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16 Dec 2016
Philosophy of Hygge
by Gary Burnand

‘Hygge’ is a Danish word… well, you know that of course, you are an erudite select few. Hygge means… boy, why am I teaching you to suck eggs, you know this too.

“Hygge… a feeling or mood that comes from taking genuine pleasure in making ordinary, every day moments more meaningful, beautiful or special”

I have a Lebanese friend, who speaks Arabic, French and English, all in one sentence. It’s how the Lebanese speak, because if you have that facility, it makes perfect sense to choose the most appropriate word from your multiple lexicons, to describe best what you mean. What you feel. It’s lyrical to witness, and melts my brain. It’s that pleasure of cultural difference and assimilation, and I don’t think we have an equivalent to ‘hygge’ in English. We should perhaps all use it from now on.

Hygge is as much a philosophy as a word – it is evident that our emotional responses come, not from our feelings, but from the words we attach to those feelings, which makes them somehow manifest. Words somehow come first. When I first read this word, it transported me to a portfolio full of images taken with ‘genuine pleasure in making ordinary, every day moments more meaningful, beautiful or special’. It’s how I remember my life… a feeling from a word that takes a picture that brings a word to a feeling. It’s a beautiful cycle because it brings back memories of the past, at this moment, always available for the future.

As I have got older, the reason for taking pictures has become a folded piece of paper, one part adventure, openable also as a memory. In fact without the picture I remember very little, but with it I can remember the wind’s providence and its chew on my face, the burning of lung, and the cramp of toes. Everything is in there, it seems my brain has remembered every detail of everything that has ever happened to me, it just takes the picture to unearth it. And when it does, it seems most of the time to unearth ‘hygge’.

From campfire dreaming in Africa, sipping a cup of chai with friend (and foe) high in the Hindu Kush Mountains of Afghanistan, to a cold ‘end of day’ beer with a film crew in a sultry Nepal, I recall this enormous desire to breathe in every molecule of the world around me. And I do so in the absolute knowledge that they will long reside in my limbic system, deep in my medial temporal lobe, and that after a little visual agitation those molecules will be released like a full throttle cascade into my bloodstream. It always works.

And it’s also a kind of ‘together alone’ thing. To be shared with others, or just with yourself. Both at the same time. I can remember so well the Sera campfire with Kisio and Julius, the search for wood and the sweetness of an evening brew, three parts milk, four parts sugar, where’s the tea. Staring at the Milky Way and the tickle of insects. It was all shared under an African sky, but my memory of it is mine alone.

In fact when I reflect and refer, when I look back, I appreciate that all these memories are made together alone, out of this desire to make the ordinary beautiful, to breathe deeply those every day moments. And this is why, this Christmas and beyond, we should all use the word hygge, because when translated into English, it is reduced to the facile ‘fun’, and fun will never be enough to illicit the complex simplicity of hygge.

As I think we have just affirmed.

A campfire brew on the boil in Northern Kenya.

Lying in a snowdrift on top of the Malvern Hills as the sun sets on a spiritual day. When I see this picture, I remember so deeply the absolute essence of the moment of capture, but when I put a word to that emotion, it seems all the more real.

All images © 2016 Martin Middlebrook