Footnotes to Hygge and Niksen: An Inquiry into Comfort and Contentment

2021/12/07 Notes (and one apology) about this article: I began this inquiry as a response to a book that I found at the local public library in my community. I read the book over the course of a few days, expecting to find little other than a standard, light-reading, member of the trendy “wellness” self-help genre. My expectations were mostly fulfilled. But the book managed to extend slightly beyond those expectations, occasionally, to include some ideas that seemed to be worth deeper consideration. The original essay was titled “Footnotes to Niksen: An inquiry into Doing Nothing” but has been expanded to include ideas from other sources. There is an audio version (somehwat varied from what you may see here) of the essay available on the Zensylvania Podcast. As the topic seems to be rather timeless, I expect to update this article in near future. As for the apology – admittedly, at this moment, this essay is a bit of a mess as I’ve been updating the draft from three different original sources.


Niksen: Embracing The Dutch Art Of Doing Nothing, Book by ...

While I may not be a particularly devout individual, I have a kind of practical ongoing interest in literature which attempts to systemically explore and define how certain core ideas and practices may be useful for living one’s life. I can trace this interest back to a chance reading of Moses HadasEssential Works of Stoicism (1961). That book offered-up several very practical ideas that I have always found to be particularly useful to navigating life. It is no small coincidence, therefore, that I might begin an essay about focusing on comfort and contentment as life goals by referencing stoicism in general and that book in particular. A focus on contentment was certainly one of the things advocated by the stoics. Thank you Moses Hadas. Thank you Epictetus. Thank you Marcus Aurelius…and all the countless others who ensured that stoic ideas and principles have been communicated forward through the millennia.

The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well by Meik Wiking is exactly one of the bits of literature that I’m interested in. It takes a core idea and explores how that idea can be applied to enrich people’s lives. I learned about Wiking’s book and exposition on hygge earlier this year when I read Olga Mecking’s Niksen: The Dutch Art of Doing Nothing (2021). So I’m featuring both of these books in a common exploration.

I am not entirely certain whether these were lifestyle fads that had previously escaped my attention or if I’m commenting while the fad is still growing. Not that it matters all that much. A good and valuable idea for living life ought not to have a best-by date.

Based almost entirely on the books, “hygge” seems to be the term used in Denmark for particular forms and presentations of low-keyed and cozy comfort which brings happiness. Niksen, on the other hand, is billed as a Dutch form of idleness, which also contributes to happiness.

The Dutch-themed book seems to focus on occupational or dynamic details of life while the Danish-themed book focuses on static or environmental aspects.  In this way, the two books and their attendant concepts seem to situationally complement each other. Viewed as an outsider, neither concept seems genuinely complete without the other.

A few days after reading Mecking’s book, I learned via a search of Goodreads that no fewer than eight books dedicated to the matter of niksen have been published in recent years. At this time, I have no clear idea of how many popular or academic articles on the topic may exist. Neither can I determine whether Mecking’s book achieves anything more (or less) than the others that have been published. For now, my exposure to niksen is limited to Mecking’s version and a very small sampling of online articles; similarly, I almost entirely reliant on Wiking for my understanding of hygge.

As with my other Footnotes essays…(such as my Footnotes to Be Water, My Friend by Shannon Lee)… the following notes and comments are not intended to be a formal book review of these books. There won’t be a detailed summary or regurgitation of the books’ contents. I won’t comment on the font, binding, writing style nor any other aesthetic features of the artifacts and documents. I won’t even suggest that my comments will reflect on all that the authors may have to offer. Instead, I am merely taking note of certain ideas and themes as they relate to my own particular pre-occupations and interests. This isn’t a criticism environment.

On this occasion, I am curious about what it means to…do nothing; and, to focus on coziness and comfort. You’ll note that I haven’t adopted the term “happiness” despite the fact that both of the books feature happiness as a kind of goal or end-point. In other words, it appears to be Wiking and Mecking’s views that one utilizes niksen and hygge in order to be happy. For me, that premise is problematic.

