There’s a word in Danish, hygge, that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Hygge is one of those cool words that doesn’t actually have a direct English translation, but instead, describes some abstract and complex emotion or phenomenon. The closest translation of hygge that we can come up with is the feeling of coziness and warmth, usually with food and/or good friends. If I were a linguist, I might even venture as far as to say that the fact that the Danes have a word dedicated to this feeling is indicative of the value that they put on the so-called “Good Life.”
Linguistics aside, though, I am a big fan of this hygge thing. I think of drinking hot chocolate while reading a book in bed, or playing a board game with friends on a rainy day. In high school, I reflected often on the power of contentment and taking pleasure in simplicity. My senior year, I delivered an entire monologue to my English class about how my dreams hinged more on aesthetics than success. A New York City coffee shop, I claimed, would make me far happier than achievement and recognition.
In the year that followed, I graduated from high school, got straight As at Vanderbilt, joined as many student organizations as my schedule would allow, and hunted leadership positions like they were Pokemon and I had to catch ‘em all. Letting go of ambition, I found, was not as easy a task as it seemed.
It was a lesson that Alexander Hamilton apparently learned hundreds of years ago. After becoming a Revolutionary War hero, Hamilton went back to his wife, Eliza, and his firstborn son, Philip. In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “I lose all taste for the pursuits of ambition. I sigh for nothing but the company of my wife and my baby.” Cue the collective swoon of American women in the 1780’s.
Hamilton’s biographer, Chernow, on the other hand, was quick to dismiss this as “poppycock,” as “his career would move forward with its own furious inner propulsion.”
Sometimes, I wonder if my high school classmates saw my plea for hygge as a similar breed of poppycock, like the athlete who says he’s retiring, but then can’t stay away from the game.
Objectively, I have to admit that for both Hamilton and myself, it was a bit over-the-top to suggest that we would give up our accomplishments in favor of hygge (not that my accomplishments are anywhere near the caliber of Hamilton’s). But I also think that it might be unfair and simplistic for history to reflect that ambitious people value success over the mythical Important Things.
In a lot of ways, it reminds me of The Great Problem of the Modern Woman, the tug-of-war between career and family that we keep trying to solve even though LITERALLY NO ONE EVER WINS. And when I think about the fact that Hamilton encountered this dilemma of balance, it makes me resentful that career vs. family is a feminist issue and not an everyone-in-all-of history-ever-needs-to-figure-out-a-balance-of-what’s-important-in-life problem. But that wasn’t even the point I was trying to make.
I think maybe what we could all consider is that hygge is not a lifestyle but a moment, and that the desire for success does not impair our ability to appreciate these moments. Spending every hour of every day in a coffee shop is incompatible with ambition, but spending a few hours there a week is not. If ambition and hygge share a common thread, it is that both fight complacency: they both urge us to not throw away our shot, whether it is our shot at success or our shot at contentment. Maybe together, they could be enough.