Happiness: The Danish Way

I couldn’t put down The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country. It’s perfect weather to stay in and get cosy (or hygge as the Danes would say) with a good book, so I thought I’d shared a little about this pretty entertaining look at Danish culture and society.

It’s light, digestible and hilarious which makes it easy to fly through its pages. It’s also the perfect blend of personal anecdote and challenges, and reference to odd facts, experts and statistics (I like some hard data).

And it had me laughing out loud from page one:

“There has to be more to life than this…’ was the taunt that ran through my head as I took the tube to the office every day, then navigated my way home…twelve hours later, before putting in a couple of hours of extra work or going to events for my job. As a journalist on a glossy magazine, I felt like a fraud. I spent my days writing about how readers could ‘have it all’: a healthy work-life balance, success, sanity, sobriety – all while sporting the latest styles and a radiant glow. in reality, I was still paying off student loans, relying on industrial quantities of caffeine to get through the day and self-medicating with Sauvignon Blanc to get myself to sleep.”

…maybe nervous, knowing laughter…

“I was 33 – the same age Jesus got to, only by this point he’d supposedly walked on water, cured lepers and resurrected the dead. At the very least he’d inspired a few followers, cursed a fig tree, and done something pretty whizzy with wine at a wedding. But me? I had a job. And a flat. And a husband and nice friends. And a new dog…So life was OK. Well, apart from the headaches, the intermittent insomnia, the on/off tonsillitis that hadn’t shifted despite months of antibiotics and the colds I seemed to come down with every other week. But that was normal, right?” 

What to do? Move to Denmark: officially the happiest country on Earth.

Russell, the editor of UK Marie Claire magazine and her husband, referred to only as Lego Man, a reference to his new job in their new homeland, (‘“you want us to move to Denmark so that you can work for Lego?’ Was he kidding me?“), move to rural Jutland, or Sticksville, as Russell dubs it.

Learning, via an expert, that Danes don’t believe that buying more stuff brings you happiness, (“ruling out 90 per cent of my usual coping strategies”), Russell decides to set out to discover the secrets to getting happy, the Danish way.

Russell explains that they really had two choices: to stick with what they knew; or take action. “The fact that I was dreaming of retirement at the age of 33 was probably an indictor that something had to change. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been relaxed. Properly relaxed, without the aid of over-the-counter sleeping tablets or alcohol.”

Arriving smack bang in the middle of winter she has her doubts about this world’s happiest nation stuff: “We’ve been exposed to the Baltic air for all of 90 seconds and the chill is gnawing at my very bones. My nose threatens to drip but then the tickling sensation stops and I lose all feeling in the tip. Oh God, does even snot freeze in Denmark?

World’s happiest nations? “Huh. We’ll see.”

They quickly discover that the Danes do things differently. Very differently.

Each chapter chronicles a new month of uncovering a different aspect of their new homeland’s culture – from the practice of hygge, the importance of beauty and design, to trusting one another (Danes literally leave their babies outside in their prams unattended while they say…, sit inside at a cafe. The explanation? “It’s like we plan for a positive outcome – we think ‘let’s leave babies outside to sleep in their prams and get fresh air which is good for their lungs’ – rather than planning for the worst.” This practiced in the US by a Danish immigrant is cause for immediate arrest, as recounted to Russell by American Mum).

In Denmark, a profession isn’t chosen based on how much money you’re going to earn. People choose it based on what interests them. Education is free so anyone can train in whatever they want. People know they’re going to get taxed a lot of money (50 per cent), so figure they may as well just focus on doing what they love, rather than on the salary.

They’re onto something. Russell’s research uncovers that there’s even a cut off point to the amount of income we need to be content (US$36000, after which we apparently get wealthier but less contented)(University of Warwick and Minnesota). Wealth, it turns out, won’t help us on our way to having a satisfying life (The Worldwatch Institute’s 2011 State of Consumption Report).

Interestingly there is a specific word that encapsulates the Danish attitude to work that literally means ‘happiness at work’ – the word exists purely in the Nordic language, and hasn’t been found anywhere else in the world.

Working hours are generally 8am-4pm, but in some work places by 3pm most people have left to pick up their kids. Even earlier on a Friday. And yet Denmark is ranked 3rd in the OECD’s study of worker productivity (“In London if we were both home by 7pm it was cause for celebration…They may not be working long hours, but they’re getting the job done”). Which makes sense given the research establishing that workers are 12 per cent more productive when they’re in a positive state of mind (University of Warwick).

“Answering an email at midnight or staying at your desk until 8pm was considered a badge of honour in London. But in Danish work cultures, this implies that you’re incapable of doing work in the time available.”

All of which entrenches the idea of balancing work and leisure time in the Danish culture and therefore opportunity to engage in sport/a hobby/exercise/being part of a club/travel/ life long learning (like a language) and/or some volunteer work.

Notably 53 per cent of all Danes undertake some form of volunteer work. With volunteering regulating stress and releasing  feel good hormones like oxytocin and progesterone, “there are a lot of happy hormones floating around.”

It’s not just that the Danes are achieving more work/life balance that’s making them happy, it’s that they’re able to be more whole hearted individuals. Russell notes that the research shows that true happiness comes from having meaningful jobs or hobbies, good relationships, and a sense of being part of something bigger than yourself (Psychology Today).

So has anything much changed for Russell after a year of living Danishly?

“I was having A Life. I could now sleep at night and didn’t have to bribe myself with tissue-wrapped online purchases to get through the week. I was at peace I’m even getting better at letting go – relinquishing control.”

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    1. Enjoy Eevi! I loved it!!! I’ll be returning the copy I borrowed from Kiama library any day now – so you might also like to get your hands on it that way! X

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