He­len Rus­sell

The At­las of Hap­pi­ness

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WHEN author He­len Rus­sell moved to Den­mark in 2013, she tasked her­self with learn­ing as much as she could about her newly adopted home­land. Not least, she hoped to dis­cover some of the many rea­sons why it is con­sis­tently ranked as one of the hap­pi­est coun­tries in the world.

Her ex­pe­ri­ences led to a book, The Year Of Liv­ing Dan­ishly: Un­cov­er­ing The Se­crets Of The World’s Hap­pi­est Coun­try, which was pub­lished three years ago.

What Rus­sell per­haps didn’t ex­pect was how much it would cap­ture peo­ple’s imag­i­na­tion on this side of the North Sea, giv­ing root to the cur­rent craze for “hygge” – which loosely trans­lates into English as “cosy” – and even help spawn a Scot­tish equiv­a­lent of so-called “coorie”.

“Hygge is sort of taken for granted when you are here in Den­mark be­cause it is ev­ery­where,” she ex­plains. “There are can­dles on the win­dowsills at my kid’s day­care or in the bank.

“They use hygge in ev­ery sec­ond sen­tence, but I don’t think they were con­scious that it was such a unique phe­nom­e­non or some­thing that was only prac­tised in Den­mark be­cause they just take it for granted. So, they have been quite baf­fled by the in­ter­est around the rest of the world in hygge.”

This week Rus­sell will pub­lish her fourth book, The At­las Of Hap­pi­ness, which ex­plores the var­i­ous used by peo­ple in dif­fer­ent coun­tries to find con­tent­ment and well­be­ing.

“Change, hap­pi­ness and ways to em­power women are al­ways things that I’m think­ing about,” she says. “The At­las Of Hap­pi­ness was a nat­u­ral next step be­cause peo­ple kept com­ing up to me and talk­ing about the hap­pi­ness con­cepts in the coun­tries they were from.”

The for­mer Marie Claire on­line edi­tor re­lo­cated from the UK six years ago af­ter her hus­band landed his dream job with Lego. The cou­ple, who are based in ru­ral Jut­land, have three young chil­dren.

Rus­sell ad­mits she reg­u­larly draws from many of the dif­fer­ent tra­di­tions she has writ­ten about. “Our chil­dren must be very con­fused – it is a cul­tural hotch­potch,” she says. “There are a lot of can­dles at break­fast at the mo­ment be­cause it is pretty dark in the morn­ings.

“We try to do the Nor­we­gian/Ice­landic thing of get­ting out­side, no mat­ter what the weather, in full snow­suits, bal­a­clavas – the whole she­bang.”

What are her thoughts on “coorie” – a sub­ject on which there has been much de­bate in re­cent weeks? “It was in­ter­est­ing read­ing about the Scot­tish equiv­a­lent,” she says. “Of course, many cul­tures do have things, but it is by la­belling it that you then pri­ori­tise it. It is a good thing if more peo­ple are find­ing their own ways to get that feel­ing.

“From what I have read, peo­ple are say­ing it is like hygge but has got more of an out­doorsy el­e­ment. Stud­ies around hap­pi­ness, well­be­ing and men­tal health show that get­ting out­side all year round is re­ally good for you, so I think that can only be a pos­i­tive thing.”

It segues neatly to an­other key point Rus­sell makes, which is her be­lief that op­ti­mism isn’t friv­o­lous: it is ne­ces­sity. Not least when deal­ing with on­line in­ter­ac­tions within our daily lives.

“I think with so­cial me­dia these days there is a sense that if you don’t love some­thing, then you must hate it, and we are en­cour­aged to­wards out­rage all the time. Ac­tu­ally, that is in­cred­i­bly un­healthy and un­help­ful.

“Peo­ple are of­ten lev­el­ling slurs [and ac­cus­ing] oth­ers of be­ing a bit Pollyan­naish. Of course, there is no point stick­ing your head in the sand or pre­tend­ing that bad things aren’t hap­pen­ing.

