It took one year for au­thor He­len Rus­sell to fall in love with Den­mark, ranked the world’s hap­pi­est coun­try for 40 con­sec­u­tive years. Af­ter read­ing The Year of Living Dan­ishly, will you fall in love too?

Schon! - - Great Danes - Words / Molly Tay­lor Photography / Mette Johnsen Im­age / Prop­erty of VisitDenmark

“I’m not a nat­u­rally brave per­son at all so I didn’t say ‘yes, let’s pack our bags, let’s go’,” re­calls He­len Rus­sell. “It was more, ‘OK, I’m ter­ri­fied, but let’s do this and see what hap­pens.’” Thanks to re­cent tele­vi­sion hits Bor­gen and The Killing, we have be­come fas­ci­nated by all things Dan­ish. Still, it seems hard to fathom why Rus­sell would swap a cos­mopoli­tan life­style in Lon­don as an edi­tor at Marie Claire – a job a mil­lion girls would kill for – for cy­cling and pastries in ru­ral Jut­land. Yet, when her hus­band landed his dream job at Lego™, that’s ex­actly what she did.

Rus­sell’s son, now a year old, was not the only thing she con­ceived whilst living in Den­mark. She also penned The Year of Living Dan­ishly – Un­cov­er­ing the Se­crets of the World’s Hap­pi­est Coun­try, a part di­ary, part self-help guide to hap­pi­ness. Through her work at Marie Claire, The Guardian and The Tele­graph, Rus­sell was well ac­quainted with the world’s con­stant pur­suit for hap­pi­ness. “We have a weird re­la­tion­ship with hap­pi­ness where we feel as though we de­serve it,” she says. “Once I knew that Den­mark came top in a lot of polls for hap­pi­ness I be­gan taunt­ing the coun­try to prove it.”

This tiny na­tion, squeezed in be­tween Swe­den and Ger­many, is only roughly the size of South Lon­don. What it lacks in scale, how­ever, it makes up for in some­thing else far less tan­gi­ble – hap­pi­ness. De­spite be­ing ranked as Europe’s most ex­pen­sive coun­try, Den­mark has topped the UK Of­fice of Na­tional Statis­tics’ list as the ‘hap­pi­est coun­try on earth’ for 40 years in a row.

The Year of Living Dan­ishly charts Rus­sell’s per­sonal in­ves­ti­ga­tion of not only her own ex­pe­ri­ences of con­vert­ing from Lon­doner to fully fledged Dane, but also the life­style of the lo­cals, drawing from in­ter­views with ex­perts, such as ‘hap­pi­ness econ­o­mist’ Chris­tian Bjørn­skov and cul­tural ex­pert Pernille Chag­gar. She asks the Danes she en­coun­ters to rate their hap­pi­ness on a scale of one to ten, with the ma­jor­ity av­er­ag­ing at nine.

One of the most im­por­tant ex­am­ples Rus­sell gives as to why Danes are such a happy bunch is trust: she states that 70 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion trust most peo­ple. “Trust is a huge thing here,” the au­thor ex­plains. “I won­der re­ally how bad it would be to just step out of my house in Lon­don and try think­ing ‘OK, maybe not ev­ery­one is out to get me.’” She refers to Den­mark’s reg­i­mented sys­tem of reg­u­la­tions as the ‘Dan­ish way’, adding that “peo­ple have an un­der­stand­ing that be­ing a part of the Dan­ish so­ci­ety, ev­ery­one has to do their part. There’s a real rhythm to life, so you can just re­lax and let your­self be taken by it.”

In the book Rus­sell also con­sid­ers the so-called ‘happy gene’, oth­er­wise known as 5-HTP, which is found in Danes more fre­quently than any other pop­u­la­tion. This gene, she ex­plains “pre­dis­poses you to be­ing quite laid back and quite happy”. Then there is the hygge, which is es­sen­tially a tra­di­tion of ‘il­lu­mi­nat­ing the Dan­ish soul’. “In Lon­don when the book was re­leased, peo­ple were ei­ther do­ing dry Jan­uary or up­ping their ex­er­cise or pun­ish­ing them­selves in some way,” Rus­sell re­calls. “Danes just don’t do that. It’s cake and wine as nor­mal and it doesn’t make them fat – it pro­vides feel­ings of warmth. It’s not ex­tremes of bing­ing and purg­ing like in Lon­don.”

It’s been two years since Rus­sell took a leap of faith and fol­lowed her hus­band to Den­mark. They plan to spend an­other two years there, but has the au­thor been fully con­verted to the Dan­ish way of life? She’s cer­tainly reap­ing the benefits. “I dress more ca­su­ally, I eat what I like, I take my son to day care, I log off in the evening, I’m not a slave to my in­box at 11pm,” she says. “Life here is how I feel it’s meant to be when you have your pri­or­i­ties straight.” Maybe we could all do with living a bit more dan­ishly…

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