So, coming across this article about hygge (please don't ask me how to pronounce it, I really don't know) in The Guardian suddenly brought up a lot of questions for me. Taiwan is moving from being a deeply homogenous society to dealing with what is now termed "New Taiwanese" (新台灣人). Despite being a society of immigrants, I believe Taiwan's particular experiences with being colonised/governed by outside powers created a strong singular social identity, which is now being challenged as Taiwan has been opening up to the wider world and new kinds of immigrants arrive.
What does this have to do with hygge? Well as I understand it, Denmark is a highly homogenous society with high levels of social welfare (and the taxes to support it!) that is now experiencing a lot of immigration. So there are some parallels with Taiwan that we could explore to illuminate our own situation.
Here are the questions that came to me as I was reading the article:
What’s Taiwan’s version of hygge?
What basic assumptions of how life should be are there in Taiwan? What would you name as the core good-life values in Taiwan?
What values are used as social parameters/control in Taiwan?
Do the core good-life values mentioned about ever also function as a form of social control?
Can society only when homogenous? Can common social values exist in a heterogenous society? Are the only happy societies closed societies?
If all society’s member’s basic needs are covered, would that promote or break down social togetherness?
What is Hygge?
…hands cupping warm mugs; bicycles leaning against walls; sheepskin rugs thrown over chairs; candles and bonfires; summer picnics; trays of fresh-baked buns. To look at them is to long for that life, that warmth, that peace, that stability – for that idealised, Instagrammable Denmark of the imagination.
“For me it’s a lot about family. Being together. Candles. It’s never about being posh, about cakes from the ‘right’ place. It’s cake you baked yourself. It’s a feeling. It’s something that has meaning in itself, it’s not a means to becoming a better person, like doing exercise. I associate it with being a child, the smell of my mother cooking onions in the next room. The smell of the Christmas tree.”
Over lunch the following day, Davidsen-Nielsen and her colleague, media commentator Lasse Jensen, debated the meaning of hygge. “Intellectualism is not hygge,” said Davidsen-Nielsen. “Severe debates on philosophy and ideas – that’s not very hyggelig. Alcohol, sugar and fat are the three key ingredients of hygge.” He added: “It used to be beer and aquavit, now it’s wine.” She said, “There’s something about socks and hygge.” He added, “Handknitted socks.”
Hygge as a self-conception for Danish people
Hygge is also recognised as a self-evidently positive and particularly Danish value. Though the word itself is actually imported from Norwegian, its emergence as an element of national culture is sometimes traced back to Denmark’s loss of territory in the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was forced to abandon tracts of what are now Norway, Sweden and Germany. It is stitched deeper into its language than equivalents in neighbouring countries (such as the German Gemütlichkeit, and the Swedish mys) and is firmly entangled with the way that Danish society organises and projects itself.
Smallness and Equality
You could almost see hygge as the private, intimate analogue of the public, civic Danish welfare state. Both hygge and the welfare state rely on a state of trust, a feeling of smallness (small nation, small circles of friends), and an assumption of equality. Each feeds on the other: the welfare state offers the conditions for hygge to prosper, for it ensures a 37-hour working week and the time to devote to hyggelig activities; and on the other hand hygge’s disdain of hierarchy and conspicuous consumption imparts values important to sustaining a society in which stark differences in financial means are banished. “In Denmark our basic needs are covered,” Marie Tourell Søderberg told me when she hosted breakfast for me at her apartment – candle flickering, bread straight from the oven. “We don’t need to fight for our survival – and so we have time to do things that we find meaningful.”
Hygge as feel-good social control?
“Somewhere along the way, hygge became a form of social control,” said the Danish author, whose novel Mirror, Shoulder, Signal will be published in Britain in February. “It’s a little like ‘feel-good’ in America – the cult of the ‘feel-good’ book or the ‘feel-good’ movie. It’s a cocoon.”
“Hygge is … used as a way to suppress feelings in a family or relationship. Every time someone wants to address some kind of unpleasant emotion, this person is in danger of spoiling the hygge and will be told: ‘Now, let’s just hygge – which basically just means: Let’s just stay on the surface and behave hyggelig … It’s a beautiful thing, the Danish hygge. And it’s also a little bit dangerous.” Nors happily admitted to a little inconsistency, for she loves to partake in a bit of hygge (she has candlesticks in her office, for example). But, she said, “You should see us at Christmas. It scares the freak out of me. You’re not allowed to be unhappy.”
The suppression of difference inherent in hygge, Nors said, was not confined to family life. She related the word to Denmark’s historically largely agrarian economy and rural society. “It’s a very small nation – and we all used to be farming, although that’s changing fast. In this kind of society, conformity is really important. Hygge provides a way of establishing consensus.” Those who rock the boat, who think differently, who speak out – “they are spoiling the hygge”, she said.
Homogeneity as social glue, or heterogeneity as social discord?
But Kjærsgaard and her allies use hygge with particular, and deliberate, force, according to Nors, “promoting a popular image in which being Danish is about sitting round a table and eating cake – or pork. And, they imply, everyone outside that is not Danish – and it taps into a fear that globalisation and refugees will destroy everything.” The Danish People’s Party’s perspective is that Denmark is an almost perfect country, with its long history, its generous welfare state, and its cultural distinctiveness. But anything that threatens that safe community, including alien values and ideologies, cannot be tolerated.
The lightly encoded thought process, then, is that if hygge is uniquely Danish, and hygge can only be enjoyed by insiders, then migrants and outsiders will destroy the nation’s hyggelig atmosphere, and therefore effectively destroy Denmark. Lotte Folke Kaarsholm, an editor on the newspaper Information, said, “Of course hygge excludes. The whole problem with Scandinavia is that these countries can only really work if you shut the borders. You have all these ideals of kindness on the inside, but for our solidarity to function, you need pretty tall walls.”
Hygge, but what is the cost?
Carsten Levisen asked me if I thought the appetite for hygge in Britain was partly about a fantasy of what Britain might have become, if it had had the chance: Denmark as a kind of alternative, but squandered, possible future. Perhaps, but if he is right, it would be a wonderful contradiction. When Britons are asked whether they want a stronger welfare state and more equality – the basics of a more hyggelig life – they tend to vote “no” pretty hard. Britain is hungry for the accoutrements of hygge, but not the costs – such as high taxation – that come with it.