I first noticed the trend over Christmas last year when I started receiving cards wishing me a “Very Hygge Christmas”.
Although I had kicked off my own 30 Days of Hygge Challenge on social media during a particularly difficult month last summer – I hadn’t actually expected anyone to notice! Much less for others also to embrace hygge as an intentional way of living: focusing on the present and getting the most out of life in both good times and bad…
However, it appears that this concept resonated across my friends far and wide.
Soon – I was hearing that Hygge was the hedonism of many – and not just me!
This got me to thinking about how I happened to adopt this and other Scandinavian based ideas – and how I have evolved these concepts for my own benefit, thus significantly increasing my own wellbeing…
How it all started…
At University, I was lucky to attend my friend’s winter wedding in a castle near Stockholm. It was incredible – fairytale beautiful – and unlike anything I had ever seen before. The castle was painted yellow – it was snowing – and the entire outside of the venue was lit up with big candles. Somehow, despite dainty outfits and biting cold, the immense beauty of the scene (plus the Swedish liquor – Skål!) kept me warm.
This experience sparked a love affair with Sweden – which, after travelling to Denmark and Norway, later encompassed Scandinavia more broadly. Then I spent a long weekend in Iceland – which became one of the few places I’d rather return to than visit somewhere new. Extraordinary scenery, people and culture. My travels there have left a strong impression on me – and have encompassed some of my happiest times.
My happy adventures
Now – I know there are significant differences between the various Scandi/Nordic countries and cultures. Some are obvious – and others more subtle that I, as a foreigner, cannot perceive or appreciate.
However, in my view, one thing that unites these countries is that – despite the often harsh northern conditions (namely, the weather) – they have evolved over the centuries into a people who really know how to get on with things in trying situations and make the most of what is really important in life.
I have found them to be resilient and pragmatic. And humanist: an acceptance of the human condition. Pack animals – I find there is great focus on community, family (and an appropriate balance with work… ie, family time is the priority), resilience and personal agency – with communally funded opportunities for ongoing self development.
Unusually for me, as an introvert, I generally embrace social situations when travelling to the Nordics. As my experience of social events indicates there will always be good food and drink, a focus on keeping warm – and proper conversations about real topics! Small talk does not appear to be encouraged.
The happiest countries in the world
As per the 2019 Happiness Report, Finland is currently deemed to be the happiest country in the world (I’ve never been – on my list!). Denmark, Norway and Iceland are next on the list. Sweden comes in 9th. The UK and the US don’t make it into the top 10 at all…
If you’ve never read the report, I seriously recommend taking the time. There are some fascinating observations about the nature of happiness and how this can be measured. As well as identifying unhappiness in the modern world, even in lands of abundance. Particularly useful reading for a parent who is trying to nurture conditions for stability and contentment for their children. Here’s the link again…
Five years of Swedish immersion
In my early career as a Management Consultant, more than a decade ago, I was asked to go to Scandinavia to scope out some business process work for a Swedish company.
I had no idea what Denmark and southern Sweden would hold – but, if they were anything like my earlier Stockholm experience – it was worth finding out. I jumped at the chance!
Armed with my copy of “How to speak Swedish” (which, I surreptitiously jettisoned with embarrassment the moment I realised just how exceptionally good the Scandies are at English) I set off on that first trip – with no greater expectation than a free trip to see some new sights. I was bowled over by the astonishingly striking architecture – the awe inspiring Oresund Bridge – the great outdoors, the conspicuous adoption of sustainable technology and the fact everyone had abandoned the office by 3.30pm in search of fresh air, good food and family time.
Much to my delight, that three day visit was followed by another, and another… and eventually, I had had the enormous good fortune to spend five years working with this organisation – and others – either in Scandinavia or immersed in Scandinavian culture in other locations around the world.
I was young and impressionable. I hadn’t yet set up my own home (and with so much travel, I didn’t do so until after this period of my life concluded) – so had yet to really question or discover my own sense of style.
Swedish life and style became my lifestyle. My travel companions were mainly Swedish – and they had such a strong sense of self and culture. So pragmatic and assertive. They taught me a lot about life and how to get the most out of it! Even when we were working together outside of Scandinavia, there was a Swedishness which was the backbone of our life. In short, I made life long friends who I have travelled with, had stay with me and attended one another weddings. Who, years later, make me inspiringly envious with their walks along the beach outside their homes, their strong sense of community life – and with their picture-perfect summer houses! (Which, the moment I feel I can handle taking two toddlers on a plane on my own, I will be visiting!!)
