Come 2020, I’ll be working for The Objective Standard full-time, but at the moment, I’m still technically a freelancer. Right now, every other freelancer I know is in full-blown panic mode, scrambling to deliver projects or to secure new, last-minute contracts to soften the financial blow that comes with the Yuletide slump that most contractors experience.

That sort of seasonal stress is hardly unique to freelancers (nor does it stem only from one’s career), and if you ask me, it’s no way to spend the winter holidays.

In contrast, I slept in this morning, built a fire in the fireplace, spent fifteen minutes crafting a meticulous cup of bulletproof coffee, and then just lounged on the couch with my dog for an hour before getting to work on this article. During that time, I received two panicked e-mails from other freelancers asking for help on projects that aren’t mine. I told both of them: “I’m truly sorry, but I can’t help you.”

I often look for life-enhancing practices in other cultures to fold into my own routines and traditions. This winter, I encourage you to look into the Scandinavian concept of “hygge” (HOO-gah), which Merriam-Webster defines as “a quality of coziness that makes a person feel content and comfortable.” The word itself is Danish and roughly means “to give courage, comfort, or joy.” Interestingly, that word stems from “hyggja” (HOO-gyah), an Old Norse word meaning “to think.” (More later on why this is interesting.)

The specific ways in which one can pursue or celebrate hygge are myriad. Thick blankets, crackling fires, hot cocoa, pajamas, and good books are recommended in any combination. Hygge often is interpreted broadly to mean “self-care.” It can be a solo pursuit, or it may involve close friends and family. It could encompass hiking through silent, snow-capped mountains, adopting a new pet, spending an entire day baking, or treating yourself to a gift that you’ve been eyeballing for months. The element that all such activities have in common is a conscious focus on and appreciation of their concrete sensations of pleasure.

To be clear, hygge does not involve focusing on small pleasures at the expense of your longer-range, more ambitious, and often more hectic life plans. Rather, it’s best understood as one part of an integrated whole. Unfortunately, many of us tend to overlook or underemphasize small pleasures in favor of grander or “more important” values.

This is why I love the fact that the word ultimately stems from a word that means “to think.” To fully experience hygge, you must spend some time thinking carefully about your life in general and how to consciously “live in the moment” without disrupting or neglecting your long-term goals.

The weeks of Christmas and Thanksgiving both tend to be hectic in my family, as is likely the case with your own. I see the same general trend among my friends, most of whom are, to some extent, stressed or annoyed when they tell me about their holiday plans. Many people seem to have accepted the idea that, even if you like your family and genuinely enjoy the holidays, some degree of stress is just part of the package.

But it doesn’t have to—and shouldn’t—be that way.

One way I practice hygge is by making plans with my family far in advance and letting them know that I’ll be reserving some portion of the holiday season to spend alone or with my wife, encouraging them to set aside quiet time for themselves as well. “Boundaries” is sometimes regarded as a dirty word when applied to close friends and family members, but far from creating distance in cherished relationships, clear and healthy boundaries can actually strengthen them.

For example, I have several friends who historically have spent the entirety of December stressing about fitting all of their social events into their schedules—a problem that I avoid (and help them mitigate) by embracing hygge. I’m known as “the cook” in my circle of friends because I love to make delicious food, and I strive to break my previous record every Christmas in terms of the scale of the meals I prepare. (Although this may sound stressful—and it certainly would be for some people—I enjoy challenging my cooking skills in this way; I even find the controlled chaos of a busy kitchen oddly relaxing.) I pick one night to host a grand feast for anyone who wants to come over, but I deliberately downplay its importance in the name of hygge, as a way of stressing that the reason I do this is to promote lighthearted relaxation, not to create even more stress.

Inevitably, not everyone can attend my holiday feast. I always tell those who can’t make it that they’re welcome to drop by any night the week after Christmas, alone or with a few others, and we’ll heat up some leftovers and have a smaller, more intimate feast. That block of time is reserved solely for such people. Similarly, I block off other days for family events, and still others on which to turn off my phone and play video games for sixteen hours—something that obviously would be a terrible idea as a matter of course but is great fun when planned for and fitted rationally into the context of my other values.

By setting and (gently) enforcing boundaries, I ensure that everyone I care for knows that they’ll be afforded some of my time and undivided attention. And the main reason I’m able to give them such attention is that I practice hygge consistently for myself first and foremost. By taking plenty of time for myself, during which I actively focus on detail-oriented self-care, I’m able painlessly to arrange my schedule and interact with others when I’m feeling my best.

It’s often easy to lose sight of the true nature of happiness, even—perhaps especially—for high achievers. Happiness is a process, not an event or a single, static goal. It’s the undercurrent of contentment and satisfaction that comes from achieving your values on an ongoing basis. Big, important values such as your career and love life properly are the foundation on which your other values depend, but devoting too much of your time and energy to those primary pursuits while neglecting secondary values certainly can impede your happiness.

Practitioners of hygge tend to focus most heavily on it during the winter holidays, but it can and should be kept in mind year-round. If you keep getting pulled into work when you’d rather be enjoying some well-deserved time off, or if you find yourself worrying about next year’s challenges to the exclusion of consciously appreciating the fruits of this year’s labor, I encourage you to delve into hygge.

Plenty of things and people could be stressing me out right now—if I were to let them displace hygge in my hierarchy of values. For instance, I was hoping to have the first draft of my novel finished by next month, but it’s looking like it may take another two or three months instead. Among certain members of my family, there’s a perpetual cacophony of irrational drama that periodically tries to suck me in, particularly around the holidays. And my wife just got hit with a $4,000 tuition bill that we should not have to pay (the people who administer her G.I. Bill benefits illegitimately elected not to cover it).

I chose not to let any of that dampen my spirits, at least not for more than a few minutes. I readjusted the time line for my novel, ignored the family drama, and paid the tuition bill. The underlying challenges aren’t life threatening, and they’ll still be there in a few weeks, waiting to be dealt with, and I will deal with them to the extent that I must—to the extent that expending time and energy on them promotes (rather than inhibits) my happiness. For today, there are more important things to do. There are brownies to bake, fires to stoke, and cats who need belly rubs.

Many people seem to have accepted the idea that, even if you like your family and genuinely enjoy the holidays, some degree of stress is just part of the package. But it doesn’t have to—and shouldn’t—be that way.
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