“But if you only think about the bad and fo­cus on that, then neg­a­tiv­ity bias and the way our brains work mean that we are go­ing to cos­set our­selves away. We are not go­ing to be able to try to make things bet­ter, en­gage with so­ci­ety and the prob­lems that we face as a com­mu­nity, na­tion or world.

“It is re­ally im­por­tant to re­mem­ber the rea­sons to be cheer­ful and that there are peo­ple all round the world get­ting on with their lives,” she adds. “Whereas, if we just live in our own bub­ble, watch rolling news and take on the neg­a­tive parts of so­cial me­dia, it is al­most paralysing.

“More and more peo­ple I speak to are find­ing it [so­cial me­dia] a real source of anx­i­ety and feel­ing help­less. They think that they can’t make a dif­fer­ence or do any­thing use­ful, so then they do noth­ing and that just seems such a shame and a waste.”

For her book, Rus­sell has re­searched and writ­ten about 33 dif­fer­ent coun­tries, from Aus­tralia to Wales, via Bhutan, Ire­land, Ger­many, Syria, Turkey and more. The hap­pi­ness con­cepts she im­parts, how­ever, do come with the caveat: “Nowhere is per­fect. Ev­ery coun­try has its faults.”

Rather, she says, it is her in­ten­tion to “unashamedly cel­e­brate the best parts of a coun­try’s cul­ture as well as na­tional char­ac­ter­is­tics at their finest”.

She stresses, how­ever, that: “I’m not try­ing to white­wash any­thing. We do have to ac­knowl­edge that there is neg­a­tive stuff there, but we may as well cel­e­brate the best, oth­er­wise what do you aim for?”

Many in­ter­na­tional cul­tures have their own unique tra­di­tional meth­ods of staving off the win­ter blues. As the days shorten, He­len Rus­sell shares some of her favourites:


We’ve all had those evenings where we can’t be both­ered dress­ing-up or even ven­tur­ing from the sofa – yet still fancy a few beers. That’s where “pants drink­ing” comes in.

Kal­sarikan­nit is de­fined as “drink­ing at home in your un­der­wear with no in­ten­tion of go­ing out”. From the Fin­nish word kalsari, mean­ing “un­der­pants”, and kanni, mean­ing

The Fin­nish con­cept of Kal­sarikan­nit – drink­ing at home in your un­der­wear – is a quick and easy way to get your­self in a bet­ter place

“state of ine­bri­a­tion”, Kal­sarikan­nit is lit­er­ally “pants drunk”.

“That is a jolly one,” says Rus­sell. “My Fin­nish friends are all very lais­sez­faire about it and think that, of course, ev­ery­one does this some­times. It came as a bit of a shock to them that I had never done it.

“It is light-hearted and ac­ces­si­ble – some­thing we can all do. There is a plea­sure in that. I very much be­lieve that you can re­store your­self, so you are in a bet­ter po­si­tion to go out and do good things in the world. This is an easy and quick one to get your­self in a bet­ter place.”


It trans­lates as “free air life” or “ope­nair liv­ing” – a philo­soph­i­cal term pop­u­larised by the Nor­we­gian play­wright Hen­rik Ib­sen in his 1859 poem, On The Heights, to de­scribe the value of spend­ing time in re­mote lo­ca­tions for spir­i­tual or phys­i­cal well-be­ing.

“You have got to ‘earn your lunch’ and ‘climb a moun­tain,’” ex­plains Rus­sell. “There is a real sense, as with their Vik­ing an­ces­tors, that you have to do some­thing. ‘What have you done to­day? How have you ex­erted your­self?’”

Then there is what is called “utepils” – the first beer en­joyed out­doors to cel­e­brate the weather be­ing, if not warm, then slightly less cold. “That seems in­cred­i­bly ap­peal­ing af­ter one of those long dark win­ters,” she says. “It is some­thing to look for­ward to.”


