What hygge can teach us about self-care when changing drinking

Yeh, yeh, I know. The old HYGGE hype is all a bit overworked right now. I thought the same. It is just a middle-class word for lighting some candles.

But my mum had bought Jussi the book about hygge for Christmas last year (I don’t think Finns actually do hygge!) and I agreed to host a tea salon and thought I could deploy my now vast collection of Moomin mugs to great effect with this theme.

So I read the book. I found some pearls of wisdom in it that are very useful for changing our drinking habits. Especially at this time of year when warmth and comfort can trigger thoughts of cosy, comforting drinks.

The contentment myth

I used to have a personal drinking myth. On days when I finished a meeting early or arrived ahead of time for a friend, I used to kid myself that drinking a glass of wine on my own whilst reading a book or a newspaper was ‘self care’. I used to get a great feeling of contentment that I was taking some time to treat myself. The feeling was genuine and essential – taking time to relax is really important. But I had subverted my ‘needs’ as a human being to justify my drinking habits. Whilst this first glass of pungent wine may well go down slowly, it was only the warm-up act for a night of continuous drinking at an ever quicker pace.

As the nights draw in and it gets colder outside, we may stray to thoughts to red wines, warm spirits and even hot toddies as part of the annual ‘comfort’ routine. We would have practiced the mantra over the years that there is nothing like hunkering down, snuggled in front of the telly with a bottle of wine. We would have created a personal mythology around it. It is the companion myth to the ‘there is nothing like drinking in the sun’ myth, that allows us to use that seasonal change to justify drinking a self-punishing amount of alcohol.

Hygge sheds a light on UK socialising norms

For me the key elements of hygge we can draw learning from are not the candles and the blankets, but the fact that, through trial and error, the combination of light, warmth, drink and company are so much ‘fun’ that a whole nation has warmed to this as a style of socialising. Not the pub, not fancy cocktails, or high-pressure dinner parties. Simple, low cost and informal. Whilst there may be alcohol, it is the least important element of the event. In the UK we have created a style of socialising that is high pressure and anchored around alcohol – if not to get the party going then to endure the event that we are often not even enjoying.

Creating new contentment – hygge ideas

Recognising these social and personal myths/excuses/justifications is an important part of the change process. Take a moment to reflect how you use seasonal change and cold weather to switch drinks or drink more. See it for what it is. And ask yourself – is there no other way I can feel contented? Is there a way to feel happy and comforted that does not also mean medicating ourselves with vast quantities of alcohol?

Understanding that feelings of contentment and happiness are important to your well being is a start. Happiness releases the neurohormone oxytocin which reduces fear, stress and pain. That is pretty awesome. If we could do more things that made us feel happy, then we would begin to build a new set of tools to deal with all of those things we used alcohol to deal with. Moreover, if you feel your happiness rather than artificially stimulating it (and then dulling it) with alcohol, we may begin to discover the things that make us the happiest, and find we are in a more constant mood.

The theory is that hygge makes people happier because it is a combination of things that make us feel happy, calm and safe.

What makes you feel happy, safe and calm?

Whilst hygge is about feeling happy, safe and calm mostly with other people, it has a huge amount to teach us about self-care and creating a personal sense of contentment. Most importantly that it is not something that is bestowed upon you. It is something you actively create.

There are 10 elements to hygge in this book called the Hygge Manifesto, which is a term I like. It is a word that is something you aspire to and actively work towards:

  1. Atmosphere – In this case, candles, but it could be anything from Kim’s Disco bath to turning down the lights a notch or two!
  2. Presence – Turn that phone off and be present in the here and now.
  3. Pleasure – Warm tasty and special drinks, your favourite food even some nice smells.
  4. Equality – Share tasks and the airtime.
  5. Gratitude – It does not have to be complicated or expensive to be good. This may be as good as it gets.
  6. Harmony – People with you already like you. You have nothing to prove. Equally, it may be about creating some time in your household where no one is arguing and where your space feels calm.
  7. Comfort – No fancy dresses and heels or starched shirts and ties. Cosy socks and warm jumpers. At a push a onesie!
  8. Truce – Keep away from politics and emotional discussions.
  9. Togetherness – Share memories, remember the good things!
  10. Shelter – This is your tribe. You should feel comfortable with them. This is a place you want to be.

This is a great checklist for thinking through different elements that make you feel happy, safe and calm. But you could create a personal manifesto that includes other things. For me, when I am alone, happy, safe and calm means:

Reinventing socialising

Most of all hygge gives us an example of a different way to socialise. With a new sober lifestyle, you may be fearful that you will be missing out. But the reality is that you can seize control of your social life and decide how you want it to be and make it happen. The UK’s main socialising norms are all based on being with big crowds in public social spaces, dressing up for expensive meals and formalised occasions like dinner parties. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying these are not enjoyable activities, but some of these events will be boozier than others. You may want to prioritise the ones that give you the most joy, that suit your new sober lifestyle.

To fill in the gaps you could decide what social means for you now, and create new social events in order to start creating new sober memories.

The best part of memories is making them. If you have been a heavy drinker for a while, you may have found that memories were fewer in supply – and rather than making you happy they may have been tinged with guilt and remorse. Social events ceased to be occasions where you made happy memories and new friends, and instead forgot most of the evening and felt embarrassed. Well, now you have time to fix that!

Start some new traditions and make new memories.

You may decide to host at home and make these informal. Movie nights, board games, an easy to make stew with lots of nice desserts – sat on the sofa rather than at a dining table. Who would you invite? Old friends and people you want to get to know better?

You may want to venture out of the home and start to find your tribe. People who share the same interests. From sci-fi movies to walking. Spending time with people that share your interests makes you happy, safe and calm.

How can you engage the important people in your life around new traditions? Do birthdays always have to be big meals out? Does bonfire night have to be getting drunk by a fire? Can you create new regular events around nothing much? I now bring together my brothers with my mum’s partner’s kids for an annual Hilly Billy Fest! But you could do something special around the summer solstice, the last Friday in November, the first cherry blossom, your dog’s birthday or even your sobriety day!

Club Soda socials – happy, safe and calm?

Maybe we need a socialising manifesto. Rather than pulling on the standard template for socialising, we should create a manifesto for our events. What would it include? My headlines so far!


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