Hygge: Now Available Globally

(An abridged version of this piece was originally published at https://www.browngirlmagazine.com/2020/06/book-review-reflections-on-south-asian-culture-through-hygge/)

Like you – I assume – I’ve been in lockdown for over three months. As I’ve written before, I’m much more fortunate than many others right now. Despite unintentionally being stuck overseas, I have a home that’s safe in all senses of the word, a job I’ve been able to do remotely, and a strong-as-hell support system. So, aside from fresh contact lenses and a fifth set of clothes, I have everything I really need for the moment.

Pre-pandemic me used to think that a day off was wasted if I couldn’t leave the house to meet a friend, grab a bite, see a movie, take a dance/yoga class, or attend a live performance. That me would never have imagined I could go three months without seeing someone I wasn’t related to and without ever eating at a restaurant. But here I am. I’ve survived this task, literally the easiest, most-privileged of all challenges right now, as millions battle for their life or put theirs at the front lines.

Right at the start, I created a schedule that kept me engaged and productive. Between virtual workouts, a busier-than-usual remote work schedule, checking in with friends, baking or cooking when I wanted to get brownie points with my family, and movie nights (i.e. every single night), I was busy enough to not want to run out of the house screaming of boredom. But I knew that to truly be comfortable being indoors, I couldn’t let home be a backdrop for everything else going on in my life. I knew deep down that there was a joy to being at home. I just had to find it.

I wanted to find new ways to enjoy my time at home more. I also wanted to power through my 2020 Reading Challenge and veer towards light, uplifting books. On a recent Sunday morning, the perfect opportunity to kill two birds presented itself. There it sat on my parents’ bookshelf, a blue and cream hardcover beauty, beckoning with its promise of warm and fuzzies. It was Meik Wiking’s The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living. If you’re not familiar with the book, here’s the basic premise: for reasons related to climate, costs, and culture, people in Denmark spend a lot of time indoors. This, and the fact that they tend to have shorter working hours and more disposable incomes than the rest of us, gives them the time and resources to perfect the art of bringing cosiness to their homes, everyday tasks, social gatherings, and even outdoor activities. This cosiness is hygge, and anything that evokes it is described as being hyggelig.

That morning, I settled down into a reading nook with my herbal tea and chocolate cake outfitted in my favourite ceramics – could it get more hyggelig? – and got cracking. Overall, the book was pretty much what I expected. I got ideas for how to get your hygge on (some fairly achievable, some less so), a generous helping of lifestyle porn, detailed descriptions of everything enviable about Nordic cultures, and a smattering of cool facts. For example, did you know that Danish people eat twice as much dessert as the rest of the world and miraculously don’t have our obesity and diabetes levels? Or that burning a candle indoors is actually way more polluting than the industry would have you believe? I get why it’s a Times Top Ten Bestseller. For the most part, it gives readers what it promises: charming tips on easy living from a very happy people.

But with its pearls of idealistic wisdom, the book also left me with disappointment. In nearly every aspect of culture he talked about, Wiking ignored Asia, Africa, Latin America, and other non-Western, non-White-majority regions. When he talked about linguistic diversity and how some languages had words that just didn’t exist in others, I figured Wiking would spend at least a few minutes searching the internet for fascinating linguistic finds from these regions. Instead, he skipped over us completely. The left half of his sad, incomplete map was filled with these “unique words.” And yet, only one example each was deemed interesting enough to represent each of Asia, Africa, and South America (words from Japanese, Namibia’s Rukwangali, and Brazilian Portuguese). I’m not sure how much time he saved by skipping this step. In fact, see my notes below for 15 examples that would have more accurately represented the world’s linguistic diversity, courtesy of ten minutes of my time on Google. [1]

Later, Wiking talked about the contribution of healthy social relationships to overall happiness. As I stumbled through his spurious claims and over-reaching analyses, I thought, “Maybe research isn’t his strong suit. Maybe he’s going to say more through anecdotes about people and cultures.” I waited for a single reference to the family values that abound in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Our societies are classic examples of collectivistic cultures, as opposed to the so-called individualistic cultures of Europe and North America. I thought, “The CEO of the Happiness Research Institute can’t not mention Bhutan when talking about societies where people derive satisfaction from social relationships.” Once again, I was left disappointed. Pages upon pages were filled with the joys of family time and more skewed research. But there was nothing about the majority of the world’s cultures, particularly in non-White nations, where our ties to our family, tribe, religion, and other social groups are paramount. You’d think we’d have some insight on how social relationships can help us survive and thrive.

