions in the frontal lobe that serve as the brain’s motivation and reward centre.  These areas help us take action towards goals and rewards.  

When overused, these parts of the brain get stuck in a repeat pattern shouting: ‘go get it, keep going, make it happen, more, more, more’.  They bring on a feeling of craving and anxiety.  All of the emotions associated with the stress: dread, anger, fear, regret, despair, uncertainty, helplessness, disconnection, sense of being stuck or out of control, and overdrive for achieving more are associated with heightened activity in the insula and striatum.  (see Awakened Brain by Professor Lisa Miller)

The Scandinavian countries are not perfect but they do offer more life quality in general and I think it is fair to say that one of the contributors to this is hygge.  In Denmark hygge is integrated into day-to-day life.  There is hygge at school, hygge at the office, family hygge, Friday hygge, evening hygge, hygge pants – the list goes on.

When we do hygge we feel that all is well.  We feel safe and calm.  There is a sense of comfort, kindness, harmony and belonging.  Hygge is about a quality of togetherness or a quality of time.  It is life-quality.  This means we are activating the ‘Connected/Contented’ network.  It is part ‘reward’ for our work but it is also a reprieve from work and a way to switch off from being productive, from doing, from achieving. Hygge is a different way of being.

Our nervous systems need hygge, and perhaps we need this more than we need self-care which tends to be an individual pursuit.  Connecting with other humans is one of the best things we can do for our mental wellbeing.

The rhythm of life means that winter offers more time inside, a perfect opportunity for hygge.  

There are two other Danish words that are a little similar to hygge – ‘nusse’ which is being in a gentle flow of doing various things and sysle means working in a playful enjoyable way.  Both are about doing things but in a gentle, unhurried way where the quality of the experience is more important than completing the task.

On a Saturday morning I might ‘nusse’ with a bit of tidying, a bit of cleaning, then I might stop and enjoy a cup of tea in the sun with a book and hygge and then I might ‘sysle’ trying to work out how to create a garden bed.

Identifying and valuing these ways of being may help reduce the guilt that we can experience when we are not productive.  It could help us to come into knowing that it matters how we travel, that quality of life matters.

Hygge can be done alone, but it is often enjoyed with others (family or friends).

How to set up for hygge with others:

  • Commit to hygge time
  • Arrange seating so that people face each other, not sitting too far apart
  • Create an informal, non-perfect environment (natural materials and older objects work well as they give a different ambience)
  • Arrange gentle lighting, and include a candle 
  • Get off the phone and limit distractions
  • Plan an activity or decide just to talk. (Watch a film, read something or play a game)
  • Depending on the season you might organise a tray of treats, warm drinks, biscuits and chocolates.

Which elements are anti-hygge?

  • Bright neon lights, sterile environments that are too clean, too perfect, too new
  • Grand big spaces and people sitting too far apart
  • Noisy spaces
  • When people come and go
  • Doing individual things like being on the phone
  • When anyone dominates the conversation, showing off, being loud – damaging the ‘togetherness’ is unkind.
  • Being status-conscious or outcome-focussed

I would love to hear your hygge experiences.

With love

Charlotte

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