From 'hygge' to... 'lagom'?


I confess to feeling rather conflicted about 2016's trend for 'hygge', the Danish word often translated as "cosiness" (or better, "netflix and chill"?!).* What's not to like, you may ask? Well partially I think I peaked too early. I worked with a Danish friend several years ago, through an utterly miserable Belgian winter (and 'summer', though it barely passed for one) so by the time the craze hit full force it had lost any novelty for me and I struggled to get on board. And partially because so much of it seemed to be about buying a new scented candle and sofa throw, which I never need any encouragement for!

But more than that, I think the hygge craze perhaps played too much into my natural laziness and general hostility to anything outdoors from the months of October to May, tendencies I need help battling rather than excuses to give in to. I never needed any cultural encouragement to adopt a lifestyle of maximum coziness. Indeed, I perhaps do hygge a little too well. And this, without some kind of bracing contrast, makes it all a bit less enjoyable. 

The best parallel I can think of is Tim Urban's description of the "dark playground" pocrastinators find themselves in, when they know they should be working: "the dark playground isn't actually fun, because it's completely unearned and the air is filled with guilt, anxiety, self-hatred, and dread". (Incidentally, as a lifelong procrastinator I can testify to the accuracy of this description.) The cosy times at home can produce a similar effect for me - a vague sense of unease at the fact that I haven't really balanced it with something a bit more effortful.

And so to 'lagom' - apparently the latest Scandi word we will all become obsessed with. Meaning "just enough", "just right", or "the perfect balance" - think Goldilocks and you've pretty much got it. This idea of balance very much plays into the current zeitgeist of work and wellness, and the (admittedly rather dull) idea of everything in moderation. But I hope it can mean more: a focus on fairness and equality, or on reigning in our urge to consume more and more, and - given current world politics - a willingness to balance self-care with engagement in the thorny issues of politics, especially with those who don't necessarily make us feel warm and fuzzy. 

Given the rise of xenophobic populism across the West, now is not the time to retreat indefinitely to the cosy candlelit world hygge, but instead to balance it by getting out into the cold and doing the real hard work. And for those who remain unconvinced, who are tempted to snuggle back into the hygge trend just a little longer, let me leave you with the words of Marcus Aurelius in last week's Brain Pickings newsletter:

"At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: 'I have to go to work - as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I am going to do what I was born for - the thing I was brought into the world to do. Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?'... So you were born to feel 'nice'? Instead of doing things and experiencing them?"

And so here's to 2017, officially the year of lagom.

[ETA: I just came across this article in Slate on the darker side of hygge in Denmark - worth checking out]

* I am, in fact, a big fan of words that do not have direct English translations. A current favourite, much inspired by 2016 politics, is "Backpfeifengesicht" - the German word for "a face badly in need of a fist".

Five podcasts

Dear Jess,

As summer - or at least marginally less awful weather - is beginning to make an appearance in the UK, I find myself forgoing my usual semi-drenched sprint to the tube for more leisurely walks. Happily my walk to work takes me along Regent's Canal, and a walk into the shops takes me via Primrose Hill and Regent's Park, and it feels good to start the day with some low-level exercise.

I always used to listen to music as I walked, but last year got really into podcasts. A little late in the game, I know, but it was definitely a revelation - they are fun, make me feel like I'm learning again, and really makes time fly on a dreary commute. Through the winter I've listened sporadically whilst I cook dinner or laze in the bath, but now that I'm once again listening more regularly, and for longer stretches, I'm re-discovering some old friends and adding some new ones to the mix. I thought I'd share a few current favourites (all linked)...

