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?
“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…