How Danish coziness helped me conquer the winter doldrums
At the end of 2016, I was feeling really low. Fatigued from a long election season only to have a terrifying new administration moving into the presidency, I was down. Though looking back, the signs were all there that I was depressed, I didn’t feel it at the time. It hit me subtly and unexpectedly. I was angry most of the time and normally depression doesn’t hit me as anger. I was frustrated and annoyed easily, even by the most subtle of interactions. I couldn’t sleep well and I felt lethargic. I had severe tendonitis of my achilles tendon so I couldn’t even get any exercise to turn my mood around.
Eventually, January rolled around and I started to feel a lot better. It was such a stark contrast that I was amazed at how low I had become without even knowing it at the time. Looking back, it’s always easier to identify patterns than it is while you’re in the thick of it, but I am normally pretty good at looking for these signs. Even if I’m not able to easily escape from the tar pit of my mind, normally I’m aware enough to know I’m in it.
I also got myself out of it after discovering way of life called hygge and learning how to take care of myself.
Getting Hygge With It
Hygge is difficult to describe. It’s a concept from Denmark that translates generally to “coziness” though that’s not an exact translation. And it’s more than just a state of comfort, it’s a complete way of life that has been attributed to the high levels of happiness in Denmark.
Pronounced hoo-ga, this trend hit the US around late 2016, just in time for winter. Articles in the New Yorker and The Guardian and the Atlantic explain elements of hygge and how it can better our lives. Suddenly, books were popping up all over about hygge, coziness and what it means for you.
But what is hygge? It’s best described as a state and way of life. The Danes light far more candles than Americans every day, and even have candles in the office, something unheard of in the United States. This obsession with candles and lighting show that a big part of hygge is atmospheric. These types of items set the mood and create an environment to turn off the world and connect with friends and loved ones. Cakes and warm beverages foster this atmosphere of pleasure and comfort. What immediately comes to mind when I think of hygge is a ski chalet on a winter’s night. The lights are dim. It’s cold outside but warm inside, possibly with a fire. The interior is clean and uncluttered. People sit around drinking coffee, tea or even scotch, talking quietly covered in blankets, wool sweaters and thick socks. Sweets and cakes are served on plates for nibbling. Just this image in itself is comforting.
It’s also worth thinking what’s not in this scene which we often encounter day to day. Cold air conditioners and humidity have their time and place, but neither is very comforting. A fan blowing hard on you can be distracting and unsettling, until you get under a blanket. There are no loud noises, angry conversations and debates over current events. The opposite of hygge helps define it as well.
I started reading the Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking in February, but I was already on my way to create hygge in my own California home. January and February were rainy, cold months, a rarity in California and a great time to incorporate hyggelige environment. I was tired of political debates and I was desperate to disconnect from a lot of the stressors of the world.
My first act was to take up knitting again. I learned to knit about eight or nine years ago and I knit on and off over the past few years. Knitting was a way to disconnect from technology, distractions and stressors and establishing a physical, kinesthetic habit. Knitting is a great way to keep my hands busy, but my mind (mostly) free. My first knit projects were hats. I haven’t been able to find a light weight skull cap or beanie that fit my head well. I didn’t want a heavy yarn because it never gets that cold in California. I also wanted to work with something soft and comforting, not scratchy or harsh. I found a super soft light weight baby yarn and after completing a practice hat, my hat was a perfect fit.
For the past three months, I’ve worn a hat almost all day, every day. I tend to be someone who feels pretty warm all of the time, but there was something comforting about the hat. It’s light weight and holds the heat in, but I quickly adapted to wearing it all day so when I wasn’t wearing it, I missed it. I even wore it to bed the night after I finished it (though that only lasted one night.) Making and wearing hats changed my mood almost instantly. I half-joked that the hats were a “hug for my head” but I honestly believe it has many of the same effects. Every week I would make a hat or two in different colors, with different patterns. I wore these to work and it became a big conversation piece. It relaxed me and it gave me a new connection to other people.
I found comfort in a number of ways. I got a new tea kettle and started drinking more tea. At Target, on a day I took off of work, I bought a really plush blanket. I bought air fresheners and filled it with lavender scents to induce sleep. Before bed I played soft music and turned down the lighting so it was more soothing. I bought new soft wool socks from the UK that had the same effects as my hats. My life became hygge without even knowing what it was, then as I learned more about it, I embraced it even more.
