(USA, 93 min.)
Dir. Rocky Walls
I’ll admit that work/life balance is an alien concept to me, partly because I simply enjoy what I do. However, I have definitely never experienced hygge, a term (pronounced hoo-gah) that the people of Denmark use to conceptualize happiness. Admittedly, hygge remains an elusive thing after watching the documentary Finding Hygge and I’ve now seen the film twice. It just seems too abstract or “out there” to have any meaning in my life as a Millennial who lives paycheck to paycheck in the gig economy. However, that disconnect between my life and those featured in the documentary speaks to the essence of hygge as a cultural mindset with a European flavour.
Finding Hygge introduces audiences to a roster of Danes whose lives have been transformed by recognizing and achieving this Zen-like state of mind. The consensus is that hygge is essentially a process of slowing down and becoming unencumbered by the pace of consumer culture—basically “unplugging” to an extreme. Everyone in the doc who feels they’ve attained or experienced hygge seems genuinely relaxed, happy, and balanced. The film is beautifully shot with the warmth of sunlight providing an infectious glow.
The film struggles to articulate its core concept, though, since hygge seems to be this shifting and malleable thing that might be an abstract noun or verb. Some interviewees speak of searching for hygge in their daily lives while others describe it as something one might prefer to do alone or with others, like picking up the phone and saying to a friend, “Let’s hygge tonight.” What “hyggelling” actually is isn’t really clear, however, beyond some extremely vague notion of spending time with a loved one or doing something pleasant.
The film might be a fine companion piece to Astra Taylor’s (much better) documentary What is Democracy? since it asks a range of people how they define and consider a way of life within their own experiences. Democracy might be easier to pin down since it’s an established concept and practice, while hygge has a mystical aura that lets it be whatever an interviewee seems to make of it. While Taylor’s discussion favours intellectualism and inclusion, though, Finding Hygge veers more into flowery rhetoric offered by well-to-do people who can afford to radically alter their lives and/or sit around considering their inner harmony without worrying about how they pay the bills. It offers a lot of feel good, buzzwordy banter that one might encounter on a lifestyle blog by Gwyneth Paltrow. To an extent, the argument to shed the constraints of contemporary cultural and “go hygge” might be as practical as Goop’s advice to enjoy a coffee enema and steam-clean one’s vagina.
Here lies the element that links Finding Hygge closer to Goop than to What is Democracy?: It’s a privileged conversation. Not everyone can alter their lives so easily and it’s hard to ignore the divide between philosophy and reality in this case. The doc doesn’t translate the concept/practice/philosophy into actionable items for viewers outside the comfort zone enjoyed by the interviewees. However, it will likely inspire audiences to reflect upon their values and lifestyles.
Finding Hygge will screen at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Wednesday, January 9 at 6:30 p.m., and on Thursday, January 10 at 6:45 p.m.