The art of hygge



I haven’t heard rain for over 12 straight hours for a long time. After being caught out last Monday, I’m now taking an umbrella wherever I go, despite the fact that it looks like a glorious blue-skied October day when I leave the house. This autumn seems to have clad itself in a damp gloom. When my husband and I first moved back to the UK from San Francisco, five years ago, it was this time of year that began to sog its way through to our spirits and made us low. What the hell had we done? It’s interesting to notice that now we may still not have bought real deal wet weather gear to protect me from the elements, but both he and I have acquired some form of Gortex for our spirits. This shitty weather ain’t getting us down.

It was when I was living in San Francisco that a friend, Karen, introduced me to the concept of hygge. There have been whole blog posts dedicated to trying to translate the word, so I won’t rehash here in detail—but the nub of it is about creating opportunities for happy, cosy times when life (and weather) is rubbish. There’s a swathe of literature around Seasonal Affective Disorder and solutions for it—amazing that the Danes are some of the happiest folk in the world and they live, for half the year, in one of the darkest corners. I’m guessing hygge might have something to do with it.

For me it’s fun to think about how to bring hygge both to home and to work. What do we need to feel happy and to thrive over the next few months? What will make us feel warm and united rather than sodden and alone?

Work for me is trickier—we often work remotely. So I’m looking forward to having a conversation with my small but brilliant team about what we could do to hyggify our working week over the months to come. I certainly don’t have the answers.

But I do have more of a clue about how to do it at home. Over the last few years I’ve tried my hand at a few different crafts. I know, I’m turning into one of those people. There’s sculpting (with wax—less messy, less fast, easier to do at home), crocheting and knitting (fast & ugly vs slow & lovely), I even tried my hand at embroidery (an American friend sent me patterns for embroidering various meat cuts—ham hocks, bacon rashers). My husband and I have often resorted to making Christmas presents rather than buying them, less out of a desire to be cute and more out of the necessity coming from being skint. International romance—the visas, lawyer fees, passports and plane fares back and forth to visit family—is gloriously expensive.

IMG_0769And yesterday evening was my first hygge evening of the year. I spent a happy hour trawling through our new bookshelves to find the various crafty books we’ve gathered over the years—how to make cheese, soap, Christmas candy, paper cut outs, amigurumi animals and tables. And then I pulled out my huge bag of wool, found a suitable crochet hook, and started out on a quick neck warmer for our kid. I’ve just finished lapping up a TV series, Suits, and have made myself slightly sick from ingesting so much crap. So the next few evenings are going to include a series of podcasts or books on tape, so that I can soak up interesting, beautiful words, while my fingers hook, knot and pull.

Friends and I have recently been talking about fun things to do together to create some collective hygge. Cooking from scratch and nights of mahjong have both been put on the table. And my husband and I are going to have to plot out what the hell we’re going to be making for Christmas presents this year. He’s got his heart set on damson port. I think I might just go for tiffin.

A night of podcasts, wool and a lovely cup of tea might forcibly cast many people into a depression—so please don’t think that I’m touting crochet as a panacea for these darker months. But there is something about proactively finding happy-making activities on grim and grisly days that can help us pull against the tide of gloom. Clearly I am a fan of thinking about what makes us flourish—not just the strengths and skills that can help us thrive, but also the actions, activities and behaviours we can adopt for ourselves, to do so. I’m not into passively waiting for the good life to come to us.

As for hygge, the art of it lies, I guess, in knowing what makes you happy, and what you can afford. And I might as well confess to buying scratch cards still. I do love my seasonal knitting, but having enough cash to go on a month-long trip to Thailand would sure as hell get me to banish my needles to the back of the cupboard.

benjamin franklin self-improvement

Franklin and other folks

franklinReader, I don’t know what you were doing when you were twenty, but I was mostly slumped on a sofa, eating toast and Nutella, crying as dogs died on telly, and using my tears to drown the swift-rising dread of next morning’s essay deadline.

Not so young Benjamin Franklin. By the time he left his teenage years, he had drawn up a list of thirteen virtues that he would then fastidiously act upon week after week, year after year.

