My 21-year-old son got home 3 days ago from a semester spent in Copenhagen, on a study abroad program sponsored by Southern Methodist University (where I teach and he attends). He showed us pictures from the 10 European countries he’d traveled to between January and May. He told us about courses he’d taken in urban design, global economics and the Holocaust, trips he’d made to Carnival in Venice, a death camp in Germany, canoeing in Sweden and skiing in the Alps. He told us about his life with his Danish host family who invited him to dinner frequently and took him on field trips. Back in our suburban Dallas home, his American father grilled steaks on the patio and I wondered how long it would take him to get bored with suburban Texas life after life in Copenhagen.
Our convenience oriented, car-driven culture in suburban Texas is a far cry from life in Denmark — which, according to my recently returned raconteur, features some of the following: riding a bike or walking just about everywhere. having lights that go on and off automatically, recycling all glass bottles, drinking tap water, being able to let your baby in its stroller bask in the sun a bit while you go in and pick up a few groceries for tonight’s meal, beautiful public spaces, green parks where people enjoy leisure time, high-speed andd clean trains, not being obsessed with work to the point that family and leisure are devalued, and, by all accounts, a happiness factor that exceeds ours. And Matt mentioned something called hygge (hoo-guh), which I had never heard of.
I felt motivated by our conversations to do a little research on Danish culture online and, sure enough, Matt’s perceptions seemed on target. Danish cultural etiquette is marked by modesty, punctuality and equality. Attempts to assert oneself over others are viewed with suspicion. It turns out that hygge , which translates “coziness”, or, more accurately, “tranquility,” is a complete absence of anything annoying, irritating, or emotionally overwhelming, and the presence of and pleasure from comforting, gentle and soothing things. Hygge is associated with family and close friends. It has to do with sitting with candles lit on a cold rainy night or eating a leisurely meal together on a long summer evening. Hygge is a deeply valued traditional concept of Danish culture.
This started me wondering why, in the Bible belt, my own life doesn’t have as much hygge as the Danes. I discovered that someone has written about this very question. In his 2008 book, “Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Tell us about Contentment,” Phil Zuckerman (who lived in Denmark from 2005-2006) seeks to account for the fact that Denmark and Sweden have such high contentment quotients in light of the fact that worship of God and church attendance are minimal. His book is, in part, an attempt to counter conservative Christian pundits (Pat Robertson, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, William Bennett, Bill O’Reilly, and Paul Weyrich) who swear that a society without God is hell on earth. No, says Zuckerman, based on his experience in Scandinavia. Life in an irreligious democracy can actually be quite pleasant and civil. Denmark and Sweden are strong, safe, healthy, moral, prosperous societies. Unlike countries that have had atheism forced up them by threatening, violent political regimes (China, Albania, the former Soviet Union, Albania) these two countries have evolved into pockets of minimal religious observation of their own accord.
How, wonders Zuckerman, do they deal with questions about the meaning of life and the approach of death? His basic findings are that Danes seem to focus on gratitude for the pleasures and gifts of life right now: family, work, and the beauties of the natural world. They are more interested in their family, home, bikes, careers, weather, and favorite British or Brazilian soccer players than questions of the meaning of life and the existence of heaven and hell. Many of the people he interviewed did not seem fearful about the fact of physical death or particularly curious about whether it was the end of life or if there was an afterlife. They seem to accept both death and the unpleasantness and loss that life can bring as part of the way things are.
It is interesting to see one’ own life (in the context of one’s culture) through the lens of someone with recent, firsthand experience of another cultural context. I know that I am driven by the Protestant work ethic in my vocation as a Professor of Preaching, always striving to learn more and speak more effectively and teach others to do the same. I spend just about all my time thinking about the meaning of life and the significance of the Bible and better ways to share the good news of Jesus Christ. I derive meaning, joy and purpose from my faith. But it’s hard for me to look up from my list of things to do long enough to live in the moment or bask in relationships. It’s hard for me to shift my focus from goals to gratitude for the gift of life in the here and now.
As we sat at a stoplight at a busy intersection in our day of errand running, Matt said, “I feel more stressed since I’ve gotten back.”
“I can see why,” I said. After a pause, I asked him, “Is there anything about life here you prefer to Denmark?”
“Well, Denmark is not a perfect place. They’re provided with a lot and it can tend to take away initiative. We have lots of initiative here. We like to get things done here. And life is more convenient.”
Living in Denmark has had an impact on my son. I predict that he will seek a life that is more communal and relational than the life of individual-achievement-at-all-costs that is a popular version (or perversion) of the American Dream. I don’t think he’s going to lose his initiative, but I think he is going to seek a life that is more about experiencing hygge and less about being harried. As for me, well, this essay is not about me.
Alyce McKenzie is Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.