Mental health and academic ‘hygge’ (yes, I went there)

Hygge. It’s taking the UK by storm as a novel way for Brits to enjoy our cultural inferiority. Hygge, The Little Book of Hygge, How to Hygge, Hygge: A Celebration of Simple Pleasures, Living the Danish Way … we are buying these books in our droves, settling down in a comfy chair (or, more likely, on a packed bus) to read about how to be like the Danes. But we can’t, really, can we, with our changeable weather (more like a sloppy kiss in the rain than a warm hug on a crisp day), poor public transport, and overly busy cities. So, we’re content to observe the Danes, looking at them from outside through a steamed up window, yearning to be just a little bit more cosy. I confess, I, too, have settled down with a book of hygge, and have subsequently been declaring that almost everything is ‘hyggelig’, much to my husband’s amusement, then later, when I took it too far, slight consternation.

           Sunday lunch after a nice walk: hyggelig. Lighting two candles (and burning my fingers several times): hyggelig. Walking along the River Ouse, crunching through the autumn  leaves:  hyggelig! Joking aside, though, I have enjoyed the opportunity to make life a little bit more nice. Nice. That’s a good word: it’s not too self-satisfied, or over-emphatic, and nicely British in the way that it damns with faint praise.

         ‘Hygge is a waste of London’ screamed Miriam Bouteba, writing for Time Out (presumably as she danced the night away in a club or was propelled at 70 miles per hour on the Tube). Why be hygge, when you could be spontaneously enjoying the 24-hour delights that our capital city has to offer? But, counters Bronte Aurell, ‘Hygge is part of London’ – it’s part of what makes us British, even if we don’t have a word for it (the closest might be ‘cosy’, but as the Hygge disciples show, that doesn’t quite cut it). We’re great at hygge – watching Coronation Street on the sofa, a hangover fry up, being crammed up against your friends at a gig, or hiding from trick-or-treaters behind the sofa, they’re all ‘hygge’ really. We Brits are just not self-satisfied about it (disappointment in ourselves and in others is in our veins). Anyway, hygge has it’s detractors: ‘Hygge is bylshytte’, says The Daily Mash, in a headline that made me think immediately of Middle English.


Feet in front of a fire, with socks. What could be more hygge? Source: THINKSTOCK

          As a researcher entering the final few months of a short-term contract, I’ve begun to realise how important caring for myself physically and emotionally really is. Thus, with the appropriate dose of scepticism (‘yes, well the Danes can do all of this can’t they, with their financial security…’), I’ve tried to adopt some of the principles that Charlotte Abrahams discusses in her book on Hygge: A Celebration of Simple Pleasures. In the process of reading over her advice, I realised that I do most of these things anyway  – but perhaps not often enough. So, here’s some of the things I’ve been doing to introduce some contentedness at a time of insecurity…

  1. Taking time to enjoy my meals: Preferably not shovelling crisps into my mouth as I proofread an article, but actually going to the common room to eat my lunch. Taking time to eat breakfast slowly and maybe read the news (but not looking at my work emails as that is distinctly unhyggelig). Getting home in time to cook a nice dinner, and eating properly (the grocery shop around the corner delivers a Veg Box for just over £10).
  2. Looking around, not trying to do too many things at once: Sometimes I ride the bus to campus (usually when it’s raining, or when I’m running late). I tend to hate myself for this, since I could be walking, and the bus is full of sneezing people. However, since reading the Hygge book, I’ve stopped looking at my phone when I’m on the bus, and instead I look out of the window, at the beautiful people of York. If I walk to campus, even better, because York offers a selection of geese to peruse, and the autumnal leaves are a really beautiful colour at the moment.
  3. Having exercise: My friend invited me to try Pilates at lunch time. It’s great. Instead of taking a half hour to eat, we do Pilates with lots of students, THEN we take lunch. It means that I have to catch up some time later, but it’s so good to feel simultaneously rested and exercised. Plus, being based on a campus, it’s cheap – £1 per class. You don’t get that in a city centre gym!
  4. Talking to my loved ones: Academia can be hard work emotionally and, of course, intellectually. As a naturally anxious person, I’ve been trying to share my work-related anxieties with my loved ones, and actually listen what they say in response. Then, to listen to their problems in return. Not only is it helpful to talk through anxieties in terms of the advice I often receive, but the process of talking them through often makes me realise they aren’t so bad after all.
  5. Seeing friends: This week, I’ve had ups and downs, due to focussing on the business of applying for jobs (which makes it rather hard to live ‘for the moment’). This has made finding research motivation difficult. Finding  time to see friends has given me that little push to get things done, even if I have not really felt like socialising. I’ve also arranged to see an academic friend who does not live in York, which has boosted my mood by making me feel reconnected with my dispersed friends. Academia can be lonely at times, so I think it’s important to maintain friendships.
  6. Lighting candles: Yes, I’ve been embracing that quintessential hygge thing and have lit a few candles (leftovers from my recent wedding). I’m a candle convert, it has to be said! Nothing remedies computer-induced sore eyes all day than staring at a flickering flame. It’s prehistoric, or medieval, or something.
  7. Embracing my strengths and weaknesses: This is most important for me. I’m trying to feel more ‘cosy’ in my own skin by not nitpicking myself as an academic. Some days recently, I’ve felt like I cannot bear to sit in my office any longer. So, instead of chastising myself and staring at the screen for even longer, I’ve left. Got up, and left the office and relocated to a cafe. I have come to realise that I get energy from being around other people, which can be a weakness in academia when so much emphasis is placed on research. Knowing that I thrive from the buzz of talking and movement, I’ve been taking myself to a cafe to do my creative work (making presentations, writing etc). It’s been working really well.

It’s hard to be sceptical of a craze if it’s possible to cherry pick the things that are good for your mental health – things that make you feel good

… or hygge?

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