These were formative years for me – I always had a strong sense of self but had yet to develop a sense of demonstrating who I was in terms of style. As I travelled with these individuals – I learned a lot about the Scandinavian rhythm of life. The importance of work life balance, shared parental leave, living simply (I have a capsule work wardrobe which is mostly monochrome – entirely scandi-inspired), and the importance of good coffee and cinnamon rolls… I learned about concepts that were explained but not named… Lagom (the Swedish art of balanced living), Hygge – (the now well known Danish “cosiness” – which actually originated in Norway) – and those that I heard by name on a daily basis… Fika: the Swedish cultural belief that each day will be improved if you stop to have good coffee, cakes and conversation with friends and colleagues.
Although I didn’t yet know all of the technical terms, I learned about Lagom. Quite by chance, I first heard of this concept during a discussion of the downsides of a broader National culture where individuals are not encouraged to excel or stand out as better than the crowd. It was interesting to initially learn about balanced living through this lens – as I only later understood the positive flip side of this concept. As something of a self contained, understated minimalist introvert myself – I soon found out that I could appreciate the pros as well as the cons of this particular concept. The way in which I learnt this also taught me the valuable lesson that nothing is all good nor all bad in life – another central tenet of my belief system.
Alongside lagom, I also learned how to feel comfortable and cosy in the smallest of moments. Sat outside of an evening, with good company lit by candlelight, wrapped in blankets whilst it started to snow, sipping hot wine… yes, I could certainly identify the feeling of hygge long before I had ever heard the word!
All good things must come to an end
After five years of travel around the world – so many extraordinary experiences I wouldn’t have changed for anything – I confess, I was exhausted.
I had learned much about life, but was not really putting it into practice. Travel, or at least – excessive travel – is not hygge for me. I realised that to get the most out of life, I needed to take everything I had learned and bring it home. But – with so much time abroad, I didn’t have a home. My relationships had repeatedly broken down on the basis that I was never there – and over the years, I stored my things and, very occasionally slept, in other peoples’ homes as their lodger.
An emotional shopper – I have long bought things to numb difficult emotions. So, I tried to compensate for the negative aspects of this nomadic lifestyle and create roots by buying things. Books, nik naks, stuff. Mementos, souvenirs from my travels – some of which I treasure – but others which I have since discarded as I bought them for something to do… It was a time before Marie Kondo had brought the wonderful concept of sparking joy with her Lifechanging Magic of Tidying up. So, there was no cohesive style or plan – and, therefore all of this “stuff” started to clutter up my living space.
So, eventually and with a heavy heart, I asked to leave the engagement. I had gained many things but needed time to create my own home and rebuild my sense of self as I couldn’t continue living abroad. The nomadic lifestyle just isn’t for me. I broke the news to my boss at my year-end goal-setting meeting. He asked what my main objective was for the coming year – I replied “Not to get dumped because I am never in the country”.
But it was broader than that and I needed a base, stability – a home. I was losing my sense of self outside of work – and it wasn’t sustainable. High performing at work, but burnt out in life; I was sent home and told to go hide under my duvet for two weeks – and not to give work a thought. Wheels were set in motion to make a change…
A cluttered existence
So, when I finished my five year tenure, I returned to my latest rented room and found books and stuff everywhere. Things were crammed into drawers and cupboards… clothes stuffed into wardrobes. The doors hardly closed…
I found the clutter stressful. Previously, I had spent most of my time hopping on to the next plane and flying away – so I had been able to ignore this reality. But now, I was rebuilding my life in this space, it mattered.
During that two week break from work I was overwhelmed. And being in my cluttered room did not help. After a week of sleep, I set about stuffing all but my most treasured possessions into bags and dragging them down the road to the closest charity shop (all those books were heavy!!)
I felt a weight lift off my chest the more clutter I removed – and, slowly, I started to feel like I could breathe again. It is astonishing how our physical clutter can have such an acute impact on mental wellbeing. This was in the days before I discovered the writings of Joshua Becker and others – but the empirical evidence I had of the link between degree of clutter and wellbeing was significant.