Again and again, Wiking fell back on the stereotypical beliefs often held by White authors to explain why their culture is superior to others. In quoting a study about the link between cycling to work and happiness, he conveniently concluded that cycling caused happiness rather than being correlated to it. He used this as an explanation for another reason why Danes (and other Scandinavians, and the Dutch) are happy people. In his argument, there was no mention of extraneous variables – like a country's wealth, geography, climate, safety, social protection institutions, and purchasing power. Societies where biking to work is feasible are those with a conducive climate (not too hot), population (not too big), terrain (not too hilly), government (deep-pocketed, forward-thinking, egalitarian, and efficient), size, safety, and distance from commercial centres to residential quarters. These features are pretty much the domain of exclusively wealthy, White societies with efficient governments and robust social networks (phrases that should practically scream Scandinavia and the Netherlands). I'm not surprised that someone from such an organised and well-planned society would be as happy as Meiking insists they are.

The cycling example was really important for me. It showed me that, in addition to being blind to the privilege of his geography, Wiking seems blind to the world outside it. Much of the sociological/economic/psychological research from the West tends to be limited to samples from socially-mobile individuals from industrialised/White countries. Imagine if the sample in the bicycle study were to include disadvantaged groups in countries with high poverty levels – parts of South Asia and Africa, for example. In these regions, many are forced to bike for long distances in awful road conditions and polluted, harsh climates (often with multiple people crammed onto a single bike) just to get to work. I'm pretty sure that, were these individuals surveyed, the findings would be different. While they might lead fulfilling lives, it would be unlikely that they’d derive joy from their challenging commutes. Contrary to Wiking’s assertion, biking to work would not be a good indicator of their happiness.

And so it went on. Every time I was lifted into a daydream about mouth-watering desserts and utopian work cultures, I was pulled back down by the author’s ignorance of what lay beyond his immediate setting. I understand that Wiking’s world-view might be narrow by choice, that his goal may not be to speak to every culture, and that he never said that only Danes have cracked the hygge code. But this book has been marketed globally, and floats by on broad generalizations about human behaviour and selective assumptions gleaned through suspect research methods. Instead of focusing on candles and carbohydrates and leaving it at that, Wiking seems intent on making a case that other countries need to learn from his regardless of own social, economic and cultural contexts. And by repeatedly linking hygge and life satisfaction with cherry-picked Western, and/or industrialised nations, he seems convinced that hygge only applies to them. So of course, I felt disappointed that in a conversation in which someone from my culture, and other non-Western cultures, would have so much to say, we weren’t even mentioned, let alone invited.

As a third-culture kid, I’ve grown up interacting with diverse people and ways of thinking. And I can guess pretty confidently that most (if not all) cultures acknowledge the idea of hygge. They don’t call it that, and they might not associate it with animal skin rugs, bulky sweaters, and fruit jams. But it exists. Take my own Indian upbringing. I can think of more than a few examples of hygge being woven into our traditions. Because Wiking highlighted six dimensions of hygge, I will too.

