Do you know the word ‘hygge’? It’s a Danish and Norwegian word (pronounced hyoo‘guh) describing ‘a mood of coziness and comfortable conviviality with feelings of wellness and contentment.’ For me it’s like coziness: a warm living room with soft blanket, a trusted pal near by, good book, fire in the fireplace, cup of hot tea. But beyond the physical comfort, there’s a friendliness inherent to hygge that is a signal to the nervous system it can relax its guard for the moment. It’s safe here to be calm.
On the whole these days, our nervous systems are steadily bombarded by a very different kind of signal. The inescapable COVID pandemic, the sense of political violence brewing, the unjustness and brutality one despot superpower can wield to trample the valiant underdogs…add climate disruption and species extinction…seems that the news of the world is a steady stream of triggers of threat and danger to which our nervous system, in its prime imperative to manage survival, can’t help but react with stress. This stream mixes with the personal pressures of paying the bills and raising children and work demands often exceeding capacity. Physiologically and psychologically, the stress message stream tells body and mind to be ready to fight, flee, or collapse in helplessness. This stream in turn produces a spectrum of negative feelings running to fearfulness, fatigue, anger, distrust, suspicion, feeling judged, aloneness, overwhelm, not-enough-ness as natural internal reaction to unrelenting external stresses. And when the stress reactions are unrelenting, these feelings themselves become internal triggers of the ongoing fight, flight, or collapse reactions in a negative feedback loop that is not hygge or calm. When the alarms of danger continue to be sounded, it’s not safe to relax from the point of view of the parts of our nervous system appointed to keep us alive in the moment. Poignantly, as many of us are painfully learning, this survival feedback loop makes us sick in body and mind.
How in the world do we interrupt this stress cycle when so much of what triggers it is way beyond our control? Can we fix any of these major stressors? Especially as tired and overwhelmed as many of us are? Or doing as much to keep up with immediate pressures? Is it even possible to provide our nervous system with reasons to relax? With signals that it’s safe to relax and let the guards off duty for a moment? Really good questions.
Bringing calm and ease into our experience requires us to provide inputs that our vigilant system can read as safety. This requires us to take up the task of being befriending operators of our nervous system. Imagine good parents, guided by their sacred duty to provide wholesome influences to their children to counterbalance the barrage of negatives. How is that done best? With sensitivity to moments their children are overwhelmed, and need help noticing their hunger or fatigue or loneliness. Or when their frightened child needs comfort and support. That’s who we must be to the nervous system at the core of each of us, driving our experience.
How does life become more hygge? When hygge is arranged for as an experience. Does that mean a trip to Sweden to sit before the fire in our beautifully-patterned wool socks with our bestie and a toddy? It sure could mean that ~~ to a very select few of us. Constraints are real — time, money, energy. And constraints often carry the power to trigger more stress. What is it makes it possible to offer friendliness to our rattled experience? It’s the awareness that can recognize the frightened and stressed parts that are putting up their dukes, or collapsing in retreat.
As I write this, a pot of fresh daffodils next to my laptop screen radiates a little stream of hygge. These sunny flowers befriend those parts of me who are easily triggered into unease on a Monday morning about all there is to do in the week ahead. The daffodil’s visual befriending gives my nervous system the message that it can let its guard down a bit. As more calm enters the system, my sense of enjoyment of the day grows. As we get the hang of this cycle, we begin to trust the survival project to our capable nervous system, and take on the job of providing it messages of hygge, every day.