It seems to rest in the nature of modern times for us to search for liberating wisdoms in exotic venues, the more remote the better. The best proverbs all come in a foreign accent. Personal happiness can be achieved if we but drop our grubby habits and follow the ways of the Danes or the Japanese or the mystic de-clutterers or the gurus of mindfulness. Invariably, these narratives will contain an injunction to simplify our needs, perhaps find contentment in what we all already possess, disavow consumption of material goods to the benefit of interior balance, isolate what is truly valuable to the spirit… When our current traumas end, versions of this narrative will freshly appear, gaudier than ever. And self-flagellation over claims of national malaise will be as misguided as before.
The most exemplary lifestyles do seem (rather like footballers) always to be discovered elsewhere and overseas. There is, we notice, no lifestyle guidebook called The God-Fearing Ulsterman’s Everyday Laughter Almanac or Nirvana : This is how we do it in the Black Country. Lying on an antiquarian shelf somewhere there might sit a slim volume of gouaches entitled The Very Best of Geordie Erotica but we doubt it. To find inner peace back in the Sixties, let’s remember that the Beatles headed to Rishikesh in India for a heavy dose of Transcendental Meditation. The Fab Four were never going to just sit in someone’s back-garden in Rochdale and draw karma from a crate of brown ale.
Intellectuals, researchers and journalists are always finding new locations where the beacon of human happiness shines more brightly. Or they will today reveal new systems and methods by which to guarantee personal contentment. Every decent bookshop is, in one corner or another, a Pandora’s Binge-Box of self-help manuals. The ancients, you see, probably knew what to do but we have lost their paths; maybe foreigners hold the key, the offspring of the smart tribes of a misplaced paradise whose secrets only modern pop anthropology can expose. Happiness the Lithuanian / Aztec / Kashmiri Way : a book, a bestseller maybe, coming soon.
However, as we look eastward or northward to find examples of the smart-living / smart-ageing that centuries of the Enlightenment have somehow failed to deliver to Europe and the Americas, a proper sense of detachment is often lost. Any half-decent trends analyst – from the ranks of those who get paid to supply what is now commonly called insight to big companies or charities or government departments (and who get sacked if their stuff is no good) – will, if you can find one now, share an inhibition widespread in the profession.
As follows : gathering, analysing and comparing socio-economic or cultural data across continents and countries is an horrendously troubled task. For how easy and perhaps even inadvertent it is to superimpose clichéd assumptions about a nation’s supposed character to explain variations in response to opinion research questionnaires, drafted first in English and then (often wobblingly) translated into Finnish, Malay, Japanese, whatever. How reliable, anyways, is globally collated data about, say, levels of national educational achievement, citizen spend on healthcare, average length of the daily commute in the capital city, per capita alcohol consumption….? Well, it is often not totally reliable at all.
Moreover, never in any of the major alien life-philosophies – let’s note in passing – will anyone find the assertion that sipping premier cru Burgundy really is much better than guzzling discount retail-park cava; or that an 84-inch TV set with a 4000 pixel count and a 10-driver stereo system really electrifies the box-set; or that it is never ever really going to be fun, whatever the festive temptation, to invite the neighbours around for a drink at Christmas. Living prudentially into adulthood and beyond always just has, according to the most sophisticated advice de nos jours et demain, to involve a heavy dollop of asceticism and a conviction that human relationships alone contain the best kind of wealth. There is something baleful and self-deceitful in all this.
However, in a way, Ikigai, say, might be taken to be doing no more than gifting perfectly good advice in Hokusai wrapping-paper. If making things sound indigenously Japanese – ideas like eating only small plates of food, drinking green tea rather than real ale, disciplining oneself by daily meditation combined with exercise – glamourises such choices, then who is to criticise? But nobody ages safely if he or she is not told it like it is. For there is no magic pagoda where honey drips a-morning onto the lips of every waking sexagenarian. And, in any case, Ikigai-living gets us all only so far out of bed as each new day dawns. We need other stuff too and not just stuff for the soul. Most emphatically, the La-La Land of the Rising Sun is not there. Never has been.
In this vein, what are the attractions of or limits to, say, Hygge for the oldies in our midst? Well, no-one is going to argue against fragrant candles in the hallway, an open fireplace, a single onesie into which all your friends can fit for an evening full of cuddles – and all the other attractive aspects of the Danish way of life, as it has been reported to us. Of course, Hygge – which we might loosely define as the creation and maintenance of emotionally enriching atmospheres for the day to day – is not at all directed exclusively at the over-65s. But in its content it does paraphrase so much of the workaday advice given to the greys : savour what you have, keep your appetites under control, share your inner peace, avoid conflict, stay cosy and out of the cold. All very super-topical at the moment (Springtime 2020).
But, you know, the whole proposition of Rinkli Funstaz is that a certain amount of aggressiveness is required to age well.
Once again, to the extent that the craze that was Hygge makes any of us reflect on the features of our own lives which could be improved then it has been useful. But in the fullest, most pejorative if old-fashioned use of the word, there is something disturbingly bourgeois about this story and all its cousins. It’s as if the big casserole dish of life has already been filled with the most nutritious meats and spices and all you, the punter of a certain age, has to do is put a match to the gas. But the elder existence can be as much about loss, renewal, longing and challenge as it might be about harmony and relaxation. Things like Hygge are specially good if they calm the stresses of the young. But might they unduly sedate the still thrustworthy greys?
