How we could all learn something from Denmark’s approach to their loved ones

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Helen Russell
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In the UK, our approach to family matters leaves a lot to be desired: visiting the in-laws is approached with a sigh, and, more often than not, we'd rather spend time in front of the telly than around a table of relatives - and even friends get short shrift after yet another exhausting day at work. Here, Denmark-based British journalist, Helen Russell, explains how your "family" - your closest loved ones - come first in Denmark, and why prioritising people is something we should all do more of...

Anyone arriving in rural Denmark after 2pm on a Saturday might be forgiven for thinking there had been some sort of nuclear apocalypse – with empty streets and shops boarded up. But far from indicating an alarming atomic incident, this is just the way locals like it. Because weekends are ‘family time’ in Denmark, with shops shut from Saturday lunchtime until Monday morning.

Studies show that having a close support network we see regularly makes us far happier than retail therapy ever can (harsh, but true) and Danes spend more time with their families than most other EU nations, according to the Happiness Research Institute. Which is great, for Danes.

But as a new arrival with no family in Denmark, I had to make my own. Slowly, tentatively, I navigated the delicate Fabergé eggs of female friendships to build a ‘family’ - a gang, to help me weather the storms. And there are plenty of these in Denmark.

It’s so cold and dark October to March (think Lord of the Rings’ Mordor…) that Danes couldn’t survive winter historically without help from family and friends. Nowadays, there are supermarkets and radiators and Netflix - but there’s still a cultural emphasis on being together. And so my newly adopted ‘family’ gave me a crash course in living Danishly and learning to prioritise the people I care about most. 

With a short working week and a world famous work-life balance, loved ones come first in all aspects of Danish life.

New parents get 52 weeks leave to share between them and are given the day off if their child is sick, no questions asked. It’s totally accepted that parents will leave work at 4pm to pick up their children from daycare and start making dinner (my son’s nursery shuts at 4.45pm) - because eating together is an important part of life in Denmark, something else that makes us happier.

There are numerous public holidays, or ‘stop what you’re doing and eat cake’ days, as they’re known in our house, where again, the emphasis in on downing tools and hanging out with family and friends. Danes without relatives nearby are often ‘adopted’ for key calendar dates (thank you, Danish neighbours…) and it’s traditional to invite someone into your home for Christmas who might otherwise be alone. Even exes are included.

Denmark has one of the highest divorce rates in Europe (42.7% according to Statistics Denmark) but because splits are so common, they’re often amicable with families reuniting for bank holidays and special events. As my neighbour puts it: “I didn’t like my husband enough to stay married to him, but he’s okay for Easter.”

Come July, the entire nation shuts down as everyone takes summer holiday en masse. Studies from Sweden have shown that this ‘collective restoration’ as it’s called, increases levels of wellbeing because everyone’s off at the same time, doing the same thing - so there’s none of the pressure of feeling as though you should be working, or that you must just reply to that last email. Instead, you’re guaranteed quality time with your crew – and so the happiness cycle continues.

Holidays become bonding bootcamps in Denmark as a result, and I learned more about my in-laws during a seven-day visit than I have during the entire seven years I’ve been with my husband. I

discovered that my father-in-law can, left to his own devices, get through a pot of honey every two days and once built his own cage then sat in it for 12 hours in Newcastle’s MetroCentre as a one-man protest for Amnesty International. I found out that my mother-in-law once created her own ice rink by flooding a car park during a particularly severe ground frost, because she really wanted to go ice skating.

And it turns out that familiarity actually breeds content – because if you’re seeing family all the time, any resentments are aired as and when they arise, rather than rankling for months until Christmas/Easter/Uncle Mike’s summer party (delete as applicable).

What helps is that Danes don’t aim for idyllic, The Waltons-style family gatherings. The nation responsible for Nordic Noir and Marius-gate doesn’t insist on happy endings – they’re realists. They know it’s not all going to be hugs and Hallmark-card harmony, so they plan accordingly.

In common with most areas of Danish life, there’s a structure to family gatherings and everyone has a role to play. Children are expected to help out with washing up or tidying, and family members often take responsibility for different courses or chores to share the workload. When it gets too much, everyone is herded outdoors, come rain or sleet, to breathe some non-family air on a bracing walk or bike ride. And if things still feel strained? Well, then there’s always schnapps.

Libertarian Danes are among the highest drinkers in Europe, so it’s no surprise that alcohol is crucial to any social gathering. Shots of schnapps are taken with every mouthful of the traditional Danish smørrebrød open sandwiches, “to help the herring swim”. This oils the wheels of conversation in no time (as I can hazily testify…).

But you don’t have to down hard liquor or emigrate to reap the rewards of ‘family life’, Danish-style. By making a few small changes, you can get in on the action, wherever you are. Here’s how:

1) Prioritise Your People

Living Danishly means putting family and friends first – we’re not talking exclusively blood ties here, but the people who matter most. Make time to see them and stick to it. The shops will always be around – your loved ones won’t.

2) Breaking (Rye) Bread

Eating together and regular rituals have both been proven to make you happier and healthier, so try them. Pickled herring optional.

3) Ditch the Great Expectations

Forget fairytale endings and try appreciating your parents, siblings, in-laws, outlaws, and adopted waifs and strays for who they are.

4) Have a Plan (B)

If family gatherings leave you smørrebored, make like Danes and plan some activities. Give everyone a job; get outside; breathe some non-family air.

Photos: iStock


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Helen Russell

Helen Russell is a journalist and bestselling author. Formerly an (occasionally glossy) editor in London, Helen now lives in Denmark with her husband and three young children.