At this time of year it’s all too easy to feel physically and psychologically drained as the light evaporates and darkness begins to feel a controlling act in our day to day lives. We wake up in the dark, work through the daylight, and return home to the dark once again. For many of us it merely feels uncomfortable and unwelcoming with only the Christmas period a positive break during the autumn and winter months; for some, however, the lack of light manifests into something completely debilitating.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is the more sinister side of the psychiatric complications that can arise as we lose natural light. Some can feel drastic changes to mood, appetite, sleeping patterns, and anxiety – all similar symptoms when we feel dragged under and suffocated by a deep depression. Imagine spending half the year being effectively controlled by what Mother Nature provides us with.
Some flee to the warmer countries to cope with chronic illness, others baton down the hatches and hibernate through the difficult weeks but for those living in the Scandinavian countries where daylight can abscond for months on end, there is no choice but to learn to cope and live on as normally. Last year, I visited Helsinki in December as gentle snowfall was beginning to blanket the city and was deeply amazed to be walking down the high street feeling the cold winter sunset, ready to return to our apartment for dinner and bed, only to look at my watch and see it was barely three in the afternoon. In just a few days I felt tired and any essence of working a normal routine was an alien concept to me when everything was inviting me to go home and sleep. But a book I had read a few months before helped me even in times of uneasiness on holiday to make the most of this strange but comforting season. It was The Little Book of Hygge (pronounced hoo-gah) by Meik Wiking.
Hygge is not a new concept and is perhaps something you’ve already come across in the past few years since every retailer and publisher has jumped on the notion to profit from an idea that is actually far simpler than buying more material goods. But if we actually strip back to the basics of what hygge is trying to invite into our lives, it is something we could perhaps benefit from if we’re struggling with the idea of the endless dark and cold days ahead of us.
If you’re not privy to what hygge is, then here it is in a nutshell: Denmark has long been voted one of the happiest countries in the world by its own population with many political, economic, and social reasons indicative to its positive well-being. More recently, psychologists have started to look more in depth at the everyday methods of living that can enable residents to feel so fulfilled in comparison to other countries where the opposite is a far easier conclusion to come to. That’s where the Happiness Research Institute comes in and the aforementioned book as the author also happens to be CEO, Meik Wiking. He realised there are words that are almost untranslatable because it is more of an exclusive act that is second nature to those who live with these traditions; Hygge being one of them and something which could be wholly effective when levels of anxiety, depression, and stress are increasing at a phenomenal rate.
Hygge (though some translate as ‘cosy’) is a way in which to invite a more peaceful, content and aware frame of mind moving at a slower pace. The easiest and most direct example is to sit with friends in front of a fire, drinking wine, and talking in a more open and vulnerable way but still feeling accepted and comforted by the ones you share time with. Though hygge is practised all year round, it has become most associated with the winter period as a method in which to feel content and appreciated as well as to invite a positive and calm state of mind when we might be feeling vulnerable to low moods.
So how can we practise hygge? And at little expense? Don’t worry as you don’t need to buy into pricey candles or blankets, nor do you have to invest a lot of time planning ahead if you have a busy schedule to deal with. Instead, think of how you can take advantage of the quiet and dark nights to practise self-care and that is pretty close to what hygge is.
Reading a book in front of the fire, baking in the kitchen, an extra bubbly bath with a glass of wine, watching one of your favourite films under a mountain of blankets, drinking hot chocolate with friends and sharing stories, going for a gentle walk on a crisp cold day, or playing board games with family. The list is pretty endless and it’s also personable – it ultimately comes down to what you enjoy doing in moments of quiet. You don’t need to buy into manuals and self-help books, it’s far easier to look at what your favourite moments of content have been and replicate them in your downtime.
Though some are becoming sceptical at the marketing ploys being adapted from Scandinavian buzzwords, Hygge is something that may be around a little longer. Workplaces and universities are adopting the concept to encourage employees and students to feel more positive in their everyday lives and to start replicating the happiness that naturally exudes from Danish citizens.
Think of how you can embrace a little bit of hygge in your life to help you through this winter, perhaps invite those you feel may struggle with the changing of the seasons as the light begins to dissipates from our lives. Light a candle, write a letter or simply watch the stars at night. It all adds up and hopefully it’ll be a healing tool to cradle winter as it approaches, than to be fearful of it.
Katie Bagshawe is currently a Student Diagnostic Radiographer at the University of Derby. She holds an MSc in Psychology from Sheffield Hallam University.