Hygge Gets Heave-Ho as Swedes, Norwegians Join the Fun

In fact, as he learns, Danes do smile occasionally, nearly 13 percent of the time, compared to New Yorkers, who smile less than 2 percent of the time. Everyone everywhere smiles less when they are alone, which may account for my city’s low scores.


Mr. Wiking’s last book was an international best-seller, the cream of a huge crop of books about hygge published in the past few years. (As the Financial Times reported, the global pursuit of the hygge fad and its devotion to spiced treats caused the price of cinnamon to rise 20 percent in 2016.)

The success of so many hyggelig titles would appear to have made Denmark’s neighbors — particularly Sweden — jealous.

Lagom: The Swedish Art of Living a Balanced, Happy Life,” by Niki Brantmark, an English design blogger married to a Swede, introduces the Swedish ideal of moderation. Lagom — pronounced lar-gum — means “not too much, not too little.” In times of yore, moderation (and its drab companions, low expectations and societal conformity) may not have inspired a lifestyle book, but today, particularly for overwrought American readers, moderation feels positively Venusian, though it has its naysayers. (Writing in the Guardian, Richard Orange, a British journalist who lives in Sweden, decried his adopted country’s national manifesto, what he described as “the suffocating doctrine of Lutheran self-denial,” with a plea that trendspotters not adopt lagom as they did hygge. If the trappings of hygge are cinnamon buns and candles, those considered appropriately lagom, he says, are more likely to be takeout pizza and Netflix.)

In her book, Ms. Brantmark extols the behaviors of a modest Swedish life: sleeping naked, buying secondhand furniture, crafting, eating lots of herring. And practicing fika, otherwise known as a “coffee break,” though Ms. Brantmark calls it “a sacred Swedish social ritual meaning ‘taking a break for coffee and enjoying a small treat.’” She added, “You can literally do it anywhere” (including the coffeeshop FIKA, which has locations all over Manhattan).

Following the practice of her competitors in the Scandinavian-themed publishing sweepstakes, Ms. Brantmark makes liberal use of Nordic vernacular terms like fika, many of which are portmanteau words or accessorized with fetching umlauts, and which recall the made-up subtitles of the ’60s cult film, “De Duva,” the gleeful parody of the oeuvre of Ingmar Bergman, adding some demented whimsy. (Across the North Sea, the Scottish tourist board is trying bravely to be a contender, tweeting out the benefits of its own peculiar-sounding word for hunkering down — #cosagach, which is Gaelic for “snug.”)

Beyond an obsession with coffee breaks, Swedes have other appealingly modest habits, like taking their bed linens with them when they are houseguests, so their hosts don’t have to do extra laundry, and eschewing both marriage and cohabitation in their relationships. There are cute names for these scenarios: Sambo is what you call your partner when you live together but don’t marry; sarbo is what you call your beloved when you live apart.

“Being together, but not too together,” Ms. Brantmark explains.

Among other helpful instructions — e.g. how to slice cheese, which, apparently Scandinavians like to eat with jam (they also put ketchup on spaghetti) — found in “North: How to Live Like a Scandinavian” are lists of behaviors associated with the different Nordic countries. Its author is Brontë Aurell, a Danish entrepreneur and cook married to a Swede with whom she runs ScandiKitchen, a cafe and shop in London.

Karl Ove Knausgaard fans will not be surprised when Ms. Aurell suggests that one aspect of Norwegian behavior means never looking anyone in the eye and taking lots of hikes. To be Swedish, line up properly, she writes, with two meters between yourself and the next person. Do not make conversation.

How to act like a Dane? Dress exclusively in black clothing and “be hygge superior.”

Ms. Aurell introduces a phenomenon she calls janteloven — or, the law of jante — which has something to do with the town in a popular Scandinavian bildungsroman from the 1930s and seems to be a societal aversion to what the British call tall-poppy syndrome, in other words not putting on airs or thinking you’re better than anyone else.

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Make Your Loved Ones’ Lives Easier and Your Own Life More Pleasant,” by Margareta Magnusson, a Swedish artist and widow “between 80 and 100 years old,” as she writes, is a primer on how to winnow your belongings before you die, so you don’t burden your family. Naturally, there’s a portmanteau word for this — dostadning (“do” for death and “stadning” for cleaning). But let us use initials instead. “T.G.A.O.S.D.C.” manages to merge two wildly successful publishing trends: the diktats of anticluttering gurus like Marie Kondo, the Japanese tidying expert, and the appetite for all things Scandinavian. Yet as useful as this book is — don’t leave your complete collection of sex toys for your children to find when you are dead, or as Ms. Magnusson puts it, “save your favorite dildo but throw away the other 15” — its pleasures are more Proustian than practical. Ms. Magnusson is the anti-Kondo, who takes us on a charming and discursive tour of her own stuff.

That which “sparks joy” — Ms. Kondo’s criteria for what stays in your closet — in Ms. Magnusson’s heart means a tender and witty reverie generated by an object before she gives it the heave-ho. Investigating her late husband’s snickarbod (Swedish for toolshed and sometimes called a mansdagis, or male kindergarten) she marvels at its harmonious arrangements — chisel, level, rotary hammers, pliers and hacksaw frames, warrantees and instructions filed neatly in binders — and notes the erotic qualities of its oils, pumps and rubber valves.

“A master of order, my husband was,” she writes, and then plucks out a hammer, some pliers, a yardstick and some screwdrivers, giving away the rest of his snickarbod to her children and their friends.

She writes of the inability of men of her generation to cope with housekeeping after the death of a spouse, and notes how death cleaning has traditionally been women’s work.

“Women of my generation were brought up not to be in the way,” she writes, “to not trouble their surroundings with their presence. This is not the case with men, who take the space they are given for granted. My daughter sometimes says that I am so worried about being a nuisance that my worry itself becomes troublesome. Men don’t think like I do, but they should. They too can be in the way.”

Those in Nordic countries may not be so unlike the rest of us, after all.

Correction: December 14, 2017

An earlier version of this article misstated the title of a book. It is “Lagom: The Swedish Art of Living a Balanced, Happy Life,” not “The Swedish Art of Living a Balanced, Healthy Life.”

Correction: December 15, 2017

An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of an author. He is Meik Wiking, not Weiking.

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