It is currently my perspective that use of the term “happiness” as an over-arching life-objective would be a misunderstanding, or at the very least a misapplication, of one of the most essential concepts that the word “happiness” invokes. From my perspective, happiness is a kind of engaged, activated or excited state. During states of happiness, neurons are actively firing based on agreeable, pleasurable inputs. Particular neurochemicals have been activated. As such and activated state, happiness seems like something one ought to pursue on a discontinuous basis.

Certainly, I will have more to say about that a little later on. But I think it is appropriate to note that this difference in focus is my reaction to reading these two books and is not intended as a reflection of any sentiments that either Mecking or Wiking may have.

Mecking spends considerable effort in praise of the Netherlands and makes the argument that Dutch people are “happy”, to some un-specified extent, due to the presence of niksen in the Dutch culture.

Meanwhile, Wiking explains in his book that he is a researcher at the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen; clearly much of the book is based-upon insights gleaned through that organization’s work – set as it seems to be within a Danish setting.

How do these claims stack up to independent evaluations? The 2021 iteration of the United Nations’ World Happiness Report places Denmark in second and the Netherlands in fifth place among nations – snugly amid several other Nordic countries.

Mecking doesn’t provide much verifiable evidence that it is the niksen which produces all this Dutch happiness. And for all of Wikings depictions of hygge comforts, I finished his book without much clarity whether the hygge is a cause of happiness or whether it’s presence is a kind of correlated manifestation of the happiness that is documented in Denmark.

According to the UN’s report, the top twenty “happiest” countries are Finland; Demark; Switzerland; Iceland; The Netherlands; Norway; Sweden; Luxembourg; New Zealand; Austria; Australia; Israel; Germany; Canada; Ireland; Costa Rica; United Kingdom; The Czech Republic; United States; and Belgium.

Given how many of these countries are so-called Nordic countries..and being a Canadian who has spent more than a few winters in the chillier regions of my home province of Ontario, it is tempting to suggest the cause of all this happiness may well be the snow and cold. Although that clearly can’t be the case with Russia currently sitting in 68th position on that United Nations report. But the focus on “happiness”, whether I agree with it or not, brings forward more than one area of examination.

For example,

To what extent is the focus on happiness and these attendant explorations of niksen (disengaged nothingness, idle relaxation) and hygge (cozy comforts) a “first world problem”? Or more accurately, a wealthy person, community or nation’s problem? That seems to be a relevant question. The person who has leisure to spend a considerable portion of their day figuring out basic survival may not have quite as much time to worry about the “wellness” benefits that may accrue via acting on distinctions between “niksen”, “hanging out with friends”, or any other form of idleness one may wish to consider. Nor with whether or not a room’s lighting is just the right colour temperature to support comfort and coziness.

These things could be viewed as a kind of extreme luxury of spending resources not required to meet basic needs and, perhaps indeed focused on achieving the engaged, activated or excited state of mind known as happiness that I described earlier. This also may serve as some  perspective on Russia’s ranking of 68, despite all the snow that Russia sees every year. But it might also quite simply be a demonstration of  different cultural approaches or interpretations of “happiness” versus “comfort” and “contentment”…and approaches to these things.

It’s not that I’m against happiness. Clearly we tend to prefer to be happy over many of the alternative states of mind that one may experience. Happiness, however, seems to me to be a dynamic (active and engaged) state of mind that is not continuously maintainable. It is my opinion that human biology isn’t set up for ongoing and continuous happiness.

As something that cannot be maintained, it is an unreliable goal.

Idleness, comfort and contentment, however seem to be reliable goals as they are more static and un-engaged, perhaps even dis-engaged states of mind. Comfort and contentment are not the opposite of happiness…they are a baseline from which we rise to happiness and other positively excited states or fall to unhappiness and other negatively excited states.

It seems to me that the “nothingness” which zen meditation stives toward is strongly aligned with this notion of “comfort and contentment” which I am advocating. Comfort and contentment is not a state of excited enjoyment from which there is an inevitable decline and it is not a state of agitated anguish or depression from which there is a requisite struggle to arise from. It is an emotional and biological baseline position from which the highs of enjoyment and the lows of suffering can be observed and judged.

This “comfort and contentment” that I advocate for as a goal seems sensible to me as it seems to me that it is a recipe for frustration to be constantly on the hunt for a state of stimulated happiness and probably disastrous to live life constantly on the defensive from hurts of various kinds.

