Why are Americans obsessed with hygge and what we can learn from lagom

As we welcome a new year, we often look at the scale.

Not the one in your bathroom that tells you how you ate around the holidays, but the internal one that measures the other buckets we carry to and from the watering hole.

How are our friendships faring? Are we being heard by our loved ones? Are we listening carefully in return? What has changed in our spiritual lives? Where do we turn when we’re feeling down? What makes us feel down in the first place?

These are healthy questions to ask any time of year, but it’s easy for Americans to be very American about it. Thanks to a “Super Size Me” mentality, we chase bigger houses, bigger paychecks, bigger successes and bigger expectations of each passing year, which can lead to bigger failures, disappointments and sadness.

The minimalism movement — spurred in part by Marie Kondo’s blockbuster book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” — has inspired Americans to look abroad for even more clues to the deeper happiness that we seek.

Hygge (pronounced “hoo-gah”) is the Danish concept of “inner warmth” that has become uber trendy on this side of the Atlantic. As author Meik Wiking writes in “The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living,” it isn’t something you buy; it’s something you make, usually with another person or within the context of a community, that creates a warmth of connection. It’s consciously creating a state of grace and acceptance without stress about whatever is outside your control.

Rather than explaining all of this nuance when they define “hygge,” most Danes condense the idea into something more tangible, like a candle flickering, a streetlamp on a foggy night or a warm cup of tea while you’re quietly reading a book or listening to music.

“Hygge was a way for us to get through the long winters that are really dark and really gray,” says Austinite Nils Juul-Hansen, who was born and raised in Denmark. “You have to create some inner warmth, some inner hope, some inner light.”

Juul-Hansen has lived in Austin since 2001, but the concept of hygge is never far from his mind. “Hygge means getting together and being together in that moment and occupying a compassionate space together,” he says.

He calls it the “Scandinavian Zen,” something that we can’t fully understand, but we sense and can enjoy the mystery of. “We don’t know why we are the happiest people in the world, but maybe it’s because of the hygge,” he says.

Manifesting hygge means making a safe space for your family and your friends, where pretenses fall away, resentments finally wash under the bridge and everyone can find a moment of relaxation.

You can have self-hygge, a meditative moment of self-care and connection with yourself or a higher power. Being vulnerable enough to have that intimacy with your friends, co-workers or even a stranger can be more difficult.

Americans want to quantify it and qualify it, he says. “They say, ‘Well, if we dress our home like this or cook our food like this, then we have ‘hygge,’” he says. “Hygge is something that doesn’t cost anything.”

At its core, hygge is free and available to anyone, anytime. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Taking pleasure from soothing things is one thing, but having a total absence of annoyance — another way hygge can be defined — is an even greater quest for those of us who might have the tea-and-candle thing down.

His recommendation for having more hygge in your life: “Turn off the TV. Don’t listen to the news (nonstop). Don’t worry about how many presents you have for Christmas. Listen to your family members, listen to yourself and have a little bit of joy in doing that.”

A natural complement to hygge is the Swedish concept of lagom, which has been billed as “the next hygge.” Lagom translates to “just enough” or “the right amount.”

Like baby bear’s porridge, lagom (“lah-gom”) is neither too much nor too little, neither too loud nor too soft, not too carefree or too tied down. The idea is that if you take too much, there won’t be enough for everyone else, and if you can find that sweet spot between doing and contemplating, being good to others and being good to yourself, working hard and hardly working, you’ll have a sustainable source of satisfaction and stability in your life.

Many Scandinavian societies are built on this concept, even if they don’t have a word for it. “The welfare model turns our collective wealth into well-being,” writes Wiking. “We are not paying taxes, we are investing in our society. We are purchasing quality of life (that reduces) risk, uncertainty and anxiety among its citizens and (prevents) extreme unhappiness.”

American culture and its lust for acquiring power, money, love and a good time mean we often don’t know when we’ve had enough.

We strive and aspire. We pour ourselves into everything we do and everyone we love, leaving ourselves in need of a recharge, especially as we contemplate the year we just finished and look toward the months ahead.

How do we create lagom in our health, home, workplace and outside world? Knowing the difference between a want and a need is one place to start, according to “Live Lagom: Balanced Living, the Swedish Way” author Anna Brones, but we also have to develop the faith that there will be more of whatever we need in the future.

That’s a hard concept if you’ve ever struggled with collecting as much as you can of whatever makes you feel happy, only to realize that you’ve created a hunger that can never be satisfied.

Brones says that lagom means being present, not focusing on the past or worrying about the future, or for those times when you need to look back or to look forward, and not doing one without the other.

At home, that might look like finding the balance between how your house looks and how it functions. Working better means taking a break in the middle of the day for coffee, but it also means showing up to work and completing tasks on time to respect your colleagues’ schedules and workload.

They originate from different countries, but one way to have more lagom is to have more hygge. That intentional connection with others and the deepest parts of ourselves reminds us of what really matters in life. Participation is the key to harmony. We cannot thrive in emotional or physical isolation, and we cannot survive without moderation.

As you write your own New Year’s resolutions or goals for this coming year, consider adding hygge and lagom to the list. Through that kind of consciousness, we might find the expansiveness we’ve long sought while staying grounded in what really matters.


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