By: K.E. Semmel
Twenty years ago, during my aborted attempt to get an MFA in creative writing, I submitted a story for a workshop. It was about a middle-aged man who witnesses the neighbor’s teenage babysitter having sex with her boyfriend—an experience that makes the protagonist consider his own mortality. The story takes place a few days after he witnesses this act, at an evening dinner party between two thirty-something couples; importantly, we don’t see the young couple doing the deed. I titled the story “Naked” and was proud of the dual meaning that word gave readers. Given the prurient, voyeuristic nature of the narrative, though, it was a risky story to submit to a group of high-minded literary types.
Have you read John Cheever’s story “The Swimmer”? About a guy who decides to swim from one swimming pool in his neighborhood to another and another and another all the way to his own house? Along the way he gets drunk and, well, the story turns beautifully dark (both literally and figuratively). When he finally reaches home, he’s locked out of his house. I love that story and I wanted to mimic its mood to create a cynical, ironic takedown of suburban and exurban life in America.
Needless to say, the characters in my story, particularly the men, get sloshed and that leads them to challenge the babysitter and her boyfriend to a pickup game of basketball during the dinner party, leaving their deeply irritated wives to lock them out of the house.
It was a good workshop, as I recall, and I got lots of excellent feedback on how to revise the story. But one particular classmate’s response lives rent free in my memory to this day. “I feel like it’s not real,” she said, holding her hands as if she were squeezing an invisible volleyball between them. “I mean, thirty-somethings don’t have dinner parties.”
She went on to really pound her hammer on this particular nail: dinner parties were for old people. Was that true? My wife and I had dinner parties with other youngish couples. We enjoyed those parties. To borrow the word my Danish friends liked to say, they were hyggelige. However you translate that word—pleasant, enjoyable, cozy all come easily to mind—we had fun in a relaxed sort of way. Drinking. Eating. Talking. Joking. Laughing. Did that make us old? Old fashioned?
I stayed mum throughout the discussion as the writers were asked to do when their stories were being workshopped, but once I was able to talk I mentioned in passing (defensively, I realize now) that my wife and I held dinner parties, that this was pretty common in Denmark where she was from (and where we had lived for a few years). In our Aarhus apartment, we hosted mixed couples with partners from around the globe: New Zealand, Ecuador, Sweden, Germany, Canada, Spain, Israel, Mozambique, the UK, Denmark, and even the United States. Sitting at our dinner table with our (mostly) expat friends was like being in a really engaging classroom. I learned so much, and I loved it.
“Well, you’re not in Denmark anymore,” she pointedly concluded.
I revised the story and submitted it, halfheartedly, to about ten top literary journals, all of which rejected it. Then I abandoned it like a toy I was sick of playing with. But I never forgot that piece of criticism about dinner parties.
In 2016 a slew of books appeared on the subject of “hygge.” The New York Times published a cleverly-titled story on the phenomenon, “Hygge is Where the Heart Is.” A sampling of titles from Amazon: Hygge: Unlock the Danish Art of Coziness and Happiness. Hygge: A Happy Life without Stress. My Hygge Home: How to Make Home Your Happy Place.
When I began seeing these books in stores, and when people began asking me what I thought about the word they mispronounced as high-gah, a question stirred in me. The common denominator in most of these titles is “happy.” Why, I thought, do we need to import a difficult-to-pronounce foreign word to teach us how to be happy? And, going further, is happiness really what hygge is all about? For the sake of context, Merriam-Webster defines hygge as a “cozy quality that makes a person feel content and comfortable.”
That’s a fine definition, but where does the word happy come into play? I mean, okay, if you are cozy, content, or comfortable I suppose you’re likely to be kind of happy, right? I get that. But what is happiness and why do we need hygge to find it?
The truth is, we didn’t need to import the word to find happiness. And we don’t need it. But we English speakers have a history of doing this. Namaste, feng shui, and shinrin-yoku are all recent examples. Like hygge, these words are borrowed from other language systems, other cultures. The wonderful thing about language and culture is that they are constantly in flux, evolving before our very ears and eyes. Imagine our language without such Scandinavian gems as smorgasbord, fjord, or ombudsman; English would be emptier without them, wouldn’t you say? Like mounds of clay, imports can be molded and recast. As a writer and translator of Danish literary fiction, count me as a believer. Give it to me straight or twist it round and round in dazzling loops. I’m here for it, and I have nothing against imports appearing in our lexicon.
But we don’t actually need namaste to say hello, we need it to sell a brand, a lifestyle. We don’t need feng shui to harmonize our living spaces with our surroundings, we need it to market a concept and the million-dollar industry around it. With the importation of shinrin-yoku into English, have we reached the point where we can’t even enter the solitude of a beautiful, majestic forest and quietly contemplate nature without first giving it an awesome Japanese name?