The terminology of these books and the subject matter they cover seem to be adjacent, if not fairly thoroughly overlapping. As indicated earlier, the Dutch-themed book seems to focus more on occupational or dynamic aspects while the Danish-themed book focuses on more static or environmental aspects.

The word “hygge” is cited in many places as a Danish and Norwegian term for a mood of coziness and comfort. Interestingly, “hygge” seems to be cognate with or derive its origin from a variety of Old Norse terms that referred to comfort…and ultimately with “thinking and consideration”. All of this etymology and background provides a kingdof linguistic and cultural setting for the book. To project forward into the language of Zensylvania, let us also add the terms meditation and meditative.

In the meantime, Mecking has presented the word “niksen” as the Dutch term for a particular form of idleness. Mecking’s book and, by extension – the wider trend of niksen-oriented writing is based on a principle or argument that there are distinct kinds of idleness. And further that this particular version of doing nothing is beneficial to people. Perhaps even uniquely beneficial to people. A problem of approaching an idea like this is establishing a clear and precise description of this form of idleness and how it may be differentiated from other forms of idleness. Perhaps forms that may not be beneficial to people. In other words, what makes niksen qualitatively unique or different from: laziness, sleeping, watching TV, meditating or even in engaging in non-productive recreation?

This may seem to be a superficial and unimportant distinction on a superficial and unimportant topic. But I don’t think it is. Particularly as this distinction relates to that second component of Mecking’s argument – that “niksen” may be beneficial to those who engage in it. Niksen may well be a particular kind of idleness…but is that particular kind of idleness actually beneficial. And is it any more or less beneficial than other forms of idleness. This line of inquiry may provide valuable insights into contemporary life. Even if the insights turn out not to be staggeringly fresh, consideration of the role of rest in the maintenance of a healthy life is not unimportant.

Netherlands city map - Map of Netherlands cities (Western ...

Whether the Netherlands’ version of idle relaxation is any more or less of an art form is also a matter for consideration. But first things first.

Mecking acknowledges that she has critics who accuse her of attempting to capitalize on a trendy subject. And it may well be that that the current proliferation of niksen-themed lifestyle literature is all a matter of sustaining a trend out of nothing. Pun intended.

I’m not entirely certain that whether Mecking or Wiking have proved that their niksen or hygge elements are the golden keys to the city of happiness. It seems to me that these things are probably complementary factors with a correlational relationship rather than a causal one. I think Mecking and Wiking are really leaning heavily on one or two happiness indicators that have some cultural cache in a few specific nations.

Indeed, Mecking cites several similar trends that have present similar or adjacent social phenomena: Wellness, Mindfulness, Zen, Hygge/Koselig/Gemutlichkeit, Konmari, Dostadning (Swedish Death Cleaning), Ikigai, Nunchi. These are all examples of trendy social and lifestyle practices that have been documented and promoted across various media.

While I intended to avoid literary criticism, the title of the book Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing carries a faint echo of one of my favorite books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as it attempts to establish how a central daily practice or ritual, and its underlying principles, may be perceived as an “art”. I can’t refrain, therefore from observing a particular use of language.

Mecking’s use of “art” and Pirsig’s definition of “art” would be different. I expect Mecking’s definition to hove-to contemporary usage of art as defining a primarily aesthetic and appreciative practice rather than art as Pirsig intended the term. Pirsig used art as a term for the craftsperson’s creative procedures and practices. It is valuable to explore these types of distinctions as advocating a distinction is what the book attempts to do…a distinction in forms of idleness.

On page 28, Mecking explains that “niks” is Dutch for “nothing” and that niksen is a verb form of the same word. Niksen is therefore “to do nothing”. Mecking provides explnations of how niksen may be interpreted and provides connections to other concepts. Included in Meckig’s list of related concepts and conceptualists is the english world “idle” and the British movement of “idlers”. This is aa term I’ve already used in this essay and which has particular cultural and literary roots that I enjoy. As a sidebar, a few glances at the eighteenth-century The Idler essays may convince you that Samuel Johnson and essayists throughout the ages would have been thrilled with the blogging format.

What is Niksen?

