There has been a lot of hype about the Danish word “hygge”. In the last year, a lot of books and tweets have been written about the ability to feel cozy, connected and content. Being Danish myself, I am a master of creating hygge. For instance, as I am sitting here writing this blog post I am warm under a blanket, I have a candle lit and I am enjoying the rain on my windows. Does that mean I am mindful? Is it mindful to hygge? To some extent, yes; hygge requires a certain slowness and ability to be present. It is about choosing to light a candle, feeling the body under a warm soft blanket, tasting the tea and being fully aware of a good moment – and it is even better, if it is dark, wet and stormy on the outside. However, mindfulness is a lot more than hygge – it isn´t only about appreciating what is relaxing and pleasant. It includes an awareness of how we interact with the world around us.
There is another Danish word, which like hygge cannot be translated to one single word in other languages (as far as I know). The word is “overskud” and the closest translation would be something like mental excess or surplus. If you thought hyggewas good to your well-being, then overskud is fundamental. Not just for your own happiness, but also for the people around you and ultimately the survival of the planet.
Overskud means that you make the effort to help a person, who needs your help. That you take the time to really be present and listen to a friend. That you cut your neighbor’s hedge, when you are doing your own anyway. That you manage to stop your own quick judgements about a person´s behavior and make the effort to understand the reasons why that person is behaving in certain a way. That you make the space to think about the long-term effects of your actions on the world and the environment.
Unfortunately, overskud is not as easy to come by these days and unlike hygge even the Danes do not master it themselves – including me. A common phrase in Denmark is “Sorry, but I just don´t have the overskud right now”
Whether one has overskud or not depends on three major elements; awareness, time and compassion. Let me start with time and illustrate this with an old study that took place in 1973 at Princeton Theological Seminary. Forty students took part in an experiment. They were instructed to give either a talk on either job-prospects or the parable of the Good Samaritan. They prepared in one building and had to go to a second building to do the talk. On their way, a confederate was hunched over in an alley, in plain sight and in clear need of help. Did the participants help? The researchers found that it didn’t matter whether the participants were going to talk about vocations or about the compassion of the Good Samaritan. What mattered was to which degreethe participants were told to hurry; the more the participants were in a hurry, the less helping behavior they demonstrated.
We know it from ourselves, if we are under pressure and short of time our universe tends to fold in on itself; we can only focus on getting whatever it is we need to do done. Whatever happens in the world around us is not important – it is just something that annoyingly stops us from getting our stuff done. Our focus is narrow and on ourselves. What will happen if I don´t get this done? We are in fight/flight mode, we think we are in danger and we react accordingly in body and mind – often with anger and aggression. Alternatively, when we are not short of time, we tend to open up and allow the world around us to enter our heart and mind. If I don´t have a deadline, I am much better at sitting down to hygge and be present with my children or take the time to chat with the cashier at the supermarket. I am no longer in a stress induced fight/flight mode (the sympathetic system) but in my calm “rest and digest” mode (the parasympathetic system) – the lesser known side of our nervous system. This is where we rest, heal, connect socially and see the bigger picture of things.
When we are in “rest and digest”, it is easier for us to feel compassionate, another element of overskud. Compassion is an active wish for others and oneself to be free from suffering. We have evolved to feel compassion, it is a part of our survival strategy as social animals. Aggression is also an emotion that is important for our survival. We have both forces in us, but it is our choice which one we cultivate. Unfortunately, our culture is favorizing the aggressive side of us; Time has become a limited capacity. Our focus is on the individual and on how to compete and be better than others.
This is unfortunate because not only does it affect our mental and physical well-being (as we all know, stress is a major problem in our world today) but it is also making our relationships and the planet suffer. We need more overskud in our lives to see the bigger picture so that we can behave in a more responsible and compassionate manner.
Hygge is a great way to cultivate the ability to be in the present moment, to create balance in our nervous system, to appreciate the good in life and to foster empathetic and compassionate relationships. But if we truly want a better world, we also have to go beyond our own candlelit living room and find the overskud to accept and face the dark and difficult storms raging outside.