And as I stopped buying more stuff – so my finances began to improve… another unanticipated bonus – which also added to my wellbeing.
In the coming years, I sought the home and stability I craved – and as life had its ups and downs, so my spending and clutter levels would scale accordingly.
Embracing intentional living
Several years later I was more settled, married to a wonderful man and in 2016 had my first daughter… I kept up my links with Scandinavia – and have seriously considered with the idea of moving there on more than one occasion… but as Scandinavian concepts became fashionable – I was suddenly able to live vicariously through these beautiful little books springing up everywhere!
I read The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country by Helen Russell shortly after it was published in 2016 and six months later, Meik Wiking’s Little Book of Hygge was released in the UK, followed by his Little Book of Lykke. Shortly thereafter, Linnea Dunne’s Lagom: The Swedish Art of Balanced Living. More recently, I read the pretty Little Book of Fika: The Uplifting Daily Ritual of the Swedish Coffee Break by Lydia Balslev and was delighted when a friend gave me a copy of Bronte Aurell’s visually delicious North: How to Live Scandianavian. I was in book heaven!
All these concepts came flooding back to me and reminded me of all of the best parts of my earlier times in Scandinavia! I also recognised them in much of how I lived my life already – small steps I had made over the years to subconsciously embrace the wonderful life lessons I had on my travels.
Reading more about the various cultural concepts gave me the opportunity to understand more – and start to make more conscious decisions about embracing the parts of each which I wanted to integrate into my life. For example I love the Hygge Manifesto in Meik Wiking’s little book – and cut it out of my copy to laminate and put up on the wall with pictures of my children and parents. It brings me a little joy every day!
Note: Dear Scandinavian friends – now, please try not to hate me for butchering your wonderful life concepts, thus! Particularly not in a blog post which expresses so much gratitude for your influence in my life. In this case, adaptation is the sincerest form of flattery…
At the same time, having recently married and had a child – my house was once again uncomfortably cluttered and overly eclectic. Having found Mary Kondo’s Life-changing Magic of Tidying up truly life changing a few years previously, I now read Spark Joy to recapture the magic.
Then in early 2017, I discovered the Ultimate Bundles website – that I love and which has been such a game changer for me! I purchased their Conquer your Clutter Super Bundle… and having dabbled in minimalism previously – this “how to” set of resources transformed my thinking and my actions, taking it up a few gears to say the least!
Particularly as a mom, there is always something new to buy. A gadget or book or toy which is guaranteed to make your child happier, more clever, a better sleeper – and so much more besides… All admirable parenting goals – but it means there is always more stuff to be bought!
Our home was bursting at the seams! And once again, I felt the weight of all of this stuff… I needed more space to breathe!
Through that Bundle of resources I discovered the writing of Joshua Becker from his Becoming Minimalist blog and The Minimalist Home: I was inspired. I read more on the topic and soon realised where I felt minimalism could fit into my life. Extreme minimalism felt a bit sterile to me: although my space was overly cluttered, I did love that my home had a focus on cosiness. Comforts for both our family and making our visitors feel warm and relaxed were so important.
So I fused the ideas of Hygge and Minimalism for my approach to my home. Feeling that they were at opposite extremes – and that this wasn’t cohesive – so I adapted this to create a portmanteau of minimalagom. So, I consider myself to be a Hygge Minimalist who practices Hygge Minimalagom. Cosy comfort – with just the right amount of minimalism to support optimal wellbeing!
Funnily enough, I found the more I decluttered – the more I could see what meant the most to me. I wouldn’t say that Marie Kondo is a minimalist – she just wants people to be selective in ensuring that they are only surrounded by things which spark joy. If this happens to be a lot of things… so be it! I like to take this principle and have found it very helpful when it comes to decluttering – as it is very freeing to only take the idea of joy into consideration (whilst retaining unjoyful but practical possessions at the same time… mops, drills, ladders etc!)