In the first chapter of Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing, I can’t find any place where Mecking has provided a specific and concise definition of niksen. I was only able to locate that at the end of the book where Mecking provided a slightly campy manifesto advocating niksen as a lifestyle practice. But the definition is concise and worth quoting. Here it is: “Niksen is a Dutch lifestyle philosophy that emphasizes doing nothing without a purpose. Just because.”

There are some problems here that don’t actually help Mecking’s argument that her presentation of niksen is more than a merely a capitalization on a trendy lifestyle term. Maybe that’s why the definition was held back so long in the book. But I’m going to set that judgement aside in consideration of the potential value of the niksen activity itself.

From my own day-to-day life, niksen seems to be the term which would apply to… (particularly solitary)… time spent sitting on the porch. For me, that is a time when I do not actively engage in anything either internally…. (within myself)… nor externally (outside of myself). It is like meditation, but without the struggle of attempting to avoid actively engaging in my thoughts and without attempting to direct my attention as an observer of my own resting mental activity.

Is There Ever A Time When We Do Nothing?

Mecking spends some time in capitulation to the fact that there is never a time in one’s life when NOTHING occurs. There are always physiological processes occurring. However, there are times when an individual is not engaged in doing things. To present an alternate definition of niksen that establishes the activity in context of conscious activity, I suggest that niksen is “idle relaxation of a person’s physical and mental activity where the individual is in a process of disengaged nothingness.”

The closest we seem to come to doing nothing is when sleeping. Clearly our bodies are extremely busy with necessary functions and maintenance even while we’re sleeping – but that’s not really in the spirt of the discussion.

Perhaps the definition of niksen ought to be ““idle relaxation of a person’s physical and mental activity where the individual is in a process of disengaged nothingness while remaining awake.”

It seems to me that the definition brings us inevitably to meditation… excepting that my definition might have to be re-arranged to  say ”idle relaxation of a person’s physical and mental activity where the individual is in a process of disengaged nothingness while remaining awake and observing of the activity of one’s own mind.”

In this way, it is clear that niksen is adjacent to meditation and some principles of zen.

Comforting Light

Very early in my adult life, I spent some time working in a retail store which specialized in the sales and installation of lighting fixtures and materials of all kinds. We sold and serviced everything from table lamps and shades to commercial lighting and installed fixtures. It was a very instructive and in many regards, formative, period in my career. In fact, purchasing lightbulbs or (more rarely) lighting fixtures is still something I draw particular satisfaction from. Wiking’s book offers some reminders of the importance of lighting to establish comfort and contentment.

In recent decades, and particularly in response to the proliferation of various screen-based technologies like smart-phones and tablets, the impact of light on our physical and mental health has been the subject of more and more study. Indeed, it is now rather commonplace for people to be aware of, if not entirely concerned with such things as colour temperatures that they expose themselves to – and when they expose themselves to them.

Wiking includes a significant focus on lighting and candles. There is a suggestion that lower colour temperatures for lighting, let’s say around 1500K-2000k, temperature/colour is important to cultivate a cozy feeling. While colour temperature is somewhat cumbersome to navigate, a short version is that reds, oranges and even gold/yellow are relatively low temperatures while greens and blues are relatively high. Bright sunny daylight is in the 5000 to 6500K…and fluorescent bulbs you’ll find in office settings are around 4000K.

When I have needed to work under the glare of flourescent tubes, I have often found it to be a painful experience. Throughout my adult life, I have always preferred instead to use table-lamps. At one time, my office was referred to as a cave as I used only a single table-lamp. I have also used amber coloured glasses to bring the glare of office environments down. Currently, I used a moderately high temperature mini-led flood which reflects off the walls and ceiling and supplements outdoor natural light as needed. I don’t need more light.

In my Hallowe’en story (visit the Zensylvania podcast episode released October 2021), I contrasted the low-pressure sodium lights that dominated in the 1970s to 1990s…they were around 2200K while modern LEDs are 3000k to 4000k. Our city streets are less cozy than they used to be.

Eric’s plan to do…include more candles and revisit coal oil lamp; much of my first book of poetry was written by the light of an old-fashioned oil lamp.  House in Thunder Bay we consciously employed lower light levels. Current 100-year old house, I have begun to convert the old fireplace into a candle area and re-organized furniture to focus on this and it has made the room cozier.  The colour temperature of a candle is in the 1600-2000k range that I mentioned earlier.

