I adore my New York Magazine subscription. I know I can almost always read the stories in the print edition on my phone or laptop but there’s something about holding the physical copy in my hand and reading it on the subway that just makes me feel SO good. (It’s also just easier on my aging eyeballs.)
This week they really nailed the cover story… How to be Happy. Which is of course also available online so you can read it too. (But grab it off a newsstand if you can, if only so we don’t all wind up like the humans in WALL-E.)
The story is structured around the most popular course at Yale– Psychology and the Good Life. Why is it so popular? Because college kids are more stressed and depressed than they ever have been before. And arguably, so are the rest of us. The article takes a skim across the course curriculum and its structure. A huge chunk of the course is focused on how our brains trick us into making us unhappy and then moves on to how to rewire our behaviors to be happier. Our brains are basically sabotaging us. Which is depressing to even think about. My favorite takeaway from this portion was that 40 percent of our happiness is entirely within our control. Holy shit.
I will not go on to recap the article here but I strongly suggest you give yourself the time to read it. Which brings me to where I wanted to get to… TIME. The breakdown is this: people are happier when they have more time to just BE than when given some extra money.
Living in a city like New York, it is so hard to see the value in having empty time. It’s a city of hustlers, the city that doesn’t sleep. But filling every waking hour with work, with side hustles, with stuff just to feel “busy” is making us depressed. The misconception is that “busy” means productive and “free time” means lazy.
I have been so guilty of this it’s not even funny at this point. I used fill every wakeful hour with whatever I could. I thought I was being productive. But by the end of the year (for many years) I didn’t move the needle much on any of my goals. I had just kept myself busy and stressed for essentially, the sake of being busy and stressed. I was trying to match the busy and stressed out lives of my peers. Which makes me sad just thinking about it.
This article has come at such a good time for me. I have been exploring self care, meditation, and relaxation techniques for the past year. It’s insane to think that I have to research how to be chilled out, that I actually have to read articles about this to learn that it’s OK to spend an entire weeknight just resting… but I do. And if I’ve learned anything, it’s that almost all of us have work to do in this department.
Happiness and success in America have always been measured by money and by time spent working… things that stress us and depress us. It’s time to flip the switch and change how we talk about ourselves and each other. If a friend likes to spend every Thursday night sitting in a coffee shop alone reading our reaction should be “Wow good for them for carving that time out,” instead of “Shouldn’t they be working on their small business idea?” And the next time you want to spend an hour reading a book, let yourself. Give yourself the time and space you need to be truly happy. I know I am trying.
When I first read of Hygge — the Danish art of enjoying small comforts — a couple of months ago, I was thrilled to find a word for the feeling and environment I’ve been creating for most of my life. It turns out that my mother was quite a natural with hygge and I’ve oh-so-thankfully inherited her attention to detail when it comes to creating “a moment.” As this is the first time in my life a trend has come naturally to me, I’ve created this guide to getting your hygge on in a city that isn’t always accepting of staying home and getting comfy.
What is Hygge exactly?
Hygge does not translate to English directly, but is often described as the feeling or mood that comes from making ordinary moments special, of being intimate, and of getting downright comfy. There is a lot of speculation as to why Danes put so much emphasis on making home a perfect escape but it generally boils down to the fact that the weather is often terrible, there is little to do, and going out to eat is rather expensive. To compensate, they heighten the experiences of everyday activities and find joy in even the smallest things. I often think of Mindfulness when reading about hygge, as they are built on similar pillars.
Based on these definitions and speculations, I imagine the reason that my mother and I (and many people that we know) are already hygge-ing because we are not just American, but we are New Englanders. If weather and low funds ultimately created hygge then of course New Englanders are naturals! Why else do you think Yankee Candle is such a big deal to us? We love staying home and being cozy, there’s no doubt about that.
Why New York?
