Sometimes single words contain whole worlds. Here are some of the best.
The Oxford Dictionary estimates that there may be, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words—not counting technical and scientific vocabulary, regional slang, or inflections—and yet, at times, there still don't seem to be enough to express exactly how we feel. It's times like these that even lexicographers like Kory Stamper, who know words inside out, end up borrowing terms from non-English languages. Words like 'kummerspeck' in German and 'sisu' in Finnish can capture entire worlds in just a single word. Stamper runs us through four foreign-language words that have no English equivalent, but will probably leave you with an epiphany of: "Oh yeah! That’s what I was feeling!" Kory Stamper is the author of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.
There is no end to philosophies on living a good life, just as there is no end to those wanting to sell you a program for doing so.
There is no end to philosophies on living a good life, just as there is no end to those wanting to sell you a program for doing so, in the form of a book or through coaching. The world moves so fast, the story goes, and so we need to reconnect with nature. Forest bathe. Long walks. Declutter. Meditate.
Not that I’m disagreeing with such practices. I like the philosophy of slow food even if I find taking eighty bites challenging and tedious. Long walks in the woods? Whenever I can. Meditation? A little every day, some days more successfully than others. Relaxing our pace is necessary. In a world of perpetual marketing I often remind myself the discipline does not depend upon the salesman.
Few cultures have put forward a lifestyle as chillaxing as the Danes. In 2016 hygge, a word that means “a form of everyday togetherness” in both Danish and Norwegian, was the runner-up word of the year in Collins English Dictionary. (It lost to the anxiety-ridden Brexit.) The general idea is to create cozy atmospheres in order to promote well-being—KonMari sans mystical obsessiveness.
A lifestyle, of course, is a way of being that accrues benefits over time. Yet in our trendy world of “next best thing” Vogue has already announced that the hygge phenomenon is waning. Cozying is for cold months; we now want something for the swelter. And the winner is friluftsliv.
Friluftsliv was dreamed up by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen in an 1859 poem. It translates as “free air life.” Like forest bathing—you’ll find the most information about it on shinrin-yoku websites—the concept promotes well-being through activities like camping and hiking. TheGuardian says there’s a bit more to it:
Practitioners say it’s more complex than that, and though it covers everything from walking and dancing outdoors to sleeping under the stars, it is in some profound way about communing with nature.
This is where snark is pushed aside for the reality of engaging with the environment. I’ve lived in cities my entire adult life: New Brunswick, Hackensack, Jersey City, Brooklyn, and Los Angeles, all places that make it quite easy to avoid nature. Fortunately growing up in a New Jersey suburb offered me access to somewhat rural regions of East Brunswick and Monroe, while working in Princeton as a reporter pushed me deep into South Jersey. I’ve done my best to stay connected with the actual earth, and not only on surfaces we’ve laid over it, whenever possible.
Los Angeles is certainly easier to accomplish this in than Brooklyn, considering you can’t miss the mountains or ocean. Yet still I come across people who live blocks from the Pacific whose feet never touch sand. Topanga State Park is only 15 minutes away and many—most—never climb up it. When roads are paved and climate is controlled with buttons Americans default to the path of least resistance. Yet we have much to learn from our Nordic friends.
Being an urbanite does not by necessity equate to sticking to level ground. One blogger puts it this way:
Although only 20% of Norwegians live in rural areas, even those who reside in large cities such as Oslo are surrounded by parks, woodland and fjords. It’s said that you only have to walk for an hour out of a city centre to be surrounded by wilderness.
Few people walk in Los Angeles, which is part of the problem. If it’s not part of your everyday it’s going to be hard to inspire longer versions of what you never do to begin with. Another problem is the lack of public parks in LA, a phenomenon Malcolm Gladwell takes to task in the first episode of the second season of his podcast, Revisionist History.
What’s missed in the selling of the lifestyle instead of the living of it is that nature takes work. Our ancestors didn’t always enjoy loafing on riverbanks and in trees. They were battling their environment every step of the way. In some parts of the world that’s still the case. Yet in leisure cultures we’ll take a hike provided we don’t have to work that hard or drive that far to get to it. And that’s a tragedy.
I’m a fan of cities. I like the diversity of people who live in them. I prefer to live in so-called blue districts for the simple fact that a chorus of voices and nations are represented in them. But it’s too bad that for the most part these areas are filled with buildings and roads and cars and excessive populations. There are plenty of trees in my hood, but let’s be honest: trees don’t naturally grow from two-foot wide strips of sod wedged between roads and sidewalks.
Adopting a trend is vastly different than living a lifestyle, and it’s hard to push against the grain of your immediate surroundings. Part of the key is finding people supportive of outdoor culture, which for me means annual trips to Portland and the Oregon Coast to soak in a tribe that lives for climbing tall surfaces. Emma Lavelle, the blogger from above, finds the same sense of purpose in Norway:
There’s also a general ethos of wellbeing that is ingrained in Norwegian society. It’s understood how being among nature can reduce stress, boost creativity and increase happiness; exercising outdoors is actively encouraged. Flindall talks about how family activities and socialising within work are centred on friluftsliv.
