Living Danishly

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Let’s examine why Danes are the happiest people on the planet.

I have been on the pursuit of happiness for a solid eight months now. Part of that pursuit has involved taking a page out of an expert’s book. When Amazon recommend that I read A Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell, I was pretty intrigued, but not quite set on spending the $14. When I booked my trip to Denmark however, I logged back in and made the purchase.

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Here is the Amazon summary:

Denmark is officially the happiest nation on Earth. When Helen Russell is forced to move to rural Jutland, can she discover the secrets of their happiness? Or will the long, dark winters and pickled herring take their toll?

A Year of Living Danishly looks at where the Danes get it right, where they get it wrong, and how we might just benefit from living a little more Danishly ourselves.

This book captured my attention pretty quickly. Witty, sarcastic, and not scared to tell it how it is, Russell opens the book by saying how, at 33 and only one-year into her marriage, she was burnt out. Sounds like me…except I was 23.

Although busy, Russell liked her life in London, and when her husband was offered a job in Denmark working for LEGO, she was pretty skeptical about picking up and moving. After doing some research, Russell learned a few interesting facts about Denmark:

  • Trust is important. In a national survery, 70% of Danes said that trust their neighbor, government, and even a stranger on the street. Contrasty, only 1/3 of the population in Europe scored as trusting.
  • Equality is big in Denmark. The Danes lead the world in the LGBT community through legal gay marriage (since 1933!) and pro-transgender laws. Woman also play big roles in Denmark. Helle Thorning-Schmidt was the first female Prime Minister of the country from 2011-2015. Women also first joined the Danish Parliament in 1918. To top it all off, Denmark was also the 1st country to abolish slavery.
  • Danes enjoy a slow pace of life, which includes working less than 35 hours a week on average with 18 national holidays and 5-weeks of vacation annually. They also value work-life balance over a larger salary – which might be because income taxes are extremely high, currently over 55%.  
  • But, those taxes go to support the social welfare (including unemployment compensation of 80-90% of your previous salary for up to two-years, free health care, free education through college, and pro-parent maternity leave). Very little of tax payer’s money goes to the defense budget.
  • All of that free time off for new moms hasn’t shown an increase in birth rates though. There isn’t a cultural stigma in Denmark for women to opt-out of motherhood, and it is starting to cause panic. Here is the hilarious “Do It For Mom” campaign to encourage couples to…get active.
  • Although the Danes value acceptance and individuality, there is a pretty standardized dress code based on age. Also, design and decor is very streamlined from house to house.
  • Denmark is the happiest nation on Earth.

After learning all of this, hell, even I wanted to move to Denmark! With a new found openness, Russell and her husband packed up and shipped out. As a trained journalist, Russell decided to look at the next year of her life as a chance to report on and analyze why the Danes are so damn happy.

After a year of research, Russell comprised her 10 top tips for living Danishly:

1 – Trust (more)

This has been proven to be the number one reason Danes are happy. So it’s something I’m trying to get better at. It makes you feel better, saves you unnecessary stress, and trusting the people around you can make them behave better, so that trust becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

2 – Get hygge

Danes are great at remembering the simple pleasures in life – lighting a candle; making a cup of coffee; eating some pastries – can all make you feel better in an instant.

3 – Use your body

Cycle, run, jump, dance, have sex. Shake whatever you’ve got. Using your body not only releases get-happy endorphins, it can also make you look hotter – Danish style.

4 – Address the aesthetics

Make your environment as beautiful as you can. Danes do, and it engenders a respect for design, art, and their everyday surroundings. Remember the broken window syndrome. This is where places that look uncared for just get worse. The reverse also applies.

5 – Streamline your options

If living in rural Jutland has taught me one thing, it’s that limiting your options can take some of the stress out of modern life. Too many choices about what to do, where to eat, or what to wear (Hello, Danish hipster ‘uniform’!) can feel like a burden rather than a benefit. Danes specialise in stress-free simplicity and freedom within boundaries.

6 – Be proud

Find something that you, or people from your hometown, are really good at, and Own It. Celebrate success, from football to tiddlywinks (or crab racing). Also, don’t be afraid or embrassed to wave flags and sing at every available opportunity.

7 – Value family life

National holidays become bonding boot camps in Denmark, and family comes first in all aspects of Danish living. Reaching out to relatives and regular rituals can make you happier, so give both a go. Your family not cooperative? Start your own with friends or by seeing tip #3 (the sex part).

8 – Equal respect for equal work

In Denmark, there isn’t as much of a distinction between ‘women’s work’ and ‘men’s work’ as you find elsewhere: there’s just ‘work’. Caregivers are just as crucial as breadwinners, and neither could survive without the other. Both types of labour are hard, and important – all at the same time.

9 – Play

Danes love an activity for its own sake and in the land of Lego, playing is considered a worthwhile occupation at any age. So get building; create; bake – just do and make things as often as possible (the messier the better!).

10 – Share

Life’s easier this way and you’ll be happier too according to research. Even if you can’t influence government policy, to wangle a Danish-style welfare state back home (always worth a try), you can take cake round to a neighbour’s place or invite someone in to share your hygge. Just let the warm, fuzzy feelings flow.

While reading this book, and especially while scanning this list, I realized just how much of my life this past eight months has become more…Danish. Although I am still working on #1, I have definitely embraced #2 and #3. I am hoping that moving into my own apartment in the coming months will allow me to achieve #4 and being part of the University of Oregon Duck community will give me #6. Finding minimalism in my closet and realizing just how simple life is is how I learned #5 and #7. A book taught me to know my value, effectively checking off #8. With all of my travels over the past eight months, I have conquered the art of playing #9, Tess style. The creation of this blog and the ability it has given me to share my experiences and perspective with all of you completes the final Danish rule, #10. If this is living Danishly, sign me up and ship me out – I’ve been hooked for a while now.

Here is one of my favorite facts I learned through reading this book: only Scandinavian languages have a word for ‘happiness at work’: arbejdsglæde. It originates from arbejde, meaning work, and glæde, meaning happiness.

Why is it that languages of other origins do not believe this concept is important enough to have its own word?  Honestly, what is a job without joy and a business without happiness? Well, this is a concept that I would like to base my future career around, and I think it has to change.

Here are a few options I can up with:

  • Fulfilleer (fulfilling career)
  • Worppy (work happy)
  • Happeer (happy career)

These aren’t perfect options, but hey, it is a step in the right direction. Either way, I know I want to find my arbejdsglæde.

Interestingly, Russell found that Danes consistently rate their happiness at ‘only’ an eight or nine instead of a full-fledged 10. I believe that it is perfectly natural, and most likely a biological necessity, to always want more. If not, we have nothing to work toward, and if you are like me, goals are everything.

So, the big question: How would I rate my happiness right now? I would go with a solid seven. Finding a cure for Parkinson’s would take me up a notch easily, but that feels a little out of my control. Living in the same state as both my boyfriend and my family would bring me up to an eight. Having my school financed for me, as they do in Denmark, would bump me to a nine, and an in-home chef would be the cherry-on-top 10. But for now, a seven is great.


What is your word for arbejdsglæde? Let us know below.




3 thoughts on “Living Danishly

  1. Pingback: A Day in Denmark – From Brown Eyes

  2. Pingback: Leap Year – From Brown Eyes

  3. Pingback: Denmark, Revisited – From Brown Eyes

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