Listen, anyone can take these tips and use them anywhere, but I just find that the people confined to city lifestyles (read: few trees, very busy) are the ones who are most likely doing very little in the way of hygge and are probably the ones who could benefit most from it. Now on to it…
Take it Easy
Hygge is a feeling and it takes time to cultivate it. Rushing it or forcing it by going out and buying a bunch of stuff isn’t going to make you feel better and it certainly isn’t hygge. The whole notion is to take pleasure in the small things you already have or do and elevate them. Stay mindful. Apply the following tips to your life slowly. Light a candle once a week to start, maybe on Sunday nights, or set aside the first hour of every Saturday morning to reading. Start small and then grow.
If you don’t have the pleasure of working from home like some, you will have to face the commute home which is more often then not, grueling. You do not want to take bad energy into your safe place. The first thing I do after a long day is take my dog for a brisk walk without my cell phone. The disconnected, fresh-air bonding moment with my dog changes my thinking and eases me into my evening. If you don’t have a pooch, try getting off the train a stop earlier and walking home. Stop for some flowers or a warm tea and unwind your mind. No phone checking!
Make Home Your Haven
To properly hygge you have to go home and you have to stay there, so what your space feels like to you is an important part of the whole process. It should feel cozy and inviting. If you live with roommates, hygge your bedroom so it becomes your comfy cave of solitude. A good room is one that upon seeing it, you no longer have FOMO or the desire to leave it. You want to remain there for hours, totally blissful. Hygge objects bring you happiness; they give off warmth or are in colors that evoke warmth.
After walking my dog, the first thing I do once home is light the multiple candles around my apartment and turn on the string lights and LED candles I also have strewn about. I never turn on my overheard lights unless I’m in the kitchen (they’re SO harsh) and I switch into my comfiest clothes, including fuzzy socks. I leave blankets out for extra coziness. We all live in small places so there’s no need for you to go overboard with new fuzzy pillows and animal hide purchases. Take what you have and work with it! Here are some items that are easy to have in an apartment to create a hygge environment:
Candles… literally everywhere
Clothes that relax you
Lavender oil for your sheets and/or blankets
Framed photographs of your favorite people
Items from your childhood home
Favorite books on display
Succulent plants or cacti
Enjoy the Moment
Hygge is not just your environment but how you treat yourself and others in that environment. Take time to pause and enjoy even the smallest of moments. Indulge in being alive. Have a special tea or cocoa on hand, pick up a brand new book to read, take a long hot bath, massage your partner’s shoulders, share stories with your friends. Relish these moments as if they are the only time you have to enjoy them. The list of hygge moments is endless, because really it is what makes you happy, but here are some of my personal favorites that work in the city.
If someone invites you to dinner, invite them over instead for hot tea and intimate conversation
Have a special mug you only use for cocoa
Take a walk the moment it starts snowing
Spend a Saturday reading in bed
Bake a favorite treat that has less than 10 ingredients (or maybe even 5!)
Turn off your phone for an hour
Turn off your phone for longer than an hour
Stay in your own neighborhood for a whole weekend, cook dinner each night
Put a crackling log video on your TV
Instead of going to a bar, have everyone over for mulled wine and a board game. Make it an BYOFS (Bring Your Own Fuzzy Socks) event
Pop popcorn the old school way
Take a freakin’ nap!
Eat comfort food
Call your mom and get an old recipe…and then make it
Sure, I’d love to hygge everyday, all day. But we have jobs. We have goals. We have lives. I get it. We live in a big bad city with friends all over the place. I am not advising you to stop doing the things that make you tick or make you successful, I am advising you to set time aside in your insane schedule to just be. Remember what it was like when you were a kid and had no way to get anywhere? Couldn’t leave the house? Couldn’t drive? With a lack of options, you found ways to pass the time that made you happy. You read, you colored, you made forts, and played games with your siblings. You made up languages and took naps and dreamed of your future. We still need time for these endeavors! If all that sounds overwhelming for now, at least find one way to hygge during the day. Yes, it’s possible. Here are my favorites:
Take a 5-10 minute walk during your work day
Look at the people in the coffee shop, not at your phone
Sit on your couch for 10 minutes at the end of your day before doing anything else
Hold hands with your partner on your commute
Flirt with the stranger that held the door open for you
Try and memorize a poem while on the subway
Lotion your hands at every opportunity
Light a candle at your desk (I really do this now)
Decorate your cube or space to the most your company allows
Take your heels off under your desk (cheeky, right?)