While publishers are battling over whether hygge or friluftsliv will sell more high-end coffee table books, the benefits of well-being accumulate from practicing the philosophy, not reading about it or presenting it for others to see. What matters is living it, not declaring it a lifestyle that will only be usurped by another next season.
There’s irony in even calling “the outdoors” a lifestyle, considering it’s where we all originate. Of course we’re happier and healthier in an environment that birthed us. Time to turn off the screen and return to where we belong.
Derek's is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Denmark's 10 Jante Laws are grim, and yet they bring so much happiness.
The United States of America was ranked the 19th happiest country in the world in 2016 in the World Happiness Report. A part of America's unhappiness can be linked to the social structure of the country.
Being American means culturally striving to be the best and going to great pains to differentiate yourself as unique. It is not enough to be on the basketball team in high school, instead you have to be the MVP. It is not enough to get straight As, but you should also take all of the AP and IB classes, and have as many extra-curricular activities as possible at the same time. It's not enough to work at a large business, you also strive for that cozy CEO position and start that ladder-climb early.
What does that have to do with happiness? Take a look at Denmark, repeatedly voted as the world's happiest country (although it has just been knocked back to second place in the 2017 World Happiness Report). Denmark's social structure is very different to that of the US. Danes tend to believe in something called Jante Law, which has 10 rules all around the idea of accepting the average. Quartz reports that Jante Law is everywhere in Denmark, even if no one is discussing or admitting it. In online comic Scandinavia and the World, the character of Denmark has been consistent in its exemplification of Jante even though it's never named as such.
Jante persists in the culture in every way and, according to Ourhouseinaarhus, even affects the school system. There is no competitive school system, no advanced programs for gifted learners. The schools must all be equal, and the students must help each other rather than vie for 'the best.' There are no rewards program, no trophies for the students who graded better. As the blogger commented, the Danish children learn early on about Jante.
The laws themselves are simple. They all encourage the idea that you are average, and that's just fine.
1. You're not to think you are anything special.
2. You're not to think you are as good as we are.
3. You're not to think you are smarter than we are.
4. You're not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.
5. You're not to think you know more than we do.
6. You're not to think you are more important than we are.
7. You're not to think you are good at anything.
8. You're not to laugh at us.
9. You're not to think anyone cares about you.
10. You're not to think you can teach us anything.
The laws, when written out, are meant to look horrifying and quite intimidating. They come from a book written by Aksel Sandemose, and he was trying to satirize what it was like in Scandinavian small towns in his novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks (En Flyktning Krysser Sitt Spor). When Sandemose named that town Jante, he gave name to something that already existed in practice in Scandinavia.
While the idea of Jante Law is culturally relevant, according to Lindsay Dupuis, a therapist in Copenhagen, it's not discussed in everyday life as a conscious practice, rather it's lived out — talking about it seems redundant. Why discuss oxygen intake when you were born breathing it? It materializes like this: nobody brags when their child is named number one in their math class. They don't talk about who gave the best speech at their work function, or discuss who's been promoted most at work. This is not to say that the Danes are not ambitious, they're just as ambitious as everyone else. They just don't brag about it, or stress over doing more.
“By definition, most of us are average," remarks psychologist Madeline Levine in her Big Think discussion of the topic. By the very principle of the word average, most of society falls somewhere between worst and best, and struggling against that only leads to anxiety. It's by no means futile to try, but intentions matter — do you want to achieve something, or do you want to beat someone else at their achievement? As Alain de Botton writes in Status Anxiety: “Anxiety is the handmaiden of contemporary ambition."
Psychologist Barry Schwartz has commented on this very thing. He's stated in his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, that it is necessary for a person's mental health to accept the average, the 'good enough.' This is necessary because it may be impossible to know if 'the best' is ever reached, and often, perfection is unattainable. It may be impossible to know if one had the best score, but it is easily understood if the score was good enough. It is impossible to quantify if one is the best musician, but good enough is well within reach. Schwartz has pressed that psychologically speaking, this continued push to rise above average has negative consequences on mental health.
… what happens is this imagined alternative induces you to regret the decision you made, and this regret subtracts from the satisfaction you get out of the decision you made, even if it was a good decision.
This means that Jante is, psychologically speaking, a far healthier way of thinking. To accept an average life means that one would get more satisfaction from it. To accept the 'good enough' means that one would have a far better experience with it. In addition, the Danish also have hygge which is, according to The New Yorker and Oxford Dictionary, the concept of being cozy and comfortable as a way of creating the sense of health and happiness. The Oxford Dictionary even reports that hygge is a defining quality of the Danes. That, plus the 10 rules of Jante Law, all add up to the low-stress environment that is Denmark. By slipping into something a little fleecier, and lowering your expectations you will occasionally find yourself pleasantly impressed when those expectations are outdone. All it takes is a sense of being good enough to be comfortable and cozy in life: Jante and hygge.