The Year of Living Danishly – Helen Russell

living danishly

Scandinavia has been the subject of increasing wonderment to the rest of the world in recent years. Certainly in Britain, where the daily grind seems one chain link of nonsensical hyperbole after the other. Our new access to Scandi-TV along with the knowledge that Denmark is repeatedly listed as the happiest country in the world - with its Nordic neighbours following close behind - leaves us asking why. Why are they so happy? Why aren’t we?

These questions were on the mind of Helen Russell when her husband was offered a job working for Lego at its Danish HQ. Ignoring their nerves, they took a leap of faith in changing their lives for a year. Helen was comfortable, if stressed and worn out, in her role as the editor of Marie Claire in London. But once the shock of deciding to move subsided, she gradually began to realise that ‘comfortable’ and ‘content’ are quite different things. A little awkward adjustment brought enormous pay-off and almost none of it financial. The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Happiest Country is Helen Russell’s record of that first year in a small corner of rural Denmark, with no knowledge of the language nor what makes Danes tick. It is part personal diary, part journalistic dissection of another nation’s culture, part love story, the beau in question being Denmark itself. It is an absolute joy to read.

One month at a time, via their real-life wading through strictly followed customs and traditions, we begin to build a picture of why Denmark rates its satisfaction with life so highly. They are a people who follow national flag-flying rules to the letter, but will happily return to a lit firework. They have free attitudes toward sex while maintaining strong family values. They have high taxes, but they're okay with it. At times it’s genuinely shocking that attitudes can be so wildly different just a £30 plane ticket away.

What’s most clear as the book weaves together every element of what it means to be Danish is that there’s no magic pill for happiness. It begins with the infrastructure and one pleasing factor acts as a gateway to another. In some ways it’s saddening, knowing that what actually creates that northerly brand of happiness would simply never happen in the UK. Our priorities, personally and at government level, are too skewed to ever follow the same model. But that still makes the dream a heartening and an inspiring read that you can quietly apply to your own life.

Helen and her husband, referred to only as Lego Man, aren’t stationed in Copenhagen, where the regular appearance of tourists would have made assimilation easier. Lego as a corporation is based in Billund in the upper Jutland region. You learn fast or not at all. Their first lesson, aside from the pastries so glorious they’d make you weep butter, was that of hygge. Without a definitive translation into English, it is essentially a celebration of cosiness: being cosy in beautiful surroundings, cooking and eating good food, enjoying your friends and family. Their geographical position on the planet means that in winter there are just a handful of sunlight hours per day. They’re pragmatic about the fact that Seasonal Affective Disorder is rife and almost inevitable. They tackle it by snuggling together and enjoying each other’s company. It is a form of human hibernation. Despite some believing that hygge can be achieved alone, Danes are social creatures. They crave company. If you can make hygge a social event, you do so. 

RELATED: Shop the Trend - Autumn Hibernation

In Denmark working hours are shorter to allow for more enriching time with family, though the arrival of handheld technology means they’re having to fight hard to stave off the typically Western notion of always being available via our phones. Maternity and paternity pay are fairer and allow for more bonding time. The Arts and Culture are made available to everyone at reasonable prices and enjoyment of them is encouraged. Quality education is considered a basic right, not a privilege. Healthcare isn’t ever something to be worried about. The Church is there to support you, but if you only feel like turning up for the fun stuff - see the chapter on spendy and cakey confirmation parties - nobody’s interested in making you feel guilty. Just do you and be good to others along the way.

It’s all sounding a little unreal, right? A little too perfect? Denmark isn’t a robot devoid of discontent. People still find themselves in jobs they don’t like, for instance. What’s different is that the government is more than happy to support them financially while they switch careers. The welfare system will give you a form of redundancy while you decide which job would make you happier. Marriages still break down. In fact, Denmark has an exceptionally high divorce rate. But the argument is that as everyone is supported financially in Denmark, nobody feels hemmed into marriages that aren’t working for them, meaning they can get out, be with someone new and move on with minimum practical stress. Denmark also has a very high marriage rate. They aren't left jaded by relationships they were forced to stay in too long. The Danish are doers. They don’t procrastinate. They ask themselves regularly if their lives are making them happy. If not, they don’t hesitate in making the changes that would make them flourish again, knowing full well that there’s a safety net to catch them when they jump. We neither do that in the UK, nor have to support even if we felt inclined to.

Denmark has its less appealing side, though. While it’s been progressive in seeking equality in pay, marriage, human rights and so on, the nuances haven’t always caught up with the sweeping “big stuff”. Sexism toward women is still an uncomfortable truth. It is, for example, not unusual for some less scrupulous companies to refuse employment to a woman who is pregnant or hoping to become pregnant. The female aesthetic is sometimes ripped apart and exploited for advertising purposes the way it is in other countries. The issue of violence against women is a sticky one, too. Men and women are seen as so equal that some feel it’s no different to hit a woman than it is a man. The issue of violence in general is a surprising one. Considering the Danish worship of comfort and their dislike of conflict, they also have volatile outbursts of aggression, especially among the youth. They are, after all, still human.

This all raises an interesting debate over whether the Danish bubble still breeds happiness when Danes come up against the outside world. They have a fiddly but slowly improving relationship with immigration, for example. The book tells some fascinating stories on how, following traditional July summer holidays abroad, the divorce rate soars because couples who peek outside the safety of their Danish comfort blanket find it harder to like each other in a new environment. All of us want a comfortable life, but is there something deep-rooted in our psyche that needs a little adversity to thrive? What’s it like when nobody feels the need to smash the State? Easier, for definite, but that creates a whole different kind of existence. The word 'spoilt' comes up a few times. 

The most satisfying thing about Living Danishly is that it’s an honest portrayal of a country’s people, with all its quirks and rituals, in live-feed mode. You really live that year in Billund along with Helen and Lego Man, but it’s also backed up with real facts, statistics and analysis. Helen never stops asking why, while never diverting from an enthralling and often very funny story. It would have been all too easy to write one or the other, but that balance between emotion and the answers we yearn for is what makes Living Danishly a book I can’t wait to read again.

Denmark is far from immune to the daily dilemmas, troubles and hard questions every other country faces. Danes are using the same trial-and-error tactics to solve their problems as we are. In Living Danishly you won’t get a rose-tinted love letter to Helen Russell’s adopted home, despite the fact that she does end up rather smitten. What’s different and what ultimately makes Danish people happy is the freedom their lifestyle bestows upon them. Freedom feeds happiness and contentment. Support and caring for each other from the top to the very bottom is what makes Denmark the happiest country on earth. Moreover, they believe they deserve it. High self-esteem is a powerful national commodity. Oh and the pastries that dissolve as soon as they sweep across your tongue, too. I have long considered that Scandi-living would suit me. This book has done nothing to sway my instinct. 

The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Happiest Country is available in all formats now from here.