Listen to your coworker after you ask them how they are…really, truly listen
Have one piece of chocolate and savor it
Melt a chocolate in your morning coffee
Keep a special tea in your desk drawer
I know we aren’t Danish. I know we are busy. But enjoying the smallest moments in your life and really, truly, taking the time to honor them is an important part of being happy. Stop yearning after the yacht, and enjoy the toy boat in your bathtub.
Three years ago I made a note to myself in my journal. I had been reading something–an article or a book– and wanted to boil down what I had read to a mantra.
The entry says this:
Work when you are working.
Relax when you are relaxing.
Write when you are writing.
And it is something I try to keep at the top of my mind every day. At the time, I was trying to do it ALL. I kept my days loaded with To-Dos and appointments and I would beat myself up mercilessly if I didn’t get it all done. I was overloaded and scattered — I got very little done for years. (Not an exaggeration. I drove myself crazy.)
I was busy for the sake of busy. Which I see as a silent epidemic in the US. We’re expected to be super fit, eat healthy, go to work, have a side gig, have a romantic partner, party all the time, have a nice home, have another side gig, have a hobby, volunteer, save money… this is a list that could probably go on forever. I thought that if I wasn’t busy, if I wasn’t part of the “hustle”, I was failing.
Projects fell apart. I spent more time making to-do lists than actually getting anything done and felt tired and overanxious most of the time. I really wanted to be perfect, or close to it, and of course it all came crashing down almost as fast as I put it up. It took a lot of time for me to realize that by not focusing on the present moment and present project, that I was ineffective and often times, rude to those around me.
Instead of picking a date night with my significant other and sticking to it, I’d try to squeeze in a couple of hours of work before or after our “date” so the day wasn’t a “waste.” When I was at work, I was distracted by everything I had to do when I got home. When I got home I was distracted by everything I couldn’t get done at work.
I was an inefficient wreck.
I was prescribed to the “do more” movement and I was a whack job. It took a lot of time to unravel myself from this mindset, to love myself unconditionally and allow myself to be a human. Humans need rest. Humans need love. Humans need to unwind after a terrible day or week. I had to allow myself to “do some of it” and be okay with that.
My little mantra can be shortened into one word and it is this: FOCUS.
By being present to the task at hand you are able to finish it faster and at a higher level of quality than if you try to multi-task it with another or if you are distracted and distant. In the past I told myself, “Write today, all day.” Which was unrealistic and I got very little done. Now I tell myself, “You have 30 minutes. Turn off the phone and go for it.” I get more done in a shorter amount of time because I am tuned in.
Also, another remarkable change was giving myself time to rest and recharge. To be lazy. To sleep in. To take a day off from the gym. When I am well-rested and happy my projects are easier to tackle. Slogging through a day at the office after four hours of sleep was hardly efficient and I had no energy when I got home to do a single chore or write a single line of text.
I know, trust me I KNOW, this is going to go against everything you feel is right. It’s going to take time to relax. It’s going to take so much time to be okay with not doing it all. It feels weird. I’ve been there. But I promise you, by doing less and FOCUSING on each individual task at hand, you are going to get so much more done and be so happy because of it.
But I had it in my planner that I had to write a new blog post.
And so here I am.
I tried for an hour to come up with a reasonable post topic. And in that hour I took the dog out for the night, made my lunch for the week, put on a face mask, did the dishes, and swept my floor because I got cauliflower everywhere while I was cooking. The rice is still cooling while I type. And no topic came to me except for the one flowing from my fingers right now. Which I am realizing is this: We Do A Lot.
Most of my readers are people like me. Dreamers, doers, fighters, and believers. We put effort into every single day because we don’t know how else to live. We make plans and follow them. We make plans and change them for better ones. We do more everyday in hopes that our lives will get better, that a stroke of luck will come our way and we’ll be ready to pounce on it. We do a lot and we’re never gentle on ourselves.
