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Irish Hygge: 'Look what good taste I have, look how Instagrammable my house is'

Irish Tribes Today: part two in our series looks at how the Danish concept of hygge is the latest method of marketing our happiness, and explores how difficult it is to express unhappiness in our modern culture

There are differences between the way hygge is understood in Denmark and abroad

In the first episode of Mad Men, Don Draper tells us what advertising is all about: happiness. “You know what happiness is?” he asks. “Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.”

This is an American advertising executive’s view of advertising, and while it contains a kernel of truth, it leaves quite a bit out of the picture. John Berger, writing from an altogether different perspective in 1972’s Ways of Seeing, would fill in some of the blanks.

“All publicity works upon anxiety,” he said then. “Its promise is not of pleasure, but of happiness: happiness as judged from the outside by others. The happiness of being envied is glamour. Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. It depends precisely upon not sharing your experience with those who envy you.”

Between these two passages we have some indication of what happiness means today. “Freedom from fear” is a good start. But we also have an idea about how a certain type of happiness can be manufactured and sold. The happiness sold by advertising is that which solves a problem at least partly of advertising’s own making. It reassures us that we are a certain type of person, a person who has what others don’t have: taste, knowledge, money, etc. In an anxious world, advertising allows us to believe that we are, or could be, happy.

The most visible and explicit marketing of happiness over the last year or so has undoubtedly been through hygge, the Danish phenomenon that is usually translated as something like “cosiness”.

Hygge’s appeal is multifaceted. First and foremost, it is indulgent. It is soft fabrics, candles, sugar, the heating turned all the way up. Leave your worries at the door. An everyday part of Danish culture, hygge’s arrival in English has been traced by Charlotte Higgins to an article on the BBC’s website from October 2015. Higgins wrote in the Guardian that hygge was “a small island of cheer on a grim news day”, sandwiched as it was between news about school shootings, Syria, terrorism and cancer.

Meik Wiking, head of the Happiness Research Institute, a Danish think-tank, and author of The Little Book of Hygge, tells me that there are some differences between the way hygge is understood in Denmark and how it is understood abroad.

“Hygge is the one thing you can’t buy or sell or produce because it’s something that happens between people,” he says. “To us, it’s not a trend. To us, hygge is something between people. It’s an atmosphere first and foremost. It’s not about things.”

This immaterial, social conception of hygge could hardly be further from the heavily marketed version we have been saddled with here. “I have seen hygge used to sell cashmere cardigans, wine, wallpaper, vegan shepherd’s pie,” writes Higgins. “Sewing patterns, a skincare range, teeny-tiny festive harnesses for dachshunds, yoga retreats and a holiday in a ‘shepherd’s hut’ in Kent.”

This is just the tip of the iceberg; no fewer than nine books on hygge were published here last year. “I think lifestyle publishing is marketed really well by the publicists,” says Jeanne Sutton, deputy editor of Stellar magazine. “Every women’s magazine has covered it because there’s nine books out about it and they were pushed on us all back in September. You knew you had to write about it.”

Sutton says that trends are pushed on Irish people “especially forcibly”, and hygge was no different. That said, Sutton found hygge particularly hard to swallow because it didn’t feel all that different from what people already do.

“Irish people were already buying fluffy socks in December,” she says. “Every hygge spread was done with ‘hygge things to buy’. It’s like a status symbol. I think having a nice living room is a status symbol. I think people love Friday evening, photographing their glass of wine in their lovely house. It is all very performative.”

Sutton highlights two particularly important elements of our version of hygge. Firstly, the domestic space – which probably doesn’t include a standard-issue black leather landlord couch – and secondly, the performative side of hygge. To share our cosiness on deeply visual platforms like Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest is to say “Look at me, safe and warm (with my sheepskin rug and open fire).” The home becomes a backdrop to an idea of a life, a way to conjure glamour and inspire envy.

“You want somewhere you can feel really cosy and safe and you can be authentic, but it’s not that you want somewhere you don’t have to perform – you want somewhere you can perform unselfconsciously,” says Rosemary Mac Cabe, an Irish journalist, blogger and stylist. “You want a home that you’re happy to display on Instagram, or that you’re happy to invite people over or you’re happy to have in the back of your photographs. It gives you that warm, fuzzy feeling of ‘Look what good taste I have, look how creative I am, look how Instagrammable my house is’.”

Social media tend to reward the performance of happiness with likes and comments, and most people would be uncomfortable sharing the unhappy moments in their lives in the same way. Unhappiness is awkward because it makes us more vulnerable, more open. We’re not good craic.

In a TedX talk, The Dark Side of Happiness, Meik Wiking says that finding ways to express unhappiness within a culture that appears from the outside to be very happy, such as Denmark’s or Instagram’s, can be difficult. The general contentment – whether performed, Photoshopped or genuine – makes the unhappy feel isolated, like something is wrong with them. Danish author Dorthe Nors has written that hygge “also serves as social control”. The same might be said of advertising.

“I think we have a right to be unhappy as well,” says Wiking. “In the course of a life, you will have happier and unhappier periods. You life involves losing jobs, losing family members, illnesses, eventually death. So of course we can’t shield ourselves from unhappiness, and we shouldn’t expect to be happy all the time. That’s where we need to gain some understanding.”

Irish Tribes Today: The series continues

Tuesday

Digital Bohemians: The creative industries in Ireland, and the changing face of the Irish emigration tradition

Wednesday

Toxic Masculinity: How the internet has affected the way that young men perform their masculinity in social and cultural context

Thursday

Effortfully cool: How the hipster has haunted modern culture