I recently finished (slowly) reading How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life. Hygge (pronounced “huga”) is a Scandinavian lifestyle based on conviviality, on making life easy, and spending time with friends and in nature. One may find hygge recipes, hygge design ideas, mugs, clothing, fabrics, social events, and many other cultural memes.
Like sumak kawsay–the “good life” culture of the Incas and their modern heirs in South America–hygge is to the Scandinavians a localized type of Epicurean practice, a philosophy of life that is rooted in the landscape and in the culture. Wisdom traditions like hygge and sumak kawsay make philosophy and ethics both tangible and culturally specific.
One component of hygge is fika, the Scandinavian tradition of enjoying coffee with friends. By coffee we don’t just mean the drink, but also long, intimate, friendly conversation for hours. Fika reminds me of the culture of philosopher cafés, which is quite popular in France and became the breeding ground for many intellectual movements. The existentialists (particularly Sartre and De Beauvoir), for instance, were known for their conversations in Parisian cafés. Fika also reminds me of the (quasi-)ceremonial drinks of other cultures: South American yerba mate (the drink of friendship), Polynesian kava (the drink of peace), and others.
The book mentions the Spanish tradition of la sobremesa as an Iberian version of the fika tradition. I hadn’t heard the word. This appears to be a tradition in Spain where people enjoy conversation over tapas. Here are some of the Real Academia Española‘s definitions of sobremesa:
2. f. Tiempo que se está a la mesa después de haber comido.
2. loc. adv. Inmediatamente después de comer, y sin levantarse de la mesa.
(=the time that one is at the table after having eaten … immediately after eating, and without leaving the table)
In Spanish, we also have the word tertulias, which are informal gatherings to discuss current affairs, or the arts, or to hold other intellectual conversations. Fika reminds me of the Epicurean feasts on the 20th. The author invites us to honor fika, to treat our daily social act with friends over dinner like a sabbat, where everything stops and one allows for a collective restoration.
The author cites a program for immigrants to Sweden which helps them to connect to locals, make new friends, begin to assimilate and feel part of the local community over food. It’s true that food (and music) are two of the few things that bring people together (… just as much as religion and politics tear people apart).
Concerning exercise and the outdoors lifestyle, the book says:
“It’s never about looking good, it’s about feeling great all year round.” – p. 7
“You can’t be healthy if you’re always anxious about food, body, and about life in general.” – p. 19
In pages 39-40, the author says that while cultivating a good body image and confidence, we should focus more on what our body can do versus how it looks. Concerning expense:
“Don’t go crazy buying something fancy that costs an arm and a leg. You want something durable and sensible. Nature doesn’t care if you own the latest fashion brand accessory. The main thing is to invest carefully in a few useful items that will stand the test of time.” – p. 21
A large part of the book is dedicated to the Scandinavian theory and practice of creating an ambience (typically around the house) that is defined culturally as hygge. This type of décor is characterized by being natural and simple. The book (page 25) gives ideas for the best house plants (bamboo, aloe vera, etc.), and gives design ideas related to Scandinavian furniture and design.
I took great interest in this, in part, because about a year ago I was hired to translate two books from French into English and from Spanish into English for UIC architect Terry Nichols Clark. The final product is titled Latin Scenes: Streetlife and Local Place in France, Spain, and the World. It discusses the creation of “scenes” in different neighborhoods of European cities form the perspectives of policy, economics, migration, and culture.
Not only was I able to practice my languages, which I love, but I also learned to think differently about architecture, and to think in terms of the scenes that people create in order to live the way that they desire. It got me thinking about whether we may be able to create Epicurean urban (or rural) scenes to elicit pleasant experiences. Was “the Garden” not such a type of scene? Can there be an Epicurean theory of space and of architecture?
Particularly when it’s cold out (like it was here in Chicago a few weeks ago), the idea of nesting–the home-centered lifestyle–becomes appealing. In Chicago, for about 2-3 weeks every winter, we experience a phenomenon known informally as Chiberia. This is when I enjoy the pleasures of privacy the most. But hygge is also about friluftsliv–the English literal translation of which is “free air life”: life in the outdoors, no matter the season.
