Scandinavian Secret to the Art of Life (Which is Not Hygge)

Recently the world was infected by a new cozy inspiration: the Danish concept of hygge. Suddenly hygge was everywhere. I was reading the British and Spanish articles about this miraculous phenomenon, my Instagram feed was depicting the Hygge Book at homes from France to Russia. And, of course, I myself got affected and bought the book “The Cozy Life. Rediscover the Joy of Simple Things Through the Danish Concept of Hygge” by Pia Edberg. It seemed to be the perfect timing to be Scandinavian!

While the whole world was raging over this sweet idea, infused with authenticity, simplicity, hot tea and warm mittens, I just could not be so charmed. Maybe, my inborn criticism didn’t allow me to dance happily at the discovered secret, or maybe, being an expat in Norway made my feel like “well, hygge is great, but is not the remedy against unhappiness”. The insights into the expat community in Norway confirmed my feeling.  The Spanish were discussing hygge on Facebook in the terms like: “Come on, give me a break! I have lived in this country for so many years, and yes, it is dark, depressive and boring here, and the hygge cannot save you from it”.

Maybe, hygge alone would not irritate people that much. What irritates is the marketing idea of Scandinavian happiness that is sold to the world. For an expat in Scandinavia, it is hard to buy it. Like the connection made between hygge and the fact of Denmark topping the list of the world’s happiest countries for five years in a row. That hints that hygge is a Danish way to happiness. But Denmark is also the second country in Europe (after Iceland) in consumption of antidepressants. So connection between hygge and happiness is as strong as between happiness and Prozac. How to make yourself happy? Follow the Danish example, get on the happy pills.

This year Norway is announced the happiest country in the world, and the top was crowded by its Nordic neighbors: Iceland, Finland and, of course, Denmark. Which created a great deal of debate among expats where I live. How is it possible that we live in the happiest country – and haven’t noticed it so far? “They didn’t seem that happy” says Michael Booth about the Danish. He is the author of a book devoted to investigate that utopian myth about Nordic countries titled “The Almost Nearly Perfect People”. According to him, the picture of Scandinavia is too pink and perfect, and it’s time to add some balance to it.

a quiet afternoon in Oslo

Back to the idea of hygge. So, the hot cup of tea is great, as also the candles, cuddling under the fluffy blanket, soft slippers, reading a good book while the rain is knocking on the window. But I give you two weeks of non-stop rain, and that cup of tea will not save you. The coziness has its limits too. Especially in the cold seasons you cannot be buried under the fluffy blanket until the spring comes. With all the cozy stuff in its place, you need to remember: fresh air, exercise, social connection. Which seem easier in the warm Spanish climate than on a dark December day in Norway. But here in Norway you need it even more.

Here comes the Scandinavian secret to happiness: taking your own responsibility for your well-being. Picking yourself up and sending to the gym when all you want is feeding on warm cacao in the safeness of your couch. Keeping in touch with your friends and finding new ways to connect to people – even though you feel like shutting the world out and staying in your cozy nest until better and warmer times. Being creative with what you’ve got, even when the opportunities of having fun are limited.

I would call Scandinavians the masters of grabbing the opportunity. Some stereotypes say that the Northern people have higher IQ because they have limited resources and must plan for the long cold winters. I would say, my make-yourself-happy Q got higher here, because of that. Because of limitations. In my home country Ukraine we would not appreciate summer and sun. We would be like: “Ok, it’s here for several months, and, god, it can be so hot, let’s find a shadow!” In Norway you try to grab any chance of good weather. It seems that people rush outside on a sunny day – to walk with a takeaway latte, to make a picnic in the park, to sit on the terrace of café or restaurant which feels such a not-everyday luxury.

The lucky ones who have balconies would spend their day there, reading and chilling. That’s why the balconies here are cultivated with almost a religious zeal. My mom when visiting me in Oslo noticed the balconies in our backyard: “there is a barbeque oven, there is a bike, and there is a hammock. It looks like everything is for hobby, for enjoying your life”. While in my hometown the balconies are often used for disposing the stuff you don’t longer need but don’t want to throw out. You will not often see a person chilling on the balcony there. Ukrainians would complain and say that they are not as rich as Norwegians for that. But you don’t have to be a millionaire to throw away all that old stuff, buy a plant and a chair where you can sip your morning coffee in the sunlight.

Norwegian solutions to art of life are not villas on the sunny coast and  yacht rides (though sometimes they are).  They remind me more of the IKEA catalogue which always shows solutions for the tiny apartments.  Where the living room is also a bedroom, and a kitchen at times, but still it looks sweet and enjoyable. IKEA in this sense captures the very essence of Scandinavian creativity. Which comes from limitations, not freedom (which some would equal with hygge, but I think, it lies deeper than that).

So here is the simple conclusion: don’t wait until better, warmer (or colder), calmer of funnier times. Stop complaining about what is limiting you and try to see how it can make you creative. Look for small things, for tiny opportunities to enjoy your everyday life just as it is. Do some adjustments that you can afford like buying a plant or a flower pot that gives joy to your eyes. Find your daily ritual you enjoy and be present in that moment (for me it’s making my morning cup of coffee). Define what is a small luxury for you and look for integrating it into your week (reading a book in the café, a glass of wine on the terrace or your balcony). You will start noticing that even if you are limited, your possibilities for enjoying life, just as it is, are not.

Do you have your tricks to make everyday life more enjoyable? Share them with me! I would love to make a collection of happy lifehacks 🙂

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