Surrounded only by my favourite, most meaningful possessions – I found that my hygge surfaced from the rubble. Uncovering a rug in the loft which was crocheted by Nanny when I was a child… a set of delightful mugs bought in a boutique in France – packed up to keep for best… In fact, I have all but done away with the concept of saving things for best. I use my beloved Emma Bridgewater polka dot crockery every day – and it makes me happy. (Even though I try to be careful with it as it is not cheap to replace if it gets broken!) But I love it – and subsciously I enjoy eating more from those plates than plain cheaper ones. Life is too short not to!
I have noticed a broader shift in my approach at home, brought about by the various strands across my time in Scandinavia and minimalist reading – which is that I value sustainability. I developed a love of wood – and shied away from plastic and throw away culture in terms of furniture, goods, clothes and toys. More on that later.
What hygge is not…
With the rise in popularity of “Scandinavian Lifestyle Concepts” – it has been fascinating to see how hygge, in particular is marketed. Buy a Hygge blanket for £100 – or a Hygge (probably cinnamon scented) candle for £25. Or any of the array of Hygge mugs for sale… as a rule of thumb if it says Hygge on it, it probably isn’t hygge at all. This is 100 times more the case if it has “Getting hygge with it” written on it…
I have found that decluttering is very hygge for me. And despite having a history of being an emotional shopper – I know that hygge cannot be bought. But it can be created…
Hygge Minimalism in my approach to Parenting
Having read a lot about parenting in recent years, I have noticed how my approach to parenting has followed very similar themes to the rest of my life.
I initially read extensively about gentle and positive parenting – the words of Rebecca Eanes and Janet Lansbury being hugely influential for me. Then I discovered RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers)- which isn’t well known in Europe – but Deborah Carlisle Solomon’s book Baby Knows Best:Raising a Confident and Resourceful Child, the RIE Way fascinated me when I was pregnant with my second child. Again, aside from all of the other concepts – there was so much to be said about getting comfortable with our children – yet being moderately minimalist by not overwhelming them with too much clutter, stimulation or toys.
Looking beyond infancy, and returning to main Scandinavian inspired theme – my favourite book on raising children has to be The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids by Jessica Joelle Alexander – which is comprehensively brilliant in my view.
Moving from parenting to education – I have been very inspired by both Montessori and Waldorf (Steiner) educational systems which have some overlaps between the two. I was introduced to Montessori nursery education by Swedish friends who had their children educated in this system. I love their approach to toys and playing – drawing on both the practical aspects of Montessori real life – and supporting opportunity for the imagination and fantasy of Waldorf. I have found the focus on the use of natural materials that allow children to learn on their own through exploration and open-ended play to be very much in keeping with my Hygge Minimalist philosophies.
There are few plastic toys in my home – mainly quality wooden toys made by Grimms, Grapats and Holziger. I confess – this is an area where the minimalist aspect of my lifestyle could go completely out of the window!
I am a huge fan of simple Montessori shelves with rotations of wooden rainbows, cars and creatures! Fortunate therefore that part of the philosophy is not to overwhelm children with too many toys and choices – so I am obliged to be discerning and keep it minimal! (My wallet is grateful – these high quality, handmade toys are not cheap!!)
Similarly books are well chosen and I try to prune back regularly so that the girls don’t have too much clutter. Tricky as buying books is another weakness in my minimalist suit of armour!! Fortunately these educational systems also value spending time outside and exploring nature… no toys required!
As such, I am working on setting an example for my girls to grow up with an appreciation of the simple, natural. I want them to be grateful for and aspire to an uncluttered world where they respect their environment, its comforts – and value quality over quantity.
It is funny that when I started to write this, I expected it to be quite a short piece about how my time in Scandinavia had a real impact on some central viewpoints in my life. However, I had not realised until now just how deeply embedded some of these concepts are in my life, having spent so much of my 20s in Scandinavia! How blessed I feel to have had these opportunities and met such wonderful people – and what a pleasure it has been for me to return to those memories!
The lessons I have learned have given me tools for living a better, more balanced and cosy life when things are going well. But I have really felt the benefit when these approached to life have supported me whilst getting through some of the in my most difficult times in life. Either way – they guide me always to living my best life, every day.
And with that realisation, I pull out some old photo albums, make some hot chocolate – and feel the familiar, warm glow of gratitude and contentment: my hygge.
~Elisabeth, Vivi, Emma, Tina… tack alla. Puss och kram~
Read more about my Hygge here!
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