In a post from January 2017, I examined the Danish word hygge . I said at the time that such a subject matter seemed a little odd in a blog about ‘heritage’, but it seems that my suggestion that hygge be linked to heritage was fully justified, since Denmark is now submitting an application to UNESCO for hygge to be recognised as Intangible Cultural Heritage, and listed as UNESCO World Heritage.
In many ways, I see nothing wrong in this – it’s a nice story about how ‘being nice’ and ‘feeling cosy’ should be valued and recognised by UNESCO as something worthy to protect. On a very positive note, perhaps this should spur UNESCO and other bodies into recognising hygge as a ‘Universal Right’ of all human beings, alongside education, clean water and decent health care. But I can’t help feeling a little queasy about it – perhaps even a little Uhyggeligt – ‘uncozy’!
As I have said before, I worry that the untranslatability of hygge might be used to create boundaries, that perhaps hygge will be something that is ultimately available only to ‘Danes’ – that since the word is ‘untranslatable’, it is also unavailable to anyone but true Danes. In other words, just as with other forms of cultural heritage, hygge contains the possibility for it to be weaponised. Perhaps just as Facebook as turned ‘memory’ into a commodity to be marketised for private profit, then hygge can be a subtle form of exclusion, and be used as a social code to mark out otherness.
Reading the commentaries about the UNESCO application, there is a lot to be positive about: In the Daily Telegraph article, the invocation of intangible cultural heritage as a lived process is clear: “The importance of intangible cultural heritage is that you have to live it. While it’s something we inherit from our past, hygge is absolutely relevant today and will have real value long into our future.” Also quoting Meik Wiking of the ‘Happiness Research Institute’, the New York Post underlines the idea that cultural heritage can engage and be useful to the world, purposefully seeking a ‘better society’: “With increasing societal pressures and the growing importance of wellbeing, hygge’s emphasis on togetherness and equality can have real and tangible benefits not only to the Danish people but to anyone that practices this uniquely Danish social ritual”. With so much to be gloomy about in the world right now, then this seems to be a positive development. As Dennis Englund of VisitDenmark adds: “We also believe that the fundamental quality of life that hygge encompasses is more relevant right now than ever, where many see that quality as being under threat, with growing pressure on proper work-life balance, an increasing digital complexity of social relations and the pressure on everyone to be just right.”
I like the ambition that hygge is available to everyone and anyone, but why does it have to be ‘Danish’ – and just how ‘available’ is it to non-Danes?
In my earlier post, I pointed to instances where Danish people have argued that non-Danes cannot have hygge, and so perhaps the UNESCO listing will mean that the grip of ‘ownership’ of hygge is released somewhat, and that the idea of a necessarily Danish authority and arbitration be dropped? At first sight, however, I remain a little worried, especially when the non-Danish owner of the ‘Hello Hygge’ website defers authority: “I’m not Danish so I can’t comment with any real authority here, but as an enthusiastic bystander I will say that ‘hygge’ appears to be becoming synonymous with ‘things I like’ in the English-speaking world – and there’s nothing wrong with ‘things I like’, but to me, the English usage of the word doesn’t always capture what I feel is the true essence of the word”.
So, there it is, once again: hygge, ultimately as an ‘essence’ that is untranslatable and un-reachable for anyone but ‘Danes’, who have absolute authority on what counts as hygge. Even non-Danish people who write websites dedicated to hygge have no real authority. That’s definitely Uhyggeligt to me.
Or, perhaps we can’t have it all: hygge should have a bit less hubris surrounding it – and make way for lagom (a supposedly untranslatable Swedish word conveying a sense of sufficiency-in-balance and simple moderation).