The Year of Living Danishly
Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Happiest CountryBook - 2015
When she was suddenly given the opportunity of a new life in rural Jutland, journalist and archetypal Londoner Helen Russell discovered a startling statistic: the happiest place on earth isn't Disneyland, but Denmark, a land often thought of by foreigners as consisting entirely of long dark winters, cured herring, Lego and pastries.
What is the secret to their success? Are happy Danes born, or made?
Helen decides there is only one way to find out: she will give herself a year, trying to uncover the formula for Danish happiness. From childcare, education, food and interior design (not to mention 'hygge') to SAD, taxes, sexism and an unfortunate predilection for burning witches, The Year of Living Danishly is a funny, poignant record of a journey that shows us where the Danes get it right, where they get it wrong, and how we might just benefit from living a little more Danishly ourselves.
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Late in 2016 I came across an article touting hygge, pronounced “hoo-gah”, as the newest happiness trend that could help everyone make sense of a tough year. After reading about the candle-lit, warm-blanket, fuzzy-socked Danish tradition of getting cozy, I deemed myself a hygge natural and moved on. Yet, that funny little word stuck with me. Nearly a year later, at the last Friends of the… (more)
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When Helen Russell’s husband got offered his dream job to work for Lego (yes, they of the brightly-coloured-building-bricks), it meant relocating to Lego’s home base in Denmark. Helen, a high-powered London editor of an unnamed glossy women’s magazine, was not at all sure she wanted to trade her glam life and busy social calendar for a year abroad in a country famous for pastries and Hans Christian Anderson. But as it turns out, they are also famous for being happy. This was enough to intrigue Helen – she would use this opportunity to find out what made these Vikings happy and why. Thus began her own year of living Danishly.
Do not be fooled by this book’s light-hearted title, tone and the giggles evoked therein; evidence of Helen’s thorough research is dotted throughout, but never in a preachy, pedantic way. Her writing is self-deprecating, yes, but also thoughtful and very candid.
She comes to admire the enviable work-life balance that Danes value so much; their models of healthcare, social welfare and environmentalism are some of the best in the world too. They are incredibly patriotic, sexually liberal, and have one entire season dedicated to the coziness of hearth and home (hygge). Daycares are funded and described as “the most fun it is possible to have without artificial stimulants involved… like Lord of the Flies but with a happy ending.”
Denmark may sound like utopia, but Helen discovers some darker sides. For instance, Danish parents are ‘curling parents’ – parents who sweep away any obstacles in the paths of their kids, without letting the kids tackle the challenges themselves. Danes drink and smoke A LOT and have A LOT of esoteric rules. And although there is a high standard of gender equality (women have major roles in government and dads get a good chunk of paternity leave), sexist attitudes and violence against women persists.
But then again, Danish people trust each A LOT too, and that appears to be the key to their happiness – their trust in each other, their culture and even in their government means that things do improve over time to the benefit of all. Which makes them even happier. And to boot, they have the best ways of celebrating Christmas.
It almost makes one want to emigrate.
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