Besides, Denmark is an economic powerhouse in which there is a very high welfare function (expressed in its government’s ability to fund healthcare, education, social services of all kinds). The USA, for its part, does not (by its own electoral/political choosing) have the same redistributive capacity or inclination – even though it might be measured as slightly wealthier overall. The Danish state makes things cosy in Copenhagen; she is the big Hygge-maker in the sky.
Again, the belief that the best life-secrets have been found by foreigners, by people who do not share our crude materialism, who have cracked the enigma of earth-bound well-being – well, all this needs a heavy dose of penetrative de-sentimentalising, no?
With this wee story in mind, we turn unctuously to the philosophy of Döstädning which is apparently Swedish for “death-clearing”. A version of its core premise would be as follows : as you get older, you must accept the responsibility to reduce your personal footprint specifically by stripping / pruning your home (and in a sense your mind) of any no-longer-required possessions. If you do not take such responsibility, then it will fall on others – family-members, old friends, caretakers, perhaps even complete strangers… And that would be ungodly.
For how much patience will such folks have? How much reverence for your books and soft furnishings and love letters? Will your name be posthumously cursed as some surly somebody drives your thirteen king-size, spilling-over crates to the municipal dump (where everything will have to be put in the correct skip or else that somebody gets fined)?
Döstädning is elevated into an old-age guidance manual by the author Margareta Magnusson in her The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning (2017). In fact, there is nothing particularly Swedish about it all – though once again we have all been induced into the presumption that cultural Scandinaviation is probably going to be superior to anything home-grown. Whatever, it is hard to slap the central proposition here, ie that a surfeit of even the most cosily familiar things will sooner or later do harm. But, course, that said, the story is liable to get a wee bit too dark.
To wit : De-sentimentalisation for those who are totting up the decades is, in truth, as pain-free as periodontal therapy. We all know people who have been moved to begin a dose of Döstädning only to go back to the dustbin later that day to scrape clean those old student essays on Wordsworth’s use of imagery and bring them back into the house. It takes courage to airbrush the tired parts of your life and it is a process that promises economy and elegance and control. But it has its limits.
How many of us have this very day on our bookshelf a copy of a tourist guide to Paris for the year, say, 1998 (or perhaps earlier)? While the Seine and the Eiffel Tower are probably still there today, much will, one can safely assume, otherwise have changed down on those streets. That favourite old bistro will have long since been turned into un bar à vape with a sex shop in the basement that smells disobligingly of cherry and eucalyptus. It actually does take strength to discard something that has the sentimental-value label stuck to it. But if you were forced into exile tomorrow, told you had to leave your home within an hour but allowed to fill hand-luggage with your precious objects, would you pack the Paris Guide? If not, what is it doing in your living-room – except nibbling your very soul?
In her most striking reflection, Margareta Magnusson addresses the question of what to do with the more delicate of one’s personal possessions. No point in leaving them lying around to upset family members after you have boarded the midnight express. So : “save your favourite dildo (sic) but throw away the other fifteen!”. Who could disagree that this is very sound advice for people of all ages?
Well, the answer exposes something of the problem with philosophies like Lagom.
Let’s remind ourselves that this is a practical philosophy drawn from a detached observation of Swedish lifestyles, an observation which confirms that Swedes are culturally programmed to abhor excess and to celebrate moderation. Restraint is always better than over-indulgence – that is the essential message.
Lagom is OK but it’s just not big enough to fill the later decades on its own. To read the modern populist literature of de-cluttering is enter a world where there are, it seems, no dildos in granny’s wardrobe, never have been and never will be.
At heart, the de-clutter imperative is directed at old folks who have probably been foolish over-accumulators for years; yet sometimes the presence of clutter indicates that its owner is desperately searching for meaning and should be given the permission to continue to experiment. What could be more insensitive that telling your sad, recently bereaved grandmother that it is just bound to be good for her karma to throw out her old jewellery or all the shoe-boxed Christmas cards from the 1970s. The oldie good life is one in which a surge of glory is still possible, in which a splurge of new love can still be found, in which the permission is with one to let oneself go at least every now and then. Minimalism is good for as long as it is preceded by the word romantic. Not : let me die a young man’s death – but let me have a crack at a young man’s life. And yes, bin the useless old guide to a Paris which no longer exits but replace it with a contemporary guide to Ibiza, when travel options return.
Besides, the thing is that death-cleaning should really be pronounced life-cleaning. The story refers not solely to how politely you would like to die but how raucously you would like to live. It is our heresy here that self-denial is as bad as excess.
Too often the happiness guru will deprecate the non-spiritual aspects and adornments of life. But if you can, then do buy designer underwear, visit the Loire chateaux, learn to cook Peruvian recipes, devour box sets about the Sinaloa cartel, take advantage of any financial surplus you have created… Day to day contentment and comfort are a lot more reliable that perfect inner calm. All the smart cookies from the past wrote about ageing when ageing was a blink not a lifetime in itself. It was once good to find inner peace when the interview with St. Peter was imminent but when thirty years are left to run it is not quite the same groove.
When you are sixty-five, happiness is to be found down the same corridors as the ones frequented by your twenty-five year old self. Yes, do not clutter. But furnish. Furnish for the long haul. And beware comparisons with other tribes for they suffer, they hope, they thrive in exactly the same ways as you. Yes, you, you there in Kilmarnock, Goole, Hampstead, wherever.