I just finished reading The Year of Living Danishly – Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country (2015, Icon Books) written by Helen Russell after she moves from her native England to the hinterlands of Denmark when her husband accepts a job with LEGO.
Denmark is purportedly the happiest country on the planet, and Russell explores the roots of Danish happiness as she transitions from full-time, rat-race London journalist to freelance writer. She examines every segment of Danish society – home life, traditions, parenting, family relationships, work-life balance, the economy, vacation time, leisure activities, the social contract, gender equality, religion, healthcare. And the weather, the inhumane cold and “soul-destroying darkness” of the long Danish winter.
The life lessons Russell uncovers are applicable in or out of Denmark, and at the end of the book, she summarizes her takeaways in a top ten. I don’t really wish to be Danish or move to Denmark, but I think the list is wise, and I wanted to share my spin on how Russell’s lessons can bring increased serenity and sanity to daily life in Pennsylvania or wherever you may be.
- Trust (more) – Russell points to the high level of trust in Denmark as the number one reason Danes are so theoretically happy. I think, generally, more people are good and kind than not, and I also think that this belief in itself, accurate or not, can diminish stress. Expecting positive takes less energy than being constantly poised to react to negative. Will some people be petty and thoughtless, mean and dishonest? Of course. Will tragedy strike even if we’re not waiting for it? Yes. But being optimistic about our everyday interactions means we have greater reserves to deal with difficulties when they happen, having spent less energy stressing about the horrors that never materialize.
- Get hygge – There’s no direct English translation of this Danish word, but it basically means to turn inward, to celebrate the feeling of camaraderie and coziness found with family and friends, warding off the dark and cold of winter. I think even when it’s not dark and cold outside, focusing inward on connections with those we love, who love and understand us, is grounding, allowing us to regroup before we go back out into the fray.
- Use your body – Danes always seem to be on the move, at least in Russell’s observation. Exercise releases endorphins and leads to better overall health, but it also helps us get out of our own heads a bit. Even if you begin a training session or tennis game with the intent to build muscle and burn calories, if you’ve picked an activity you really enjoy, pretty soon it becomes less about calories and muscles, and more about the activity itself. And when you’re so fully engaged, you really can’t stress about anything else.
- Address the aesthetics – The Danish way is to “make your environment as beautiful as you can” says Russell. This isn’t about redecorating. It’s about paying attention to your environment, arranging not just for efficiency but for aesthetic pleasure, because physical balance and beauty can bring similar balance and beauty to your state of mind. This item alone justifies my predilection for constant reorganization, culling, and rearranging. The view from wherever I sit or stand to work – my dining table, the kitchen island, the family room couch – needs to hit my eye just right to make me feel settled, peaceful, and productive. If it doesn’t feel harmonious, I move it (whatever it is). My kids never know where the furniture may be when they arrive home from school on a given Thursday!
- Streamline your options – Too many options lead to stress over opportunity cost – the idea that choosing one thing inevitably means you’re not choosing something else. Many aspects of Danish life seem rooted in minimalism. We know that for little kids, it’s much easier to avoid the tantrum if we say choose between the red shirt and the blue shirt, or between the yogurt and the banana, instead of opening the closet or refrigerator and just saying “choose.” Adults aren’t really too much different. Having the sky’s limit on choice can be overwhelming no matter how old we are. So, apply the toddler principle to yourself for a day and see if stress declines!
- Be proud – Pride in the success of something bigger than ourselves can spur endorphins, too. Celebrating feels good! It’s another thing that shifts our focus outward, engendering a sense of excitement and even awe at the bigger picture, whether through a love of sports, history, national holidays, competitive stamp collecting (okay, I made that up, but it might really exist somewhere).
- Value family – This is a follow-on to Russell’s #7, but here’s what I’ve learned in my forty plus years of being part of several families. Family life is hard, even when people love each other a lot. On both sides of our extended families there are siblings who don’t speak to each other. This reality has been a continuing reminder to my own family of five about finding the humor and compassion to support each other even in times of conflict. It takes work to make a family work, but the successes are soul-filling in ways that make it all worth it.
- Equal respect for equal work – Respect for all levels of work is very evident in Danish society. Every job needs to be done by someone, and most of the time we can’t really know how and why anyone ends up in a given role. Basic respect for all who fill their days with productive work should be a given. This is how the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
- Play – Denmark is the land of LEGO, after all. I think this tenet should carry over to what we expect from our children within a society of ever-increasing “pay for play.” It seems, at least in my little corner of the world, everyone expects a college scholarship or national ranking to result from years of costly competitive soccer or gymnastics or fill in the blank. And it does happen – the full ride, the Olympic slot. But what about playing soccer or doing gymnastics simply for the love of soccer and gymnastics? If more adults played for the joy of it, maybe more kids would, too.
- Share – As a welfare state, super high taxes support a healthcare and employment system that buoys everyone in the small Danish population, resulting in low economic disparity. We don’t have that in the US. Our gap between have and have not is pretty gaping, but we could still try to have the mindset of what’s mine is yours, better to give that receive. Going about everyday life with the idea that when we do unto others it comes back to us is a positive, proven way to release stress and find more balance. Another way to put it is one of my favorite quotes from nineteen-century writer Henry James: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.”
This piece first appeared on the Baby Merlin Company website. Thanks again to my friends at Baby Merlin for including me! Check out their site, and the magic of the Magic Sleepsuit!