Our culture seems to be on a never-ending search for happiness. Surveys show women reporting happiness levels at an all-time low, and advertisements continue to vie for filling the happy gap if we just buy this product, try this lifestyle, make this change.
It also shows in the books we’re buying. Comfortably sitting on the bestseller list right now is a book by Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. The Little Book of Hygge offers insights into the “Danish secrets to happy living,” and we Americans are eating it up. Another recent book titled The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters may explain why. “Research shows that being fixated on happiness can actually make people feel lonely and unhappy,” author Emily Esfahani Smith said in a recent interview for Scientific American.
She continues: “The happiness frenzy distracts people from what really matters, which is leading a meaningful life. Human beings have a need for meaning. We’re creatures that seek meaning, make meaning, and yearn for meaning. The question is—how can we lead a meaningful life? The route to meaning lies in connecting and contributing to something bigger than yourself—and not in gratifying yourself and focusing on what you, yourself, need and want, as the happiness industry encourages us to do.”
If the Danish have figured out the better approach to happy living, it would seem that Americans need to come up with our own form of hygge. Fourteen years ago, I experienced a moment where the two concepts collided—hygge and the fruitless American search for happiness—and I haven’t forgotten it. On a transatlantic choir trip with a roommate in college, we made a stop in the Netherlands. We found ourselves in such a small town that we saw quaint farms and spacious fields with chickens from the bus window.
There were no hotels large enough to hold all of us on the trip, so we were divided up into villagers’ houses. As our hostess showed my roommate and me our rooms, a surreal sense of peace overtook me. Candlelight and simply designed rooms with twin-size beds provided a space to think. In the morning, we came down to a breakfast table I’ll never forget. Hard-boiled eggs were sitting in egg holders with little egg-size sweaters keeping them warm; a teapot was sitting on the table on a stand that had a tea light candle underneath (so that’s why they call them tea lights!), and the bread was freshly baked. I took a picture of the table and still have it. I wanted to hold on to the moment, and never before or since then have I experienced anything like it.
After reading The Little Book of Hygge, I realize what I experienced in that overnight stay was gezelligheid, the Netherlands’ variant on the Danish hygge. As Meik puts it, “The concept is important in both cultures, and candles, fireplaces, and Christmas are core elements in hygge and gezelligheid.” I learned that a circular lamp in my bedroom on that stay was a Klint lampshade, one of the iconic Danish lamps. I learned that the hot tea on our breakfast table combined two top elements of hygge—candles and hot drinks. Coziness abounded, and with it, warmth of the soul.
Contrary to being products to fill a happiness gap, these items were only instruments. They were not consumed as an end in themselves; they were setting the stage for quiet and calm and reflection that Esfahani Smith would say is the real producer of happiness.
Capturing this, Esfahani Smith starts her book with one of her favorite quotes by Virginia Woolf: “What is the meaning of life? That was all—a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were daily little miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.”
If there’s one caption I could put on my photo from the Netherlands that morning, it’s “Here is one.”
Call it hygge or gezelligheid—what I experienced in the Netherlands was a respite from the busyness and overload that is life as an American in your twenties . . . and we didn’t even have smartphones back then. What’s the next best thing, what’s everyone doing tonight, what’s another social escape I can partake in to seek, if not happiness, a good time? Rather than providing answers to meaning, everything was (perhaps unintentionally) covering up the questions; everything was a distraction from true reflection.
As it turns out, I was not alone. Esfahani Smith says, “Research shows that there are millions of people who are unsure of what makes their lives meaningful—and that rates of suicide, depression, anxiety, loneliness, and drug addiction have been rising for decades. Because so many of us are struggling to understand our ‘why,’ I think we’re turning to false substitutes for meaning—like technology and the pursuit of happiness—to fill our existential vacuum, or what Louis C. K. once called ‘the forever empty’ feeling that lurks inside us and rears its head from time to time.”
That Louis C. K. skit Esfahani Smith mentions speaks to American culture’s current rush to our smartphones to fill our empty moments. In so doing, the comedian once told Conan O’Brien, we lose the “ability to just be yourself . . . to just sit there. Pretty much 100 percent of people driving are texting . . . people are willing to risk taking a life—and ruining their own—because they don’t want to feel alone for a second.” Yet at the end of the day, we still feel overwhelmingly alone.