What were the thirteen? Ta da:

  1. TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. MODERATION. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
  11. TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Now, fascinated as I am by his thirteen and his definitions (why thirteen, buddy? feels odd), they would not be how I’d put things. I actually think I could do with more trifling conversations rather than less. And the whole chastity thing, well. Good use of ‘venery’ though. And ‘injury’. High fives.

It’s not that Franklin is alone in trying to drum up a taxonomy of virtues or characteristics/traits/attributes/strengths/whatever-you-wanna-call-them. In fact loads of other people have. It’s a thingArtistotle had a go, a while ago, in a long-winded and nebulous way. In recent years there’s been a new explosion, and a whole new branch of science called, horribly, ‘positive psychology’. Check out Martin Seligman‘s twenty-four, Angela Duckworth‘s seven and, most recent of all, Alain de Boton‘s ten.

There are lots of similarities and overlaps in all of them. A sort of top level consensus that there are a number of things we should focus on to improve our levels of happiness/ability to flourish. But beyond that there’s no real agreement. Nor disagreement. More like a bunch of theoretical ducks bobbing merrily about in the same sea of happy.

To be honest, I can’t exactly remember why, when founding Spark+Mettle, I focused on the nine ‘competencies’ highlighted by Felicia Huppert at Cambridge’s Institute of Wellbeing. But I did.Over the last couple of years we’ve tested them out with young people we’ve been working with, and developed a programme that allows us all to talk about, act upon and reflect on them on a weekly basis. We did a little reshuffle, threw ‘creativity’ into the mix, and squidged ‘optimism’ into ‘positive emotions’, and these are now the Spark+Mettle nine:

  1. SPARK. Engagement or interest in what you do.
  2. METTLE. Resilience, grit or determination; the ability to keep going and work through something even if it’s hard.
  3. PURPOSE. A sense of meaning to your life that can help carry you forward.
  4. CREATIVITY. The ability to make things that are new or original, either with your hands or in your head—including coming up with new ideas or approaches.
  5. POSTIVIE RELATIONSHIPS. Strong and meaningful ties with a range of other people, including family, friends, colleagues etc.
  6. AGENCY. A sense that you have good control over your life, your decisions, your direction.
  7. SELF-ESTEEM. A feeling of confidence and an understanding of who you are and what you are capable of.
  8. POSITIVE EMOTIONS. Feelings of optimism about the future as well as a feeling of contentment, satisfaction or happiness about the present, or even the past.
  9. VITALITY. Energy, alertness.

[Aside: You can take a quick survey and find out your top three on our new Discoverables site.]

Back to Franklin. He didn’t just come up with a list. He then came up with a framework to make sure he was improving. He drew up a weekly chart, making a mark on any day when he did not achieve any of the thirteen virtues.  And each week he had a particular focus on one of the thirteen; temperance, say. And when thirteen weeks were up, he started all over.

benjamin franklin self-improvement


We adapted this idea to Spark+Mettle and it is now at the core of our framework.

Crikey, this is a long post. The point is that I love this format: taking a small(ish) number of strenghts/traits to work on, and doing it again in a cyclical process: gradually improving, constantly mindful. It’s neat. We get to talk and think and do. And track how we’re moving forward towards the best version of ourselves. In and of itself, it makes me really happy.

But my dilemma is how to now throw in this crazy, intensive 40-day super flourish period that I conjured up in a flurry of excitement and a blog post?  How it would actually work? How to make it productive, useful and manageable? And, er, fun? Don’t want to be no killjoy. That would totally defeat the point. I’m now at T-3 days. Is that how you say it? I don’t know even why I tried.

I’m going to go walk the dogs. It’s miserable outside. I may be sometime.

Vulnerability and Gratitude

Here’s an interesting video on the importance of vulnerability from a TEDx event. The talk seems to trivialise the concept a little, making it seem almost trite. But it’s good to be reminded that strength can come from vulnerability and that perfection is more of a defensive wall than an actual state. Thank goodness for that.

Brown claims in her talk that practising gratitude is one way to prevent against the ill-effects of vulnerability. It’s hard to talk about gratitude without sounding like an ultra-cheesy hippy. This is particularly true in the UK. After moving back here having lived in California, the difference in gratitude attitudes (hey, see what I did?) is striking.