Same with hygge. Publishers—and manufacturers of products from dog beds to yarn—have packaged up this itty-bitty word into a broader concept, and now they are selling it for money. It’s like water that way, a commodity you can get straight from the tap but purchase, instead, in great quantities of waterway-clogging plastic bottles. There’s a deeper irony to the conflation of hygge and happiness in the United States (and probably also post-Brexit UK too, where the hygge craze really kicked into gear). It’s extremely difficult to be happy here. We are overworked and underpaid. Our healthcare system is in shambles, an overpriced, bureaucratic nightmare that forces many people to skip routine dental or health checkups because they can’t afford them. Guns and corporations have more rights than our children. There are so many mass shootings they just seem like a normal activity now. And I don’t even need to mention the corroding effect of the American political system on, you know, our democracy, or our clickbait-driven media landscape that rewards outlandish behavior because it’s good for business.
For most Americans, real wages haven’t increased in decades, even as they work harder and longer hours. An ever-widening income gap lays bare the worst tendencies of capitalism to destroy what it purports to help. Kids go to school hungry, and parents working two or three jobs can’t afford to feed them. Conservatives gut workers’ rights, women’s rights, and democracy. Republicans claim to be pro-family, but the policies they legislate are pro-business, anti-family. You can’t have it both ways. Businesses want you working, not taking care of your sick newborn or your dying husband. When you reach the point when GoFundMe campaigns become the means, the only means, by which many families can pay their mounting health bills despite working multiple jobs, then you’ve also reached the point when society is in free fall.
And the Democrats, with their feckless compromises and equivocations, only aid and abet this entire garbage system. I don’t give them a pass.
I could go on and on, but I’m not trying to solve America’s problems. I’m writing a note on hygge. We don’t need to seek happiness by buying books on hygge—or candles and socks. We need to seek happiness. Period. How do we do that? Well, what makes you fundamentally happy? That’s a question only you can answer. Me, I like getting up every morning at 5:00 a.m. to read and write in solitude. I like spending time with my wife and son. I like walking in a forest. I like meeting friends for drinks and talking about books, sports, ideas. I like listening to Bob Dylan’s music every single day. I like good morning jogs. I like watching baseball, even when my beloved team, the St. Louis Cardinals, are mired in a losing season. My wife and I haven’t had a dinner party in a while, but it’s good for hygge. And we’re not thirty-somethings anymore, so I guess we’re old enough now to host dinner parties.
Which brings me back to my story “Naked.” Once all these books started coming out with their focus on hygge, I realized the door was wide open for me to revise the story. I pulled up my computer file and changed a few things. It’s now got a more fitting title, “Hygge,” one far more suited to carry the heavy load of irony the story lugs around like a fat stack of bricks. Now, finally, the story is firmly embedded in Cheever country. Though my protagonist’s wife’s aim is to achieve maximum hygge—you know, candles, good food and wine, soft classical music, great conversation—the perfect dinner party fails, and it fails miserably in the crudest of ways, because her husband is an insufferable asshole. It’s either the best thing I’ve written or the worst.
I’m ambivalent about the story, though. There’s a meanness to it that makes me question its merit. It feels as though the characters don’t really get a fair shake at being human. They are too busy rooting around blindly, like moles, in the barren soil of their own selfishness. This is probably why I’ve written an entire essay on hygge rather than try to publish the story. My real subject, it turns out, is happiness.
But hygge is an elastic concept, one that is warped a bit in translation. After all, happiness itself is an elastic concept. The Danes don’t have a monopoly on it (despite the annual “happiest people in the world” rankings). And let’s face it, like all things in our consumer-driven capitalist society, it’s far easier for some people to find the time and energy to be happy than others. Money can’t buy happiness, no, but it can buy you a much-needed vacation in Cancun. Happiness, like so much else in our society, is driven by class. If you don’t have to struggle for your daily bread, you’ve got a leg up on finding it.
The truth, you see, is that hygge is not happiness. Not really. Hygge is something far smaller than happiness, which is vague and elusive and dependent on more outside factors than we’d care to admit. Hygge is about finding tiny moments to feel something warm, something approximating joy. You can find hygge in your lives without ever mouthing the word. Next time you cozy up with your partner, friends, or family to binge watch some great show on Netflix, that’s hygge. The notion that you have to find happiness to experience hygge, or even that hygge will bring you happiness, actually inhibits your ability to hygge. You don’t need money to hygge, you need peace of mind. A quiet moment to enjoy life in all its sweet glory.
K.E. Semmel is a writer and translator. His translation of Simon Fruelund’s The World and Varvara publishes this October. His debut novel, The Book of Losman, publishes in fall ’24. Visit him online at kesemmel.com.