Today I cooked an elaborate breakfast for a man I’m seeing, walked my dog, tidied my apartment, went to my day job, walked my dog again, went back to work, ran some errands, worked out, had dinner, started drafting a freelance blog post, and then came the whole list I opened with. I’m not listing this to brag (at least not right now because sometimes I do like to brag), I am listing it because it sounds like a lot. It is a lot and yet, I found myself, while washing the dishes thinking:
You’re so pathetic. What an unproductive day. You won’t even attempt to draft a blog. How lazy can you get?
And on and on until I dragged myself in here to begin. We do so much and we never say “thank you” to ourselves. I hardly ever thank my body for working out everyday, thank my mind for getting me through a challenging day at work, thank my resolve for maintaining side gigs. I just keep pushing.
Of course, it is this desire to push that gets everything done. The will that pushes me to move ahead, to work harder and smarter, and get more done and find more to do. The desire that I love in me and that I am sure you love in you, my fellow Doers.
But every once in awhile wouldn’t it be nice to say “thank you”? To acknowledge just how much we do instead of always seeing ourselves as falling short? Just to say “thank you” could change our whole perception of how we see ourselves and the work that we do.
We do a lot. And sometimes not doing it all is okay, too. I just wanted to remind you (me) of that today.
I have always been afraid to be alone. If I wanted to nap, I found a boy to come over and take one with me. If I wanted to study, I had friends over. I even found someone to go to a 6AM Bootcamp class with me in college. We rode the campus bus in the dark together. When I was younger, people who enjoyed being alone scared me. They actually wanted to miss the big parties, the bar fights, the 2 hours of sleep before class. I didn’t get it.
I could always egg my quieter friends on to go out with me. I was really good at it. But, as it happens, we all got older and as time passed what made us different became more evident. Majors became careers, boyfriends became husbands or ex-boyfriends or even girlfriends. Everyone was making their own choices and now, they’re moving forward with their lives. Choice, after choice, decision after decision, they are shaping their lives. They’re being so goddamn adult.
I’ve been trying to shape mine too. I mean, shit, I even have this blog dedicated to figuring out how to be the writer I want to be. Getting my life together just seems like what I should be doing, since everyone else is doing it too. In the past year I’ve spent more time alone then I have in my entire life.
It’s been hard for me.
But it was also surprisingly easy.
All this time I thought it must be so hard to cut yourself off from everyone in your life and just work all the time. To hit the gym at 5:30 in the morning, or to write all night, or to take classes, or to even go see a movie alone. I was always a little bit jealous that so many people knew what they wanted and that they were willing to cut off other people to do exactly what THEY want.
But, it’s actually not that hard. Cutting yourself out of this world is easy. There’s cell phones and Netflix and Facebook and a million tools to make it easy to avoid your life. There was never any reaction to my turning down plans, staying in, working diligently. Everyone’s been ok with me just disappearing into the ether so that they can to disappear into theirs. That’s fine, I love goals. I think goals make the world go round. I love them but at what cost to my life? I’m not saying I need to be the party girl I once was, but it’s also not okay that I’ve been shutting myself up in my apartment all time staring into various screens.
Lives are moving forward and hard work is being done and that really is impressive. I know so many different people, with their different projects, just trying to get to where they want to be. I’m so proud of all of them, but I also want to shake the shit out of them and remind them of what’s important. I want to shake the shit out of myself too.
Maybe I can’t figure out what I want to do with my life because… Maybe I’m here to have a good time and to remind everyone else to have a good time. I’m like your Patron Saint of Having a Good Time. Work hard but also give yourself a break every once in awhile. Driving yourself into the ground will make you miss out on the good in life (love, sunsets, booping dogs’ noses). Also, tunnel vision doesn’t serve any dreamer or entrepreneur or even cubicle-worker. You’ll forget why you started, no matter what it is you’re doing.
As for me? I think it’s time to stop trying so hard and just work on what feels good. Write what I want, not what I think people want to read, and going to force my friends into having a good time again. I should write what I feel like writing and not what I planned into my agenda three days ago. It’s f***ing art, after all.
PS – This is not advocacy for YOLO. This advocacy for taking a deep breath and laughing once in awhile.