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How living like a Danish woman made me happier (and why it can for you, too)

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The land of beer, bacon and Borgen has topped the latest UN World Happiness Report, winning the title of happiest country on earth… again. Denmark-based British journalist, Helen Russell, explains why the Nords keep nailing it.

Living danishly

The sun bounces off a sparkling sea as paddle boarders set off on adventures and less ambitious Danes take in the view, beer in hand. It’s not a weekend or a public holiday – it’s 4.30pm on a school day. But in Denmark, this is leisure time. As well as obscenely short working weeks – just 33 hours according to the latest figures – Danes are some of the most outdoorsy people in the world and their obsession with the environment is rewarded with clean air and crystal clear seas. As someone whose only experience of living Danishly before moving here was watching Sarah Lund schlep through murky forests on The Killing, it’s been quite the eye opener.

For 12 years, I lived and worked as a journalist in London and despite long hours, intermittent insomnia and years of fertility treatment in an elusive quest to start a family with my husband, we had no intention of changing anything. Then, one wet Wednesday, my husband was offered his dream job out of the blue, working for Lego in rural Denmark. 

Lego Man on beach

After the initial shock, we did some research and discovered that Denmark had regularly been voted the happiest country in the world - in studies going back to the 1970s. I became fascinated by this: how had a tiny country of just 5.5m people manage to pull off the happiest nation on earth title? Intrigued and under the influence of some serious begging, I agreed to give it a go. 

I left my job to freelance and decided to give it a year, investigating the Danish happiness phenomenon first hand and finding out what Danes did differently. We moved from the bright lights and bustle of a capital city to rural Denmark, in bleak midwinter, with our mutt of a dog and our life packed up into 132 boxes. I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t speak the language, I had no job, and nowhere to live. So ever the optimist, I ignored the first three and went house hunting.

Home in Denmark

You learn a lot about a nation from their homes and in Denmark, most of them looked like something out of an interiors magazine, with white walls, wooden floors, uncluttered surfaces and smart, designer touches. Scientists at University College London found that looking at something beautiful makes us happy, stimulating dopamine and even inducing the same brain activity as being in love. Those clever Danes get a high just stepping through the front door. 

Every home was centred around a dining room table, because having family meals together is an important part of life in Denmark – something else scientifically proven to make us happier. I saw candles, everywhere, and learned that Danes burn the most wicks in Europe as part of their dedication to hygge - a word that defies literal translation but is about having a relaxed, cosy time; being kind to yourself, and not denying yourself anything. 

Danes don’t binge then purge, like we do in the UK: they indulge. And it doesn’t do them any harm. Studies show that being kind to ourselves makes us nicer to the people around us. This has a ripple effect out into the wider community and society as a whole. So by embracing hygge, Danes make themselves and each other happier. 

Moving to Denmark mid-winter

By the time I bought a few design essentials to furnish our new rented home (scientifically-sanctioned, pro-happiness interiors shopping: check); and indulged in several pastries (for research…), my husband was home again. Office hours are 8am-4pm and Danes don’t do presenteeism. As a result, Denmark boasts the happiest workforce in the world and the best work-life balance according to OECD 's 2015 Better Life Index. At first I presumed that this made Danes slackers – but then I discovered that workers are 12% more productive when they’re in a positive state of mind making Denmark the second most productive country in the EU. 

We settled into our new life and I began working as a Scandinavia correspondent. But our first payslips came as a shock. Danes pay 50%+ taxes to fund the country’s famously generous welfare state and I had it explained to me that even this is a source of happiness. The tax-funded system means that everyone is looked after and you don’t have to worry that your neighbour’s going to rob you because he can’t afford to put food on the table.

Studies show that 79% of Danes trust ‘most people’, and if you trust the people around you, you can be more relaxed. You have the headspace to be happy. This trust seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy: Denmark is the least corrupt country in the EU and Danes trust each other so much that they’re happy to let their babies sleep outside in prams as they pop into a café for coffee or a restaurant for lunch. As several of my new Danish friends independently assured me, ‘no one steals babies in Denmark…’ Which is lucky, as it turns out. Because six months into our year of living Danishly, I discovered that I was finally, miraculously, pregnant.

Helen and Little Red on the beach

At the start of 2014, I gave birth to a baby boy and this experience underlined just how different Denmark is from the UK. Parents get 52 weeks leave to share between them, because a dad taking time out to look after his child is recognised as something that’s important and so is encouraged.

My husband took 10 weeks off, fully paid, to look after his son while I wrote a book. He learned how to do bathtime and bedtime, as well as how you can feel like you’re going insane by 2pm on a Tuesday when all you want is an hour’s uninterrupted sleep. And maybe a shower. He came to understand how looking after a child 24 hours a day can be hugely rewarding but that it’s also relentlessly tough. He knows that, some days, all you need is for someone to come home and say, ‘You’re doing a great job, here’s cake.’

And then we both went back to work, because kids are guaranteed a place in high quality state run day-care from six months old, 75% subsidised via taxes. Because it’s totally doable to have a family and a career in Denmark, 85% of mothers return to work, and domestic chores are shared more equally between the sexes. It’s as if Danes recognise here that caregiving is just as important as breadwinning – and it doesn’t matter who’s doing what. 

Looking at it this way, it’s no wonder Danes are happy – everyone has a good quality of life and the opportunity to get on in life, but they’re not hurting anyone else to get it. 

Pram on beach

So at the end of our first year, we decided to stay – and now we’re in our fourth. I’m happier these days; I try to switch off from work; I’ve learned to appreciate the little things; and I eat A LOT of pastries. 

We won’t stay in Denmark forever, but I’ve picked up lessons for living Danishly that I’ll take with me, wherever I end up calling home.

Danish living

How to live a more Danish life

1.  Trust more

This is the number one reason the Danes are so happy - so try it. You’ll feel better, save yourself unnecessary stress, and trusting the people around you makes them behave better - so trust becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

2.  Get hygge

Remember the simple pleasures in life: light a candle, make yourself a cup of coffee, eat some pastries. Be kind to yourself. And each other (Jerry Springer style).

3.  Leave work on time

Unless you’re Hillary Clinton (are you? *waves*) nothing terrible will happen if you actually go home on time. See family; take up a hobby: just clock off and get out.

4.  Use your body, outdoors

Danes cycle, run, swim and shake whatever they’ve got all year around, come rain or sleet. Using your body not only releases get-happy endorphins, doing it outside reduces stress and boosts wellbeing.

5.  Make your home beautiful

Danes do, and it engenders a respect for design, art and their everyday surroundings. Turns out a pretty home is a good step towards a happy home.

Helen Russell is the author of The Year of Living Danishly – Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country (Icon, £8.99). She tweets @MsHelenRussell.

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