What we’re denying ourselves in these filled moments is reflection. “Leading a meaningful life requires being reflective, being present and aware of others, and being of service to others,” Esfahani Smith says. “And I don’t see how we can do those things when we’re walking around with headphones on, lost in our own little worlds, and constantly checking our phones for updates or filling our minds with dribs and drabs of meaningless stimuli.”
According to recent data compiled by MediaKix, we will spend more hours and years of our lives watching screens than in actual human interaction. If we look at the numbers of how Americans report using our time—spending an average of thirty-five minutes on Facebook each day, fifteen minutes on Instagram, and so on—we’re bound to spend five years and four months of our lifetime on social media alone. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a lot, until you consider that it’s more than the time we spend over our entire lifetime on showering and eating combined. Adding in the amount of time people watch TV or stream video, we will on average spend thirteen years watching stories that aren’t ours onscreen, vastly outweighing the four years and eight months we’re spending on eating and drinking or socializing, writing the stories of our own lives.
No wonder many Americans today are looking for a social-media-detox kick. Take a look at current newsstands, and you’ll see a whole new genre of publications that’s aimed toward adding more calm and quiet into our days. With names such as Happinez and Breathe, these magazines are filled with pages of personal goal-setting, coloring book drawings, and other features that speak to readers’ hunger for slowing down and reevaluating their lives.
I, too, have felt a need for escape from the constant feeling of restlessness that comes with the busyness and hyper-connectedness of a heavy screen-time diet. For me, adding meaning to my life came in the form of much-needed self-care in the face of mental frazzle. I became all too aware of the despair of the never-ending to-do list and also the fact that I’d check off everything related to work and kids’ obligations and never get to the things related to my health, relationships, and well-being. It was taking a toll, and I ultimately learned that self-care is not selfish but actually greatly aids us in our work and personal goals by giving us greater mental bandwidth.
My cup was empty, and I needed to fill it. It started with a trickle; I confided in a girlfriend, and she recommended The Five-Minute Journal as one avenue for making moments every day to recollect what I’m grateful for and jot down my hopes. Another friend gave me The 52 Lists Project, another journal-type book aimed to spend more mental bandwidth and time on gratitude and creative thoughts. I found a place down the street that plays live big band music every Monday night. After one visit my cup overflowed with nostalgia and endorphins; I started penciling it in for every other week. I began filling quiet moments of nerves with cups of tea instead of clicking on the iPhone; I lit a candle more, read spirituals, and journaled. I set up lunch dates with girlfriends and started sitting down more intentionally with my husband for conversations on topics other than work or home.
These were all little things, and it turns out, just like the elements of hygge, it was the little things that make the biggest difference. If my life is like a meal, these habits have transformed my life in the way spices transform the mundane into a memorable dish. They provide more moments for meaningful inspiration.
Concepts such as hygge may speak to those in North Europe and beyond, but at the end of the day, how we cultivate more moments of illumination and miracles in our day can be as unique as the person living them. For Americans, these may take the form of some of our own traditions; Ben Franklin’s clubs for self-improvement that have been recently revived by the 92nd Street Y and the Hoover Institution come to mind. It can come in the form of listening to quintessentially American big band music or supporting the arts; it can come in the form of a book club or outdoor camping in our numerous national parks. We have the seeds for happiness in America; it’s just up to us to till the soil in our lives.
We may have more stacked against us with the social media and advertising cultures in full force, but we’ve faced and overcome worse struggles. It’s up to us to find a way to add more moments of meaning to our lives, more hours and more days of togetherness and reflection and quiet. Then we’d be more likely to have lives that reflected meaningful narratives about us. The alternative is an endless confetti of meaningless info collected over years—or worse, addictions to a media that consumes us.
Rather than let the moments of our lives slip through the unforgiving threshold of an hourglass on activities that don’t fulfill us, we can start today by taking one moment for reflection, and tomorrow, another. As the great American poet Emily Dickinson once said, “If you take care of the small things, the big things take care of themselves. You can gain more control over your life by paying closer attention to the little things.” Here’s to this worthier pursuit.
Photo Credit: Horace and Mae Photography