It is noteworthy that there are several other wisdom traditions that pay special attention to scenes. In LaVeyan Satanism, the creation of “total environments” fully dedicated to the pursuit of a particular set of pleasures is one of the doctrinal points. I believe this has to do with LaVeyan ritual theories, which aim at the creation of a sort of psychological “decompression chamber”.
Mahayana Buddhism also has doctrines related to the Buddhalands, the modern interpretations of which teach that each Buddha (or each awakening being) creates, with his or her merit and thoughts and actions, a Buddhaland around him or her, his own type of Buddha-scene which is a reflection of his accomplishment, awakening, kindness, and other qualities. In the Nichiren tradition, emphasis is placed on how there is unity between self and space. This makes sense if we consider that all experience requires not just a subject but also an object and a context: if the experience of a sentient being is to be pleasant, then the context into which that being is embedded–like a thread in a mat–must also be pleasant. All of this brings me to a fascinating figure: the Japanese guru of tidiness, Marie Kondo.
Our Fetishes of Gratitude
Kondo is only mentioned in passing in the book. In page 24, we are invited to use Kondo’s methods of tidying up to create hygge ambiance: ask yourself if an item sparks joy, and if not, ditch the item. She does not just focus on getting rid of clutter, but on keeping only items that spark joy. This means that we should have a positive or pleasant feeling that connects us to the items that we do keep.
So I decided to dig deeper and watched a few Marie Kondo videos on YouTube. Like the hygge lifestyle, Kondo’s concept of design is very similar to the simplicity, calm, and clarity of Japanese design and reminiscent of Shinto spirituality. Shintoism is the aboriginal religion of Japan. She was trained as a Shinto temple maiden, a role which taught her the ethical value of cleanliness and organization. Unlike the superstitious Feng Shui tradition–which focuses on furniture and item placement to attract luck and avert evil–Kondo focuses on personal space to maximize contentment (and also–as in hygge–utility).
Kondo incorporates ritual propriety into her tidiness practice, something she no doubt acquired from Shinto spirituality. Her teachings seem to aim at greater harmony between the inner and the outer worlds, and she considers the home to be one’s shrine, or power spot. Before she begins the process of de-cluttering a home, she will sit in the space and ritually greet the home.
Kondo is deeply aware of the emotional attachments and reactions people have to things, and teaches us to have mindfulness about the items we keep in our space, to dust them often, and display them with dignity and care. When an item no longer serves us and we decide to get rid of it, she teaches her clients “to thank their belongings” for their service before binning them. She uses this form of playful animism (again, inspired in the Shinto tradition) as a form of therapy. It helps people to feel less guilty about throwing away things that once may have held value or had utility.
Kondo is so mainstream that her name has come to signify “tidying up”. For example, if I say “today I am kondo-ing my desk“, this means I am applying Kondo’s techniques for tidying up.
Epicurus says of the knowledge we possess that it must lead to pleasure. Marie Kondo says the same thing of the **things** we possess and choose to keep in our space, and of the space we inhabit: they should give us a pleasant feeling. Her theories (as well as hygge notions of design and style) have a general connection with materialist philosophy. They help to connect theory and practice, to make philosophy tangible, concrete, and specific. We are invited to be grateful for the things we have (even if they have served their purpose and we no longer need them and decide to get rid of them), until each item in our space becomes a “fetish of gratitude”, a concrete, clear materialization of one of our grateful thoughts.
The ungrateful nature of the soul makes the creature endlessly greedy for variations in its lifestyle. – Vatican Saying 69
How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life
New research shows why it’s better to live a cleaner and less cluttered life
Examining the Relationship between Procrastination and Clutter across Generations: Clutter problems led to a significant decrease in satisfaction with life among older adults
On the Architecture of Pleasure