  1. This American Life: From the channel behind Serial (the mother of all podcasts), this is enduringly popular for a reason. Each episode has a loose theme, with usually around three stories around this theme. It covers incredibly diverse and intriguing topics - every time I listen to this I feel like it has expanded my mind, and shown me a side of life I wasn't especially aware of before.
  2. The One You Feed: their tagline - "inspiring conversations about creating a life worth living" pretty much says it all. This is a serious and thoughtful podcast that like This American Life covers a whole host of topics. World experts on subjects ranging from addiction to women's leadership, or activism to meditation, discuss with host Eric how to keep life moving in the right direction. 
  3. Magic Lessons: Hosted by "Big Magic" author Elizabeth Gilbert (she of Eat, Pray, Love" fame), this runs a bit like an agony-aunt column for people having trouble expressing their creative side, but in audio format. Each episode Liz and pals (including Ann Patchett who I LOVE *insert heart-eye emoji here*) talk through some of the struggles of pursuing creativity, which can turn up some surprising gems of wisdom applicable to living your fullest life more broadly.
  4. The Ezra Klein Show: Hosted by Ezra, the founder of Vox, this show attracts some seriously big names. This on its own isn't necessarily a guaranteed formula for success (big names can often stick to soundbites or an approved script), but Ezra manages to create a podcast that sounds like two old friends chatting over tea and cake (for upwards of an hour). Except those friends tend to be particularly smart and witty. I'd highly recommend his first ever episode, which was with Rachel Maddow, and the one with Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank.
  5. Mortified: Shorter than many of the others, this podcast is both hilarious and cringe-inducing. Featuring adults reading their highly-embarassing teenage writings (think diary entries, letters, poems...) and sharing other memories, this is one that genuinely makes me laugh (and snort, alarmingly) out loud. Perhaps not the best way to look sane on my morning stroll/commute, but definitely makes it go faster!

I should also here give honourable mentions to Serial (of course - now there is a Season 2) and Limetown, which follows a similar investigative-journalism set-up as Serial except it is entirely fictional.

Five is a rather short list, not least because I listen to many more, and have several lined up that I want to try. Too many podcasts, too little time! Do you listen to podcasts? Do you have any favourites to share?

How to become an activist & alienate yourself...


Dear Anna,

When last I wrote, it was about how I would describe myself as not only a bad feminist, but a bad vegan. I am now wondering if my activism is making me also a bad friend.  To begin, I must explain that I’m crestfallen by my inability to persuade anyone around me to even try to #govegan.  And if I’m honest, I’m disheartened that the people for whom I care the most don’t share my values*. It is alienating. I feel alone. So what I’m struggling with now is how to balance my personal convictions with my personal relationships.

For me, the urgency and the rewards for embracing a vegan lifestyle are self-evident. With all we know, the only sustainable and ethical way forward, for our planet, for our health, for all living beings, is to radically overhaul the way we eat.  Have you seen Cowspiracy on Netflix yet? I was going to rattle off some of the facts and figures here, but there are so many – so many - compelling, irrefutable reasons to adopt a vegan diet that I don’t know how to pick only a few.

To my mind, the question today should not be ‘Why are you vegan?’, but rather ‘Why are you not?’

But then I remind myself that I didn’t become vegan until I was 31 years old. I was, in fact, a highly inconsistent vegetarian until just this past year.  So who am I to judge anyone else? I really, sincerely, try not to. But something in the way I talk about veganism has not convinced others to give it a try, and I wonder if I sound like a righteous killjoy. What am I doing wrong? How can I be a better, more effective, activist for animal rights? And for human rights, I must stress as well! I have quite a few causes...And I want to make a difference.  But right now, I admit I am feeling set back.

I can’t remember where I came across the quote that I’ve used to open this post. But I like it because it’s a reminder to never stop questioning habits and traditions and “the way things have always been”.  It is, of course, habits and traditions that we are up against when trying to convince someone to go vegan. It is no wonder that it is tough-going. I just wish I was better at it.




*Except for you, of course! But you are so far away...


RMS make-up love

This weekend I added my second piece to what I suspect will be a growing collection of RMS make-up. I'm admittedly late to join this particular band-waggon. In fact, I was a little sceptical at first, suspecting that its growing cult status may have been down to the super-chic frosted glass packaging more than the quality of the product itself. But I always really loved the ethos and approach of the company: they use raw, food-grade, organic ingredients; their packaging is all biodegradable, reusable or recyclable; and crucially they do not test on animals or use ingredients that have been tested on animals.

But a friend recommended their living luminizer, and after giving it a try I realised I was likely to become yet another RMS fangirl. Being as pale as I am, I find a lot of highlighters a bit too strong, too glittery. Yet goodness knows my complexion needs a little help in the radiance department, especially during long London winters! This one is a definite winner - more glossy than glittery (yet without being greasy), and pale enough to work well with my skin tone. It was officially love at first try.

Unblended and blended

Unblended and blended

With this success under my belt I turned to some of their other products. I've mentioned my devotion to blusher before: a longstanding favourite had been Bobbi Brown's Fresh Melon, but when I found out that the company's products are tested on animals I knew I needed to find an alternative peachy blusher that would suit my Casper-pale skin. Enter RMS lip2cheek in curious. Though it looks a little lumpy in the container, I think this is because one of the primary ingredients is coconut oil which is solid at room temperature (at least Northern European room temperatures!) It blends out to a lovely pale peach, and lasts well throughout the day. 