Roughly trans­lat­able as “it will all work out”, Petta reddast is Ice­land’s motto. The phrase char­ac­terises “a na­tion of mod­ern-day Vikings who are easy-go­ing with a core of grit – an un­usual but pow­er­ful com­bi­na­tion”, says Rus­sell.

The Ice­landic cli­mate lends it­self to a strong in­te­rior life. In the cold and dark win­ter months, a rich sto­ry­telling tra­di­tion and literary cul­ture dat­ing back cen­turies comes to the fore. An­other thing that helps Ice­land rank highly on hap­pi­ness lists, she says, is the fact they are big read­ers.

“There is this idea that if you re­ally can­not get out­side, there is a lot than you can use your imag­i­na­tion for and re­ally delve into books. There are lots of stud­ies show­ing that read­ing is good for us and it helps to de­velop our em­pa­thy to share sto­ries.”


This is the Rus­sian con­cept of what Rus­sell de­scribes as “seek­ing heat”. As she ex­plains: “With Chekhov and Tur­genev, all these old Rus­sian writ­ers, it is never a happy-go-lucky type of hap­pi­ness.

“It is a pas­sion and a drama – that is part of the plea­sure of it. Rus­sians are good at skip­ping the small talk.

“Things like the Rus­sian banya – the saunas – where you are beat­ing your­self with birch twigs and then rolling in the snow. There is this idea that if the weather is quite cold any­way, it is al­most pun­ish­ing your­self a lit­tle fur­ther so that your base line, the re­al­ity, doesn’t seem as bad.”


Or “joy of liv­ing” as it is known in English. “Cana­di­ans are re­ally good at get­ting out in all sea­sons and open­ing up their so­cial cir­cle, so­cial­is­ing and cel­e­brat­ing di­ver­sity, which is hugely help­ful to re­mem­ber in these di­vided times,” says Rus­sell.

It is some­thing that she – as part of an in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity in Den­mark – can re­late to. “The more dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties that you end up in­ter­act­ing with and open­ing up your so­cial cir­cle to, it means there are so many more rea­sons to cel­e­brate through­out the year.

“Reg­u­lar rit­u­als, spend­ing time to­gether and hav­ing things to look for­ward to have been proven to be good for us.”


Pro­nounced “lah-gom”, the first comes from the Swedish word lag or “team”. It is of­ten de­scribed as an equiv­a­lent to the Dan­ish con­cept of hygge, but there are stark dif­fer­ences.

“We have all heard about lagom but one of the things that doesn’t get talked about out­side of Swe­den so much is the shar­ing as­pect of it,” says Rus­sell.

“There is this thing in lagom where with the last slice of cake you cut it in half and then you cut it in half again. Ev­ery­body keeps cut­ting it in half un­til it is the tini­est crumb be­cause you would never take the last piece from your fel­low coun­try­man or woman.

“You are al­ways mind­ful of them, think­ing about them and shar­ing. So, although in Swe­den – as with many of the Nordic coun­tries – there is an in­creas­ing anti-im­mi­gra­tion feel­ing, and this idea of them as a utopia is slightly naive, they are pretty good at shar­ing.

“The Swedes can be quite in­su­lar,” adds Rus­sell. “When they need to re­store their en­ergy, they have what is called ‘smultronstalle’ – based on a sym­bolic wild straw­berry patch from old chil­dren’s books. It can be any­where you feel at one with na­ture.

“You go there by your­self to re­store. Af­ter­wards, you are in a bet­ter place men­tally and ready to face the world. I have spo­ken to peo­ple who said it is a spe­cial glade, a favourite chair, a nearby hill – or even the back of their walk-in wardrobe among the coats like Nar­nia.

“So, that is some­thing help­ful and doable. Ev­ery­body can find a lit­tle space that is just for them, to take some deep breaths and think. I am a lot more pa­tient with my chil­dren once I have done that.” The idea of Swe­den as a utopia is naive, but they are pretty good at shar­ing

The At­las of Hap­pi­ness by He­len Rus­sell is pub­lished by Two Roads on Thurs­day (Novem­ber 1), priced £16.99

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