Taste: In the hygge framework, taste is “familiar, sweet, and comforting.” South Asia’s answer to this is, obviously, chai. Chai is a friendship-cementer, arranged-marriage facilitator, and caffeine-hit-provider. It’s also one of the great joys of my life. Dessert is also very important to us. In India, we love our cake, chocolate, ice cream, and other Western food, for sure. But we also take pride in the fact that every region has its own array of traditional desserts: whether steeped in sugar syrup, sweet milk, coconut milk, ghee, or other heart disease and diabetes-inducing deliciousness. Religious events are punctuated with a sweet treat (halwa prasad at a gurudwara, seviyan at Eid, plum cake at Christmas, boondi laddoo after a puja). Happy occasions, like a promotion at work, a wedding announcement, or the birth of a child, are made all the sweeter with the distribution of mithai.

Sound: Wiking describes the absence of sound as hyggelig, because it allows you to appreciate other sounds. I get this. In the early hours of the day, before the household stirs into wakefulness, my grandfather has usually been awake for hours. The newspaper rustles in his hands as birds chirp in the park across the street. During the day, vegetable vendors cycle around the neighbourhood, their loud, musical voices proving they are well-versed in their wares. In the afternoon, while everyone takes their nap, my grandparents’ snoring (loud enough to waft through their bedroom door, gentle enough to not be bothersome) is comforting, as is the white-noise whirr of the ceiling fan. At dusk, the azaan from the nearby mosque is a reminder to wrap up the day and make time for faith, family, and/or food. For us, hyggelig sounds aren’t new. They exist in many pockets of the day, every day.

Smell: The smells of hygge are nostalgic ones. For me, that’s the scent of fresh flowers: marigolds for a puja, jasmine in some Indian women’s hair, a bouquet of roses lingering around after a birthday. It’s the smell of petrichor as a monsoon shower batters into the soil. It’s the sulphuric smell of a black salt-laden nimbu pani; a smell that most non-Indians will describe as vile, but one we associate with a refreshing, electrolyte-rich summer drink. It’s the comforting aroma of samosas being deep-friend (or air-fried, because my family pretends we’re healthy like that). It’s the sneaky smell of a simmering meat masala that makes its presence felt all through the house, in our clothes, and our hair, as my Dad kicks off the multiple-hour process of cooking the perfect mutton curry.

Feel: Old, handmade things apparently offer the most hyggelig tactile experiences. Is there anything more timeless and hand-produced than getting a champi? This vigorous head massage is pretty universal across South Asian cultures. With good reason too – it works miracles for hair lustre, growth, and nourishment. It’s also nostalgic, invigorating, relaxing, and – according to the urban myth – stimulates brain cells and makes you smarter. Peeling, biting into, and slicing up a ripe mango in the summertime is another classic tactile experience evoking hygge. So is running your hand over a saree passed down through generations. The saree’s old silk is smooth to the touch, the gilded embroidery is cooling, and the daydream of how you’d look wearing it one day, positively giddying.

Sight: Hygge visuals are characterized by soft, warm lighting and slowly moving things. For me, that’s easiest seen in the flickering flames from an oil lamp during Diwali or a candle on a nice evening in. It’s watching an artisan at a market carefully embroider a piece of fabric. It’s peering at chai bubbling in a pan, waiting for it to be just the right shade of brown before taking it off the heat. It’s looking at mehendi being put on your hands (that one also scores points for smell and touch – nothing quite compares).

Sixth sense: Wiking tells us that hygge is also about intangible feelings of safety. I’m lucky that for me, the examples are too many to recount. Putting my head in my grandmother’s lap at the end of a long, tiring day (even as a real adult with a real job, this is one of my favourite stress-busters); having my grandfather break me off a piece of his Kit-Kat bar after dinner; my dad popping his head into my room to ask me if I want a cup of tea. And even though India changes every day, and my parents’ and grandparents’ lives were so different from mine, the hygge Sixth Sense is inter-generational for Brown people. My grandmother belts out the folk songs she learned as a child, and I find myself transported into her past, feeling the tingling of her childhood dreams and aspirations. My dad tells me how his family used to sleep in under the stars in their garden while growing up, and I can hear the crickets chirping in the bushes, the mosquito net tickling my legs. My mom tells me how she rode her motorbike down highways to visit my dad while they were dating, and I can sense her exhilaration, her anticipation, course through my own veins. For me, my hygge Sixth Sense is an instant connection to my family, my traditions, and my family’s traditions. I don’t need to have been there or felt them in real-time. But when someone I love and feel safe around brings up a memory or feeling from their past, it becomes a part of me. It reminds me who I am, where I’ve come from, and all the intangibles I’ve inherited from my family’s collective experiences.