Wiking suggests creating pools of light rather than focus on overall lighting. In other words, focus on indirect sources of light rather than a central overhead fixture. Switching bulbs to colour temperatures that are more suitable doesn’t need to be an expensive endeavour…and positioning a lamp so that it creates a pool of light also seems fairly achievable.

Manifestos

In their respective books, both Mecking and Wiking provide what they call a “manifesto” of their area of focus…for Mecking, that is niksen; for Wiking, hygge.  A manifesto is a kind of formal declaration of intentions, attrributions and goals. In the corporate world, the term “mission statement” would be roughly equivalent. I’m not certain how seriously one ought to take a manifesto for a life practice. Particularly for a life practice aimed at comfort and contentment. There is something a bit too rigid and, well, formal about assigning formality to something like that.

I’m not certain how seriously they take it either….

Mecking provided a slightly campy manifesto advocating niksen as a lifestyle practice. But the definition is concise and worth quoting. Here it is: “Niksen is a Dutch lifestyle philosophy that emphasizes doing nothing without a purpose. Just because.” According to the book, Mecking lives in the Netherlands and has many connections to the nation but is not Dutch. The book is a useful tool to identify a few features of Dutch culture that may be of general value. As far as I can determine, Mecking believes these to be: a) Be normal (i.e. not fake, exaggerated or artificially and gregariously excitable) b) Seek contentedness rather than happiness c) Be direct in social interactions d) Be critical of ideas.

Similarly Wiking provides a manifesto via a list of requisite ingredients…with those being: atmosphere, presence, pleasure, equality; gratitude, harmony, comfort, truce, togetherness, shelter

So neither seem to approach the idea of a manifesto as an overly serious affair- still, they included the concept which means there is at least an element of earnestness about what they’ve each offered. It reminds me of the literature I’ve read of zen  and it is a matter that I think requires some consideration. To what extent should doctrine of any sort – even a campy manifesto for kicking back – be considered to be anything more than a finger pointing at the moon? Are the static ideas in the manifesto of importance or is the dynamic experience of comfort and contentment the true measure?

Dutch Prescription According to the book, Mecking lives in the Netherlands and has many connections to the nation but is not Dutch. The book is a useful tool to identify a few features of Dutch culture that may be of general value. As far as I can determine, Mecking believes these to be: a) Be normal (i.e. not fake, exaggerated or artificially and gregariously excitable) b) Seek contentedness rather than happines c) Be direct in social interactions d) Be critical of ideas.

Is Calvinism to Blame?

The most interesting feature of the third Chapter is Mecking’s interest to pin the responsibility for the modern pre-occupation with being busy on Calvinism.

5 Reasons I'm A Calvinist (But I'm Not A Jerk - I Promise)

Mecking also enumerates the emergence of something called “New Thought” in the 19th century. She suggests this new thought allowed a move away from Calvinism and that one result of this break was the development of the wellness industry. Mecking further references Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class and conspicuous consumption and eventually gets around to the irony of contemporary digital technology which promises individual liberty but actually undermines it.

This is interesting as a tracing of the philosophical tensions that arise as a result of considering “doing nothing for no reason at all.”

In The Meeting of East and West by FSC Northrop, there is a contrast of values between what Northrop describes as the colour-rich culture of Mexico (set within a kind of medieval Catholicism) and the colour-thin culture of protestant cultures…particularly Anglophones. Describes protestant churches as largely grey/white….no colour, little statuary…etc. There seems to be an interesting link here to minimalism trends…no reason that minimalism must be white or grey except that this conceptually aligns with an aesthetic of omission.

It may well be critical to examine the ideas that underpin our choices. If Mecking and Northorp are correct that that certain theological and philosophical ideals have directed individual and collective choices….it seems to be a valuable exercise to consider whether “happiness” is a reasonable goal or whether “comfort and contentment” may be better…to consider whether in fact my own assertion that one may be comfortable and content without being happy but one cannot be happy without first having access to comfort and contentment…is a valid observation.

