If you’re a logophile (and most lovers of books are), you probably know that “Trumpism” and “Brexit” have been crowned as “Words of the Year” by Collins Dictionary, among others. While it remains to be seen how long either of those trendy words will last in the common vocabulary (even given Trump’s decisive victory at the polls yesterday), there’s a third word coming into prominence that has meaning for us all.
It’s the Danish word hygge, which , as I understand it, means to get the most out of one’s life, with one’s pursuits, one’s family, and one’s friends. I take it also that the term refers to a relatively new idea within Danish culture. Clarisse Loughrey points out that the Danes may have a natural affinity for expressing such enjoyment because so much of their natural year is spent in darkness.
Even if the term is new, however, the idea behind it is very old. Not quite as old as carpe diem, perhaps, and perhaps not quite as “self-centered” or “selfish” in the literal sense as that older term is, but very old. It means to enjoy one’s life, to value one’s time upon this earth with family and friends. As such, the term runs a little counter to the Christian ethic of treating this life as merely a way station on the journey to Someplace Else, a preparatory stage before we embark on a grand new life somewhere. My problem with that way of thinking existed for a long time when I was a Christian because I could never get so much as a glimpse at what that new life was that I was supposed to be preparing myself for. In addition to that theological and psychological problem, I was surrounded, both at home and at school, by people who were far less happy in their lives than they should have been. They claimed to be joyous, but clearly they weren’t.
This state of affairs made no sense to me then, and it still doesn’t. If one’s faith doesn’t contribute to one’s happiness, it’s time to get a new faith. Fortunately, in the thirty years or so since I began to sort these issues out, the revealed religions of the world have also begun to take a deeper look at the messages they convey. There are now many branches on the Judeo-Christian tree, many modulations to the original formulations of the faith. Those changes represent an advancement of society, not a retreat. Most of those who worship, either devoutly or as a matter of form, have figured out that God’s not gonna get ’em if they take a glass of wine now and then. Even Islam is a bit more liberal and tolerant in its practices than it used to be, at least in the West.
To enjoy one’s life, to enjoy one’s family and friends, is not to fall into some sort of Epicurean trap or to indulge in shameless hedonism. It is, rather, to acknowledge the wonderful state of being alive, and the pleasures of the senses. I never have quite understood those who regard their meals as simply fuel for the next task. Having been to enough great dinners where the conversation flowed as generously as the wine, I know the experience of dining can be something far different and far more satisfying. To sit upon a park bench and feel the soft breeze upon one’s skin, or to look with curiosity upon a squirrel going about his business in the October grass–these activities are what humans do, and to belittle those activities or to deny their value is to deny our humanity. It is even to deny, among the religiously-faithful, the God who supposedly created us.
To enjoy one’s life is also not to deny that there is pain and misery in the world. There will always be that condition somewhere in the world, and most of us will, at some point, take whatever steps we can to relieve some of that pain. We give to the Red Cross; we contribute to the Food Bank; we help a neighbor repair his flooded house. This giving, this generosity, is also an expression of our enjoyment of life. It says to our neighbors and to people we do not know,”None of us lives alone, and all of us deserve some share in the sweetness of life.” The question is not “what little portion of the world has a good life?” Even those who live in the most impoverished and war-torn areas of our planet strive daily to find some sweetness in their existence, with or without our help. The question really is, “What are we doing with the life that we have?” If we are living it with full awareness of what our bodies are capable of, of what our senses may reveal to us, and of how much we love and are loved by others, then we are getting as much as it possible to get out of this life, and we are following one of the longest habits of humanity itself–a habit the Danes are only now, apparently, beginning to discover.