One drawback is that these products are not cheap. Not. At. All. But the last for ages and ages, and together these two are saving me from the usual well-intentioned "are you unwell? you look very grey..." comments that tend to come my way during this last stretch of winter...

How to boost your confidence at work

Dear Jess

A friend asked me a few weeks ago whether I'd read anything on how to increase your confidence at work. As I wracked my brain for any books or articles I'd come across, I realised that whilst nothing specific jumped to mind, I nevertheless had some ideas as well as some things that have worked for me.

Skills: It really helps to have a proper understanding of your skillset. Unfortunately often we are blind to the skills we have aquired over the years and only see the gaps. This is where an outside friend comes in handy, or someone in HR! As the first step I would recommend reviewing your job description (HR usually keep these on file) and seeing how your day-to-day ticks fits with the various skills set out in the job description. Then think about what you do that falls out of this - is there a way you could frame those activites as skills? For example, do you provide moral support for more junior members of staff? You may just think of it as friently chats by the watercooler, but that can translate into a great mentoring skill. The administrative faffing you hate to do each month? "Process management". Grab someone who has a bit of distance and perspective from your day-to-day and set out exactly what your skills are. Because you can bet they are more than you think.

Strengths: Following on from assessing your skills, take a serious look at your strengths and weaknesses. Strengths first though! We often tend to focus on our weaknesses, the things we're bad at or the things we assume we can't do. And often we frame these as some kind of fundamental shortcoming that means we're rubbish at our jobs, rubbish at life, and just a general failure (or is that just me?!) Again, this is where some outside perspective is useful. If you take the time to thoroughly map your strengths, you have a firmer grounding to be assertive at work. Because when you know your strengths you know where you can push for greater responsibility, or greater recognition. The flipside of this is that you know where you can develop - so when that new project comes in it is no longer a reason to find yourself coming up short. Instead you can openly acknowledge that this is perhaps not an area you are strong in, or an area where you have the exact skill-set, but at the same time see it as an opportunity for growth, to augment the skills and strengths you already know you have. 

Style: Your strengths and skills will feed directly into your individual working style, and understanding this style can be crucial in terms of boosting your confidence at work. For example, I am one of those people that spends chunks of the working day on the internet (Buzzfeed animals anyone?!), on my phone (the Bloglovin' app is fab!), or just generally gazing about with a blank look wondering what snacks might be available. All this might sound like I'm inefficient, or unmotivated. But in fact the opposite is true - I have a heavy workload, but one which I get through quickly and one which keeps me engaged. So what gives? It's is a matter of style... Over time I've realised that I work best in bursts of intense activity - I'm not someone who inches forwards through persistence, but instead I benefit from backing off a bit when I find myself stuck. I used to beat myself up for not being able to push through at my intense pace all the time. And in fact some of the people I admire most professionally admit to spending work time on the Daily Mail sidebar of shame as they warm their brains up or get some needed distance from whatever they are working on. Now I realise those moments of downtime (cute puppy gifs anyone?!) are the reason I can push as hard as I do when I am really focussed and productive: they are a help rather than a hindrance, the oil to my brain's machine if you will. And now I realise it I no longer beat myself up, or undermine my own confidence by wishing I worked in a different way. Everyone works differently, the key is to know the strengths of your working style (as well as the weaknesses) and play to them. 

On the subject of style, I couldn't really miss an opportunity to talk about my current obsession - a capsule wardrobe! Now most of the things I read about capsule wardrobes tend to be from bloggers or creative-types that have a much more flexible working wardrobe than I do. Nevertheless, capsuling your work wardrobe can be a real godsend. Fed up with never feeling like I had quite the right thing to wear for days in the office, and inspired by Matilda Kahl, who wears the exact same thing to work every day (yes really - read about it here - link!), I decided to get serious with my work wardrobe. Rather than a work uniform, I narrowed my wardrobe down to two basic silhouettes that work easily for me and are appropriate whether I have external meetings or just a day at my desk: skater-style dresses in good materials (think merino rather than jersey), and slim-legged trousers with a peplum-style top. I keep my work clothes together at one side of my wardrobe and getting dressed has never been easier. And in terms of confidence... Never feeling like I don't quite look professional enough, or feeling uncomfortable in my clothes, is a thing of the past. And as far as my confidence at work goes, that's worth a lot!