Why are the Danish so happy?

One woman's mission to find happiness in Denmark...
25 May 2016

Interview with 

Helen Russell, Author of The Year of Living Danishly


Year after year, the Danish rank among the happiest countries in the world, Happyaccording to the UN. But why are they such a happy bunch? Graihagh Jackson sat down with Helen Russell who moved to the Norden country to find out how to live Danishly...

Helen - So I'd read the statistic that Danes are the happiest people in the world and although they occasionally get knocked off the perched, they have been at the top of the happiness polls in studies going back to the 1970s.

Graihagh - That's Helen Russell.

Helen - I'm a British journalist and the author of The Year of Living Danishly.

Graihagh - Back in 2013, Helen packed her bags and went to live in Denmark to see if she could find out why the Danes are so happy. And you might be surprised that good interior design - curtains, carpets and coffee tables - were a governmental priority at one stage...

Helen - Yeah I mean the first thing I really came across was arriving in a country with nowhere to live we were obviously househunting straight away, and before I'd even begun my research, every home I went into just looked very different to any home I've ever been into in the UK. Everyone's home looked like something out of a weekend living supplement with sort of little designer touches, lots of natural fabrics, and lots of Danish design, and very clean lines, quite simple and functional. I started researching into this first of all and learnt that Denmark's often described as a design society. But this was something that was mandated by the government in the 1920s when there were huge social and economic challenges but the government at the time decided that design was important and that it should be a priority because it made people feel better, and they were right but about 90 years ahead of their time. Because research from the University of London found that looking at something beautiful releases the same brain activity as being in love and stimulates dopamine. Design is a part of everyday life for many Danes.

I guess the next thing I noticed was the famous work/life balance. So my husband went off to work at Lego and came home at 4pm and then Friday came around and he came home at 2.30pm.

Graihagh - What!

Helen - Because Danes just work crazy short hours. The official working week is 37 hours but recent studies show that most Danes only put in 33 hours a week.

Graihagh - I mean does that not affect productivity. I'm imagining if I had seven or eight hours less, that's a whole day less a week?

Helen - Well, you'd think but Danes have something called Arbejdsglaede from Arbejder, the Danish to work, and happiness is important to all Danes and is something that's factored into society here. And studies from the University of Warwick show that workers are much more productive when they're in a positive frame of mind, when they're feeling happy so, actually, Denmark is the second most productive country in the EU. So they're working less but getting more done. It just seems horribly unfair.

Graihagh - Yes, well quite. I wonder, if the Danish have a 33 hour work week, what do they do with all their spare time? I wonder whether that also plays a role in this - why they're so happy?

Helen - Yes, I think it does. So they are huge on hobbies - they love a club or an association. So where as in the rest of the world people might knock of work and go for a run, or go cycling, or do something of some kind, in Denmark there are rules involved and they will do it as part of an organisation. So you will calendarise that in your work diary. You'll leave at 4pm because you've got the gym, or you've got bike club, or you've got swimming club and it keeps them really active. And studies show that being part of a group fosters a real sense of belonging and you're more likely to stick at something because you're mindful of letting your teammates down.

Graihagh - The other thing? Well, nobody steals babies here...

Helen - When I first arrived here my husband and I had been trying for a baby for years. I'd had two years of failed fertility treatment in London, injecting hormones on a daily basis. And then I came over to Denmark and found these babies just sort of scattered around the street, unattended in their prams, left outside cafes and restaurants. Even once on a beach when someone popped into the sea for a swim. I had it explained to me yes, as you say, people don't steal babies in Denmark and that Danes trust each other so much that they think that it's fine to leave babies to sleep outside. The fresh air is good for their lungs and that's perfectly OK.  But there's a famous story out here of a Danish woman who went to New York and left her baby outside a restaurant when she popped in for lunch and got arrested for child neglect but that just doesn't happen in Denmark.

Graihagh - On a more serious note, it's this level of trust among comrades that fuels not just individuals, but society as a whole...

Helen - Because of this social welfare safety net everyone is looked after. Of course, you do pay for it so 50% plus taxes still come as quite a shock, but because you're paying your taxes you trust that your neighbour will pay theirs as well and you trust that the government will spend that money wisely, which is very different to the way we think about tax in the UK.

Graihagh - Food for thought when eyeing your next payslip then... But this 'welfare security safety net', it means that - baby stealing aside - Helen and her husband were also incredibly well supported after the birth of their son...

Helen - Yes, new parents get 52 weeks leave to share between them. So my husband took time off from his job for 10 weeks - no questions asked, fully paid to help look after our son. And here they have a heavily subsidised stork hotel where, if you are a new parent and if you're just a little bit nervous, you're not quite sure how to do breast feeding or just how on earth to cope with this living, wriggling, small pink thing that you have produced. You can stay for, I think, up to a week in the stork hotel and nurses can be on hand if you need anything. So they just really do take care of you.

Then, because subsidised childcare is so big out here, so 75% subsidised, most mums go back to work anyway and you know that your child's being taken care of. So, yes, it does seem a good system for that.

Graihagh - It sounds like you're phenomenally well supported on all levels. I mean if I was going to come away from this and think right, five things that I can do to change my life to make myself happier, what would they be from your experience living Danishly. And I assume, but I don't know, living happier?

Helen - Yes, we are I'm happy to say. So, one thing that we haven't touched on is Hygge. It's this uniquely Danish word that defies literal translation, but the best explanation I've seen is the complete absence of anything annoying or emotionally overwhelming. So really it's a lot like the mindfulness that is oh so fashionable these days but Danes have been doing it for generations and it really becomes a part of everything that happens in Danish life. So candles are hygge, having dinner with friends is hygge, and it's this real celebration of the small things so that's something that I definitely plan on stealing wherever I end up being next.

I think there's also something around design and around the aesthetics and celebrating those so just trying to make your home somewhere you can be proud of. I think around using your body as well, as the Danes do. They're a pretty active bunch and part of all of these societies so yes, cycle, run, jump, dance, shake whatever you've got, I think joining up and being a part of something can really help. And then... what am I on? I'm on three maybe two more.

I think Danes are really good at valuing family - Danes see their family a lot. Probably because they have this short working week but family is prioritised and the more you see them, you work through any disagreements you might have so that they don't build up and fester into these big rows or anything. And loads of studies show that spending time with family and having a close support network is one of the biggest indicators of happiness.

Graihagh - So perhaps having dinner with your family every night or something?

Helen - Yes, because having family meals together is really good for us, physically and mentally. And then I think I'd love to add also about playing. In the country that brought the world Lego, play is really considered a worthwhile occupation at any age. And I think because Danes have all this free time, they have a really good sense of fun and sense of play and it's not all about working.


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