The View From Taft

A cursory scan of the popular titles in a bookstore — The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living, Lagom: The Swedish Art of Balanced Living, Wabi-Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life, Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life — and I can’t help but smirk.

Hygge (pronounced “hoo-gah”) originated in Denmark and Norway. It roughly translates as a general sense of well-being. Hygge is a feeling of calm, coziness, and warmth. The philosophy is all about “finding happiness and contentment by savoring cozy moments and drawing pleasure from the simple things in life.”

Imagine snuggling up in your sweaters in your room while the rain is pouring outside. Or switching off the lights and lighting a scented candle. And enjoying a cup of hot coffee or chocolate with family or a small group of friends. No need to spend much to be happy and content.

With origins in Sweden, lagom (pronounced “law-gom”) is “all about letting go of a self-indulgent, consumerist lifestyle and finding balance.” It subscribes to the principle of “just right,” not too little and not too much.

It means not having that second piece of cake if you are already satisfied, a balance between fullness and hunger. It means having only a few pairs of shoes, ready to be worn on more occasions than one, a balance between excess and lack. It means that while work is important, so are friendships and family, a balance between making a living and having a life.

Wabi-Sabi has its roots in Japanese Zen Buddhism. It praises “imperfect or irregular beauty.” It embraces “the natural passage of time.” It celebrates the “essentials and not trying to reach perfection.”

Imagine an old but well-used fountain pen, a watch that has seen better days but is still functioning, a grandmother who is proud of her hair and wrinkles and would not hide them.

Thanks to the hit show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, these life philosophies have hitched on its popularity and generating worldwide interest. They are now being marketed as alternatives, complements, or yet another choice on how lives should be lived. While these have long been practiced by the natives, non-natives are now learning how to translate and transplant these ideas into their own cultures.

The KonMari Method recommends that things and objects that no longer spark joy are to be discarded. Wabi-Sabi espouses that we should value quality over quantity, as things should be utilized fully over its entire and complete life cycle. Lagom asks us to take the middle road, finding a balance between our needs and wants. And Hygge reminds us that happiness need not be expensive, as it can be found in the simple things in life.

Now imagine this. You die, and your stuff is left behind. Your family is left with the burden of sorting and cleaning out your “garbage.” Most methods suggest you discard while you’re still alive. For example, in The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, you ought to start giving things you no longer need to family and friends, little by little, piece by piece, over a period of time. Every time you finish a book, you can donate it to the local library. A watch that you no longer wear, you might want to pass on to a relative. That suit that you have outgrown, a colleague may be too happy to have it.

All of these have a common thread. That is, living with less. The reason for the worldwide interest in these practical ideas is plain and simple. We are stuck with too much stuff. We buy too much, yet we remain unhappy.

Ikigai is yet one more concept. The question is simple. “What is our reason for being?” I think we know the answer. Just a little more.

And I have to suppress a snicker.


Real C. So lectures at De La Salle University. He is also an entrepreneur and a management consultant.