Contentment is the only real wealth -Alfred Nobel
Jan-blue-ary…this long, dark and cold month has presented a mental health challenge to me every year. I’ve tried numerous things to shake off the January doldrums, planning trips, performing in theatrical productions or planning parties. All great solutions that gave me a spark, something fun, something to look forward to. But these last couple years have challenged this rhythm of mine. There haven’t been any trips to take, or productions to do and parties are complicated as new variants surge. A few years back, I came upon the concept of Hygge (Hoo-gah). I can’t remember how I stumbled across this word, but given my Danish heritage and the connection I’ve always felt to their culture and the way they live, I dug into it. I checked out every book at the library I could find and declared January my official Month of Hygge!
Hygge isn’t just one thing, it’s a way of living every day. It’s a connection to the present moment. It’s engaging all the senses and nurturing an atmosphere of comfort, coziness, and safety through simple means. It’s finding contentment in the everyday. It’s appreciating the warm glow of a candle, the softness of a fluffy blanket, the taste of a sweet pastry and the sincerity of a friend. It’s about slowing down, reflecting, being intentional and grateful for the life you’ve been given. I’m not one to typically make New Year’s Resolutions because 1) I need more than a day to process, contemplate and celebrate (hence my previous post on taking 12 days for Christmas). 2) I want to make changes I know I can sustain. So I use the ideas behind Hygge to help me create the space and focus needed to intentionally slow down in January.
Slowing down is not always realistic or feasible in American culture and my family is no exception to this. Life keeps going at a pace generally set by others, outside of my control. When our family was heavily involved in theatre productions it had its own set of rehearsal demands that increased in time and intensity as the performance dates loomed near. While we didn’t mind the added complications this brought because doing theatre for us is hygge, it didn’t mean that other activities or work stopped, so I often found myself grumpily driving my daughter to ballet across town at the worst time of day. Spending hours in my car in order to efficiently avoid taking several different trips, but feeling overwhelmed and stressed by what I wasn’t getting done at home. So one year, in honor of Hygge, I threw an electric tealight into the car, made sure I had a book loaded on my kindle app and after dropping my daughter off, swung through a coffee drive thru to grab a comforting beverage. I drove back to the studio with the coffee, tealight, and book in hand, voila car-Hygge! I made the choice to stop dwelling on what couldn’t be (getting things done at home), embraced what was (needing to be in my car all afternoon) and found a way to bring some enjoyment to it.
I think there is a lesson here for more than just long winter months. A lesson for enduring hardships, transitioning through life, living through a pandemic…choose to embrace what is. Stop worrying about what isn’t or can’t be, and find a way to enjoy this moment. This seems to be much easier to do in the small things and much harder as a way of life. Whenever I go to a Disney theme park it always amuses me that no one is throwing tantrums about lines, parking, or prices. Everyone is just so happy to be there that they accept the circumstances for what they are. Why is it we can accept circumstances in those times, but not in the rest of our life? Years ago my family visited Disneyworld in May and every afternoon like clockwork the thunder would roll, the sky opened up and buckets of rain dumped down upon us forcing certain rides or events to shut down until it was over. This was devastating to my first visit, when the whole day had been meticulously planned for months. As we watched and waited the storm out day after day we noticed it never lasted more than an hour and everything was opened back up again within a couple hours. When we were forced to stop going about our day as planned, we were led to observing the pattern of weather and its effects, which gave us a new way forward, a new way of perceiving. So when the next rain shower came, instead of grumbling about what we were missing and hiding until it was over, we chose to dance. We embraced what was (the rain) and found a way to enjoy it.
But I’ll admit when my husband lost his job six months prior to the pandemic I wasn’t ready to accept those circumstances or find ways to enjoy our new normal, there were just too many unknowns. We were in survival mode making ends meet on the day to day. But even after we figured out how to make our present secure, I could’ve stayed in that place of worry and fear. There was an entire future at stake after all. What was that going to look like for us? For our kids? When the pandemic hit I realized, none of those things are set in stone for any of us. We plan for the future. We dream for the future. We save for the future. But the present is all we’re really promised and it’s the only thing we have any control over.
My future sister-in-law is a great example and reminder to me to embrace and enjoy this present moment. A cardiac arrest 4.5 years ago left her with a traumatic brain injury which completely upended the future my brother and she had planned. But she knows how to live in the present. Her near death experience and the life she now lives reminds her to be so grateful for it. Throughout the Christmas holiday she would just look at the faces around her and say over and over, “I’m so happy.” When she recently turned 40, her response was “Who cares, I’m alive!”
So here we are about to enter year three of a pandemic. What unfulfilled reality am I going to stop dwelling on? How am I going to practice embracing and enjoying the present? Hygge is the practice I have found to intentionally slow down, so I can better observe the rhythms and patterns of life, so I can embrace the goodness in front of me and discover joy in the midst of hard times.
In future posts I’ll share more about the practice of hygge, and more about how I’ve learned to slow down in the midst of busyness, to embrace what is and find joy!
An inconvenience is an unrecognized opportunity-Confucius