Stash the sheepskin throws and knobbly hand-knitted socks. Quench the candles, screw the lid onto the hot chocolate and let the log fire burn down. Hygge — the Danish lifestyle craze — is so over. Well, not for the Danes themselves, of course. They’ll just carry on being as hyggelig as they were long before a young British lifestyle writer happened upon the concept and put a match to it, blowing it into an industry of books, cinnamon-bun recipes, and artisanal felt slippers.
Hygge, which translates as cosy and convivial, was hardly something new. Getting under a blanket and drinking mulled wine in winter was common sense, surely? And why would that alone bring you happiness, as was promised? Sure, Denmark is constantly at the top of the happiness league tables. Free healthcare and education and a strict 37-hour working week will do that for you, not a woolly mug warmer.
It was, as happens so often in publishing, all about the timing. It was the advent of Brexit and a disillusionment with globalisation, and hygge, with its comforts and throwback to homely traditions spoke of a kinder past, simple pleasures, community, safety. It promised refuge from mystifying times.
Increasingly, we are turning to other cultures for guidance on how to better our lives. No sooner had hygge sent us shopping for reindeer jerseys online than the Swedish notion of lagom launched a thousand books. Lagom translates as “not too little, not too much, just right.” It is the concept of the balanced life, a moderate life, in which you don’t take too much from the planet, just enough.
Japan is emerging as a useful seam of life philosophy, what with Marie Kondo, the martinet of minimalism, inviting grownups to clasp their cast-offs — reindeer jerseys perhaps — to their chests and thank them lovingly for their service before tossing them in the Hospice box.
And then there’s ikigai, the Japanese way of finding your true purpose in life. It is said to originate in Okinawa, home to the largest population of centenarians in the world. Think of it as a Venn diagram where circles of what you are good at, what you love, what the world needs and so on, overlap with others such as passion and profession to arrive in the centre at your ikigai. The belief is that knowing your ikigai will lengthen and enhance your life. Presumably, Okinawans have very tidy homes too.
The ever-roving eyes of the lifestyle publishers have now alighted on Korea and this month sees the launch of The Power of Nunchi: The Korean Secret to Happiness and Success by Euny Hong. Nunchi (pronounced noon-chee) literally means “eye measure”, and refers to “the subtle art of gauging other people’s thoughts and feelings to build harmony, trust and connection”.
Hong seems intent on making the idea of nunchi relevant to millennials and so compares it to Game of Thrones: “It juxtaposes characters with extremely quick nunchi against those with fatally bad nunchi.” The character with the best nunchi by far, she says, is Tyrion Lannister, as he can sense when threats are real and takes them seriously. Almost every other character in the series has bad nunchi, she says, especially those who don’t care that winter is coming. If you don’t watch GoT, think of David Brent in The Office (UK version) as the epitome of bad nunchi.
Try as I might, and 230 pages later, I couldn’t see anything in nunchi other than plain good manners and being sensitive to others’ needs and feelings. One is not reassured by her mention of a Korean book of children’s poetry called The Fart with No Nunchi. The cover art, which Hong calls “a masterpiece”, shows “a drawing of a boy with ochre-coloured smoke coming out of his bum while other boys scream and run”.
So where might the eyes of the publishers alight next? To Iceland, where the ancient pagan religion of Ásatrú is said to be proliferating? With its focus on the old Norse myths and ecological awareness, and its long history of tolerance, there might be a book or two in that. Or perhaps to the remote Arhuaco people of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in Colombia, who worship Mother Nature and who believe they have the responsibility of maintaining the harmony of nature and the universe on behalf of all mankind.
With the global climate in crisis, and a promising line in woven goods, this has all the makings of a nice new fad.
• From the September edition of Wanted 2019.