All this to say that hygge exists outside of Denmark and the handful of countries the author chose to mention. It exists in the forgotten parts of the world that burst with linguistic richness and diversity. It exists in the ignored cultures where family and social ties mean everything. It exists beyond the White-washed picture presented by authors like Wiking, and certainly exists outside of fireplaces, ski lodges, and pork-centric feasts. For people who live in the climates and societies that make the Danish version of hygge possible, I understand the charm and convenience of submitting to that lifestyle. I even get the temptation of believing it’s the best – and only – way to live. But I don’t think the rest of us necessarily need to adopt elements of the “original” hygge. My love for hot cocoa, cake, and fancy ceramics will happily coexist with my fondness for chai, rasmalai, and clay kulhads. My hygge won’t be limited by the blinders of a monoculture.

Reading, reacting to, and thinking about this book made me realize something. In a way, my goal had been accomplished. I’d wanted to learn how to create cosiness and joy in my home. While Wiking’s suggestions didn’t offer up much in that respect, his blatant omissions nagged at me, and drove me to search for aspects of hygge in my own beautiful culture. I want to recreate these moments in my today, and maybe even take them with me to a post-lockdown tomorrow. Eventually, when – and if – we return to life as we know it, I may not mind staying in more.

I guess, no matter where we come from, hygge isn’t something outside us. It isn’t something we can only feel if we follow the “right” steps and create the “right” atmosphere. We just have to give some love to the hygge we already have in our lives and our cultures. Once we do that, we’re home.

[1] What Weiking Skipped – Language Edition

I’m constantly blown away by the immense beauty of my native Hindi, but also Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, and other languages from the South Asian region. Moreover, the poetry and prose from our Arabic and Persian-speaking neighbours has always felt like a whole other peak of artistry to me. Consider the following unique terms (1,2):

Jootha (Hindi) – a pejorative term for food/drinks/utensils after someone has eaten or drunk from them (which some consider contaminated);

Zhaghzhagh (Farsi) – “the chattering of teeth from the cold or from rage”; Goya (Urdu) – “suspension of disbelief that can occur sometimes with good storytelling”; Oodal (Tamil) – “the overly exaggerated, fake anger that follows a lovers’ quarrel”; and Ya’arburnee (Arabic) – “declaration that you wish to die before someone else because you love them so much and can’t stand to live without them.”

Even languages whose origins aren’t connected to those of mine (those spoken further East in Asia, Westwards to Africa and Latin America, and other regions) amaze me with their linguistic and grammatical complexity. Among many, many other words, these cultures gave us the following (1,2,3,4):

Tampo (“withdrawing affection from a person when one’s feelings have been hurt,” Filipino); Mencolek (“tapping someone lightly on the opposite shoulder from behind to fool them,” Indonesian); Pisan zapra (“the time taken to eat a banana,” Malay); Yuán ​fèn (“the mysterious force that causes two lives to cross paths in some meaningful way,” Mandarin): Shemomedjamo (“I accidentally ate the whole thing,” Georgian); Pelinti (“to move hot food around in your mouth,” Buli from Ghana); Ilunga (“a person willing to forgive abuse the first time and tolerate it the second time, but never a third time,” Bantu); Mamihlapinatapai (“a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other would initiate something that they both desire but which neither wants to begin,” Yaghan); Apapachar (“to spoil, cuddle or hug someone,” Nahuatl); and Dadirri (“a deep, spiritual act of reflective and respectful listening,” Ngan'gikurunggurr and Ngen'giwumirri languages of the Aboriginal people).

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