These observations may well inform our approach to things like:

  • How we behave from day to day
  • How we interact with others and what we expect from them
  • What we seek in our day
  • The food we choose to eat
  • Our approach to health
  • Our approach to consumerism
  • Our approach to life

Biology

Chapter four is largely an argument in favour of disengaging and allowing the brain to continue to work on a problem while you’re attention is disengaged. Mecking makes an argument that idle relaxation works with a person’s brain.

There is also an appeal to intuition which is a growing and somewhat troubling trend as it can lead people to the conclusion that “doing nothing” (intellectually) has a high probability of an intuitive process producing a valid and reliable (ie. correct) insight or solution. This is problematic for those who may in fact be intellectually lazy and therefore fail to ensure that their intuitive processes have reliable information in the first place. Garbage in, Garbage out. This appears to intuition also indicates nothing about alternate biological drivers (determinants) that may produce intuitive outcomes that have less relation to a given problem than some other matter that the subconscious sees value-in.

As with Shannon Lee’s book, Mecking leans on Czikmentmihalyi’s concept of flow. It is a popular concept. There isn’t that much science in Mecking’s book and mentioning flow is an easy way to connect with other trends.

Mecking’s Exceptions

Mecking acknowledges that some concepts from other cultures won’t work because the necessary support is not there for the transplant. What may work for some people in the Netherlands may not work for a different group of people in your town.

Wellness books are targeted to individual action not a broad social structure.

Mecking’s Conclusion

Mecking’s conclusion is focused on busy-ness…overall the book is an argument that busy-ness is a problem to be solved. The origin of the busy-ness problem is (at least partially) pinned on Calvinism. Mecking also suggests that ambition and flawlessness as ideals are growing in the Netherlands. Mecking argues that niksen has arisen as a tool to manage the complexity and stress of a busy life. Managing the complexity of contemporary life is one of many significant pre-occupations (or motivators) of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Mecking’s version of niksen is an appeal for periods of reduced busy-ness…more idle time that is focussed on leisure. Mecking also argues that worth/value is not connected to the number of hours that a person expends on an activity nor what is produced. Interestingly, Mecking has not recommended that stress and complexity be eliminated. Only managed.

It would have been poignant if Mecking had concluded, “If anything I’ve described here makes sense, then do nothing.” Instead, Mecking asks for people to join her social media group. Life in the 2020’s has its ironies.

Provisional Summary

In Surfing with Sartre (2017), Aaron James suggested that individuals would be better off, and that the the world would be better off – if more people were surfers who spent large chunks of time sitting on or near the water doing nothing much. Not being productive. While there are extremely reasonable objections to James’ opinion, the underlying notion is that disengaged nothingness is a valuable feature of human existence and possibly an essential one in the twenty-first century.

For Mecking, James and others, doing nothing is a necessary human process.

SURFING WITH SARTRE | Kirkus Reviews

And yet, there are features of human existence which conflict with disengaged nothingness. Survival. Earning a living. Social structures, institutions and circumstances with their own requirements and agendas.

Disengaged nothingness (as exemplified by niksen) is different from engaged nothingness (as exemplified by meditation). One wonders if disengaged nothingness is actually a goal of engaged nothingness.

Sitting on a shady porch on a spring or summer day. Staring into a crackling fire on a winter’s day. Lying on the beach.

Niksen is a kind of rest. It is disengagement from urgent and non-urgent demands of life and living. It is freedom-from. I suspect we all need more freedom-from.

Early in the essay, I indicated that I was unwilling to align with “happiness” as an end goal. In part this is because happiness as a goal seems unreliable. A foundation principle of the US “the pursuit of happiness” is ultimately unreliable because the bar always moves and it is fundamentally unmaintainable. A pursuit of contentment would probably result in more actual happiness…more peace of mind. A pursuit of comfort is not all that bad because it isn’t an all or nothing proposition. It is reasoned. Comfort and contentment are calm states where happiness is an excited or activated state.

In Zen, the goal or practice of “just sitting” known as “zazen” seems to be a closely aligned doctrine. Kodo Sawaki said “Zen is good for nothing”. So zazen is a process to achieve niksen.

The Buddha Mudra - The Bray Meditation Space

If you’re interested to learn more about hygge, niksen or the sources that I used while researching this topic, you may wish to visit the sources page on https://zensylvania.com/contact/sources/ and search for this article.

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