It does sound alluring: the mug of peppermint tea with sockfeet pretzeled underneath us. The oatmeal bath to the crooning tunes of a favorite singer-songwriter while sandalwood-scented candles flicker on the sides of the tub. The cashmere sweaters in varying shades of soft moss, and the crocheted blankets stacked or draped in every corner, all readily accessible for snuggling.
Hygge — the centuries-old Nordic idealization of what Norwegian food writer Signe Johansen calls “healthy hedonism” — offers a delicious excuse for warm recluse disguised as an aspirational lifestyle trend. Difficult to pronounce but easy, so easy, to embrace, it’s a welcome justification for indulging in another homemade hot toddy or a face-sized cinnamon roll or an extra two hours in bed. It’s no wonder why American culture (Clementine included) has eagerly espoused the concept as 2017’s catch-all movement.
We’re not wrong to crave cozy respite during a particularly tumultuous time. These recent months have been draining and disorienting. Across the U.S., we are tired. There is something truly nourishing about simple comforts to soothe the weary spirit.
And yet, just like the heedless pursuit of “hustle” or any other mass societal philosophy, the credo becomes problematic when fast-fetishized and stripped of its deeper significance. When we begin translating it too loosely and liberally to wardrobe tips and recipes — when we rush to purchase cutesy tea kettles we’ll likely never use or six new pillows to festoon the couch — we lose the heart of hygge through the distorting lens of a cultural doctrine that’s as intrinsically American as hygge is Danish and Norwegian: commercialism. We risk forgetting that it’s not about stuff, but sentiment. (It’s about “thriftiness and making do with what you have,” Johansen further explains — “not relying on things to make us happy, but experiences and looking after each other.”)
More worrisome, however, are the trend’s implications for our current political climate. Just a few days after the Women’s March, the largest political protest in American history, the thought of forgoing public action for knitted knee socks and incense seems absurd at best, and dangerous at worst. Hygge encourages us to savor what’s safe, soft and familiar at a moment when non-confrontational nonchalance is not only unhelpful, but perilously unwise.
In an illuminating article for Slate, writer Alex Robert Ross sheds light on hygge’s incompatibility with civic engagement. The ideal holds no space for controversy, debate or any cause for annoyance or overwhelm, she notes. It’s “against conflict and discomfort, distrustful of newness or challenging viewpoints.” This cozy close-mindedness counteracts the radically forward-thinking and diverse values we so yearn for — the ones we marched for on Saturday.
Rather than retreating back into our soft turtlenecks, we need to continue pushing forward in order to create sustainable progress. We must be willing to shatter our sheltered spaces for the sake of civil rights advancements. We must be ready to dissect and discuss the difficult truths. We must be prepared pick up the phone to call our legislators, even when it feels awkward. We must be open to hearing perspectives different from our own — as many as possible, and as often as possible. We must be eager to expand our understandings — to infuse our basic feminism with increased intersectionality and to magnify the voices of trans people, people of color, the disabled, and others too often left out of the dialogue. We must look for answers and ideas in dark places where we haven’t been before and be as receptive and inquisitive as we are defensive — not shrink. Not shush. Not shutter ourselves inside what’s safe and cozy.
The 2017 lifestyle trend we seem to need instead is one that celebrates discomfort as a force for growth. Just as hygge can be sweepingly comprehensive to touch all aspects of our lives, perhaps discomfort (hand in hand with dissent, defiance and other daring action) can be applied in arenas we might not expect. What if we trained for the marathon we’ve been talking about for years? What if we boldly asked for the promotion at work? Maybe we ought to say “no” more often. Maybe we must simply choose to turn to hygge as temporary relief in moments of recovery, during a year that otherwise bursts with boldness and noise, and maybe we’ll become bigger, better, truer versions of ourselves in the process.
There is excitement and even pleasure in discomfort, as all of us who squeezed onto over-crowded subway cars and wriggled through mobs of strangers and marched until feet turned sore on Saturday will understand. There’s warmth to be found in the hearth at home, sure, but there’s a particularly powerful spark that ignites when we step up and step out to champion what’s difficult, but right. The ultimate point of hygge, anyway, is to create a sense of belonging — what if the better way to do so is not through private repose, but public engagement? What if doing what’s uncomfortable brings us comfort and camaraderie in a more meaningful way?
p.s. Here’s why we marched. How about you?