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".