Too often, we Americans, self-immolate on the sword of productivity. Some days I feel like I’m always on the go. I’m driving to work, drinking coffee and listening to an audio book, thinking about all of the things I have to get done in a day. It’s flat out exhausting and not much fun. As Americans, we take pride in our business, brag about our activities and reaching “inbox zero,” and complain that there is not enough time for everything we want to do. We are not very good at self-care.
There’s nothing mystical about hygge. It’s essentially self-care. It’s putting you and your loved ones before others. It’s turning off the phone or the tablet, to be present and enjoy the moment. It’s about being mindful of soft lighting, warm beverages and soothing treats. Hygge seems mystical to us because it’s an anathema to our daily lives. It’s so foreign that it seems like it comes from another dimension.
However, self-care has been around for a long time and the advantages have long been extolled by psychologists. Though clinical sounding, self-care in neither hyper-scientific either. It’s the act of taking care of ones self, physically, mentally or emotionally. There is neither a secret to self-care, nor an exact path to follow. Instead, self-care is personally though based on mindfulness, being present and putting yourself and loved ones first, much like the basics of hygge.
Wentworth Miller, star of Prison Break, has long advocated for self-care on Facebook and has chronicled his small steps towards self-care. Actress Kristen Bell has tips for self-care. Self-help websites, like Lifehacker, have advocated for self-care.
So my depression this winter was thwarted largely by self-care, based on a hygge-like regimen. It’s not that it was magically dissolved by hygge or self-care. Putting myself first helped me get through the tough times and let me heal emotionally. It’s hard to remember to maintain self-care throughout the year, but I’m sold on the benefits in my life.
Ideas for Self-Care
In case you want to incorporate self-care in your own life, here are some recommendations on how to take care of your self in some simple ways:
I’m a huge advocate for hats, especially knit caps. They are warm, comforting and fashionable. After a while, you won’t know you’re wearing it, but every so often you will catch feeling of warmth on your head to make you smile.
If you’re having a bad day, put on a new pair of really comfortable socks and see how much your mood increases. It won’t change everything, but at least your feet will feel more comfortable and that’s a start.
Hot Beverages and Liquor
Hot beverages and liquor both have the same effect, they make you slow down and sip them. And if you’re sipping tea, hot cocoa, scotch or brandy, you might as well sit down and enjoy it. It’s hard to be in a rush and try to sip a beverage at the same time. Choose the slower activity and you will feel better.
Some scents may have a therapeutic effect, but I suspect it’s more the act of treating yourself to a good smelling environment. Constant plug-ins and air fresheners don’t really cut it as your nose adapts to them quickly. Take a break to put on a soothing scent, not too strong, and enjoy it. Even baking bread or cooking and savoring the scent can help.
Massages take time and are expensive, but there are few ways that you can pamper yourself as well. Taking the time to turn off the world for an hour to listen to some soft music in a warm room with aromatherapy is worth it even without the massage elements.
We are constantly exposed to harsh elements, chemicals, the sun. Taking the time to soothe your battered skin can improve your mood. For $5–10 you can get a skin scrub or a clay masque to apply at home. Exfoliating and soothing the skin, is a great way to take time for yourself and it doesn’t have to be expensive. Any dry or rough skin can be distracting and bothersome, so addressing those areas can really approve your mood.
Wrapping yourself in a soft warm blanket can do wonders for you. Take the time to comfort yourself.
Knitting is a great activity to practice mindfulness, keep your hands busy, and relax. Even better, you can learn to knit yourself hats, socks, scarves, blankets and a number of hygge items.
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If you want to learn more about hygge, I recommend you check out these articles and books:
The Book of Hygge: The Danish Art of Contentment, Comfort, and Connection
Hygge Knits: Nordic and Fair Isle Sweaters, Scarves, Hats, and More to Keep You Cozy
Hygge: The Danish Art of Happiness
How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life
The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living
74 Ways to Hygge: Live a More Joyful Life Each Day, the Danish Way
Hygge: The Danish Art of Escaping the Hustle & Bustle of Modern Life and Finding Happiness in Simple Pleasures
“The Year of Hygge, The Danish Obsession with Getting Cozy” by Anna Altman, The New Yorker, December 18, 2016
“The hygge conspiracy” by Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian, November 22, 2016
“‘Hygge’: 9 Ways To Be More Danish” by Katie O’Malley, Elle UK, September 26, 2016
“How to Hygge” by Trina Hahnemann, Leite’s Culinary, November 9, 2016