How do you practise gratitude? It might sound obvious. It’s not just about saying thank you, though that’s clearly a pretty good place to start. Keeping a gratitude journal is a great idea, but might sound a bit ambitious for those of us who don’t instinctively see the first snowdrops of the year, say, and smile. But it doesn’t have to be filled with flowers and pastel colours to be useful. You can find a pragmatic step-by-step guide here.

Practising gratitude doesn’t just help restore vulnerability. That might not be an overly-compelling to head down to the stationers and grab a notebook. No, practising gratitude is also a highly-effective, proven way to improve personal levels of well-being. Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, explains that expressing gratitude is “a kind of meta-strategy for achieving happiness.”

In her book, The How of Happiness, she reports on a study she conducted into practising gratitude. Interestingly, the best results came from a once a week reflection on just 5 events that happened during the previous seven days. That’s pretty do-able, even for the most dour-faced among us.

Still wary? What if you were told that expressing gratitude boosts happiness in eight ways. Lyubomirsky says so.

  1. It promotes the savouring of positive life experiences
  2. It bolsters self-worth and self-esteem
  3. It helps you cope with stress and trauma
  4. It encourages moral behaviour
  5. It can help build social bonds
  6. It tends to inhibit invidious comparisons with others
  7. It is incompatible with negative emotions and may actually diminish or deter such feelings as anger, bitterness and greed.
  8. It helps us thwart hedonistic adaptation.

[NB I love the euphemistic tone of #6].

So. Now you know. Now you can choose. Perhaps there’ll be a quick trip to the stationers after all?

Stand up and be happy

It might be funnier if I had titled this: Be Happy and Stand Up.

Because then it would be almost as if I had written Be Happy: Stand Up.

Which would be quite funny, no? No. Clearly I have to try far too hard to be funny to actually be funny.

In the last week I’ve come across two great new organisations that relate to where I’m heading. The first is Action for Happiness. Spearheaded by Professor Richard Layard, aka the UK’s happiness guru, the organisation aims (1) to bring current research from the world of positive psychology into the mainstream and (2) to encourage everybody to make themselves and the people around them a little happier. Their little introductory video is here:

And what a great looking website too! I covet it some, I must confess. Which probably doesn’t do much for my happiness levels. The look of the website complements its purpose: to make happiness accessible and enticing to everyone. It’s not just for the self-helpers, the hippies or the researchers—it’s within our reach. AND we can do our bit to make others feel good too.

There are the naysayers of course who complain that this sort of thing infantalises our society. I wish I could be more grown up with my response, but a huge bit of me wants to suggest that they might be just the ones who could benefit from AfH’s suggestions. Layard does a whole lot better than saying Ya Boo Sucks and presents a comprehensive lot of arguments for the sceptics here. (I have to add that, having a certain amount of gumption, I emailed Prof Layard to say how much I liked AfH and to tell him about my idea. And he wrote back a prompt and encouraging reply. THAT made me happy.)

Of course, it’s not really all about happiness after all, as the godfather of happiness, Martin Seligman, revealed last week. In The Guardian’s account of his slip-up, Seligman admits that it should all be more to do with flourishing that straightforward happiness. Although that is not the best adjective to use. In typical Guardian style (what other paper depicts Cameron as a condom?), this piece of news is attached to the fact that Cameron has got himself into measuring the wrong sort of thing. Saying all that, any measure of well-being is a good step forward. And although I am far from being blue (politically or emotionally), I commend Cameron for standing up to the sceptics and moving towards a much broader measure of life in Britain.

Talking of standing up… Josie Long, a stand-up (ahahahahahaaaaa) comedian, has launched a charity that aims to promote university access (and specifically for arts and humanities degrees). The organisation, Arts Emergency Service, is no joke. Long is quoted in The Guardian as saying, “I’m just trying really hard not to be shit.” Maybe that should be Action for Happiness’ strapline, instead of the kinda bland “Let’s put the things that matter first.” Anyway Long’s organisation couldn’t come at a more vital time: with tuition fees in place and the highest-ever unemployment levels for 16–24 year olds, an awful lot of them need an awful lot of persuading that an arts or humanities degree isn’t just an expensive time-waster. I’m all for vocational study, but I do love the flowery stuff too. So—go Josie! I’m right there with you. And I promise, dear reader, no more jokes from me.