I shot through this on the weekend. A delightful read that had me google searching the author, Helen Russell, for more Helen Russell pov. Turns out she writes for The Guardian and, according to her website, has a new book coming out in December, also a sort of how to find happiness type thing. It’s a genre I don’t read a lot because I’m already pretty jolly most of the time. The book was mentioned in an article about hygge, the Danish word for coziness or comfort, although it’s more than that… it’s a state of mind, a state of being, a lifestyle, a homestyle, an all-encompassing thing that has no equivalent word in English.
I wanted to know more.
Hygge sounded awfully appealing.
Enter The Year of Living Danishly which is written in a very breezy, but not too annoyingly (although it gets a little close at times) conversational tone, in monthly chapters that cover the year the author lives in rural Denmark. She decides to use the time to write a book on what makes this supposedly happiest country in the world tick. To that end she talks to people in various fields and presents some stats. As well, she asks people to rate their happiness out of ten. Turns out no one she spoke with is less than eight. Pretty much every agrees the secret is equality, that everyone is equally well off.
Equality is big in Denmark. And it appears to be the key to finding hygge…. and happiness. Everyone is equal, regardless of age, status, job. There is no hierarchy. Jante’s Law is gospel.
For instance, everyone earns a fair wage and a doctor or lawyer or banker is not seen as a higher status job or more important than a grocery clerk or garbage collector or teacher. Especially not a teacher. There is apparently such an extraordinary focus on learning that it makes your eyes water to think how brilliant schools can be when people take it seriously.
And it starts from the get-go. And the children learn more than finger-painting. They are, apparently, encouraged to think, to question authority even. A tendency that may have its roots in the German occupation of Denmark in WWII, after which it was seen as essential to teach children to go against authority if they didn’t agree with what they were being told.
“ …We wanted citizens who were democratic and could have their own ideas, so self-development is a big part of learning in Denmark.”
Almost 90 percent of packaging is recycled and people take recycling very seriously to the point of neighbours knocking on a newcomer’s door to explain if they’re not separating things correctly.
There is extraordinary healthcare and assistance in caring for children.
There is a refreshing absence of blue for boys and pink for girls. Russell cites advertising that shows boys playing with Barbies and girls with tractors and suggests it’s not a nation of girly girls and tiaras on toddlers. Independent thinking is valued not feared.
Sex education begins early and is matter-of-factly inclusive of all manner of sexually relevant subjects. Gender in all its forms is not a hot button topic or reason for shock or under-the-breath muttering, judgments or bullying. She points out Denmark was the first European country to allow changes of gender without sterilisation.
Private schools aren’t popular as it goes against the idea of equality.
Danish pastry is as good as rumour makes out.
Unemployment is low.
As with all northern latitudes, the winters are dark with some months averaging an hour and a half of daylight. This leads to a high number of SAD cases, as well as depression, and suicide.
Taxes are high but apparently put to good use to equalize earnings so that all are well compensated. Russell does not mention striking sanitation workers, teachers or nurses. Instead we see an absence of class system, or at least the social inequities are small and because everyone has what they need, resentments and judgments are fewer. Back to equality, which might be the simple math of happiness.
Also, Russell says, there is trust. And this is huge, an essential value to Danish life. People trust one another. They have faith in their government and their administrative bodies. Things work… Because it’s easier that way, for everyone. And everyone knows that the good of all is pretty much the collective mantra of all. There is an absence of one-upmanship culture; to have more than someone else doesn’t sit right with Danes.
Back to Jante’s Law. Which basically means that no one is better than another, and which was referred to in almost every interview the author conducted.
Equality and trust.
Russell writes with humour and for the most part it’s welcome, though a little less would also have been good. On missing the noise of London, she notes:
“I now hear birdsong, tractors or, worse, nothing. The place is so still and silent that the soundtrack to my day is often the ringing of long-forgotten tinnitus…”
She does not mention senior care, nor does she indicate how diverse the population is, except to say that diversity is increasing.
Ultimately, she and her husband fall in love with the place and decide to stay on a second year.
“…it’s no wonder Danes are so happy. They have an obscenely good quality of life. Yes, it’s expensive here. But it’s Denmark – it’s worth it. I don’t mind paying more for a coffee here because I know that it means the person serving me doesn’t a) hate me or b) have a crappy life. Everyone is paid a decent wage, everyone is looked after, and everyone pays their taxes, just as I pay mine. And if we all have marginally less money to buy more stuff that we don’t really need anyway as a result, well I’m starting to think it’s a deal worth making”
At the end of the book she summarizes in ten elements How to Live Danishly, which is a little gimicky, but makes its point nonetheless. The greatest interest in the book, for me, was knowing that it’s possible for a country to put happiness right up there on the agenda, in seriously practical ways.
And to better understand the magical powers of hygge.
It’s the kind of book I’d like to send to a few world leaders…