Friday 22 March 2019

How to live like the happiest people in the world

It's cold, dark, and expensive, yet Denmark is still officially the world's happiest country. One woman moved north to find out just why the Danes are so content with their lives

Helen Russell has got to grips with the Nordic weather
Helen Russell has got to grips with the Nordic weather
Helen Russell and baby in Denmark
Helen Russell walks her dog daily in Denmark in a bid to be happy
Helen Russell book cover

Helen Russell

Stepping off the plane onto frozen tarmac, an icy blast of air stings my skin and makes my fingers tingle. Crunching our way through snow, sleeves pulled over our hands to protect them from the biting cold, my husband and I make our way to the airport terminal, past a sign that read 'Welcome to Denmark! The world's happiest country!' 'Huh,' I think, sceptical that my newly adopted homeland will turn out to be all that, 'we'll see.'

Two years later and I'm beginning to think that the Danes got it right.

Until 2013, I was one of those stressed-out types who look like they need a lie down in a darkened room (don't know anyone like that? Chances are, it's you…).

Working long hours as an editor on a glossy magazine and living in London for 12 years had left me shattered. I had a supportive husband and good friends but I never had time to see much of them. So when my other half was offered his dream job working for Lego in Denmark at the start of 2013, we thought about it.

Denmark had been voted the happiest country in the world (according to a UN-commissioned report) and the nation was famed for its must-see TV, Scandi-cool design and perfect pastries - if I couldn't get happier there, what hope was there?

And so, after a rough week and a large glass of wine, I found myself agreeing to give it a go. I would leave my job and try freelancing from our new home in rural Jutland, where Lego are based. Once the decision was made, the fear kicked in.

How would we get on in the land of Nord? Would we make friends? (Answer: yes, eventually). Could I make a living as a freelancer? (Just about). And would I be able to resist the lure of all those Danish pastries? (No). I decided I needed a plan and so set out to discover why Denmark kept topping the polls and discover the key to getting happy, Scandi-style.

The result would, I hoped, be a blueprint for a lifetime of contentment.

Things didn't begin brilliantly. The Danes I met weren't terribly welcoming and my only interaction with our new neighbours for the first few months was a telling-off for using the wrong recycling bin (Danes are admirably fanatical about the environment).

The cold was also crippling - at least until we had the right kit and came to understand the all-important Danish concept of hygge. This strange, guttural-sounding word defies translation but is all about being kind to yourself; seeing family and friends; embracing candle-light (Danes burn the most candles in Europe); indulging in pastries or coffee (or something stronger), and having a cosy time. At a time of year when folk back home were depriving themselves by cutting out cake/wine/fun for January, Danes were taking things easy, indulging when they felt like it and keeping their spirits up. This seemed eminently sensible.

Every Danish dwelling we encountered was also beautiful, with clean white walls, wooden floors, designer touches and pools of light created by looped lamp cords or flickering candles (see hygge).

Design is key in Denmark and the experts I spoke to assured me that having a pretty house makes Danes happier, engendering a sense of domestic pride and creating a haven where you look forward to spending time. Sold on this one, we Scandi-fied our rented house and suddenly, it felt like home.

We noticed that Danes came home pretty early, too, and had an enviable work-life balance. Offices hours are 8am-4pm and Danes don't do presenteeism, so if you've finished your work, you leave. As someone who'd regularly worked 10-hour days in London, this was refreshing.

Denmark comes top of the pile for work-life balance amongt OECD countries, has the happiest workforce in the EU (according to the latest Eurobarometer survey) and workers are 12pc more productive when they're in a positive state of mind (so say researchers at the University of Warwick), helping Denmark rank third in the OECD's study into worker productivity.

Oh, and Danes get up to six weeks of paid vacation a year along with numerous bank holidays, meaning the average worker only clocks in 1,411 hours a year. In Ireland, the figure is 1,815. Imagine what you could do with an extra 404 hours?

Finding myself with more leisure time than ever before, I made like the Danes and joined a few hobby clubs and associations. Around 90pc of Danes are members of societies - something else that's been proven to make you happier by giving you a sense of communal belonging and keeping you active. I started singing in a choir, took up yoga and spent an hour a day at the beach walking our dog - a woolly mutt of indeterminate breeding.

But what finally won round this cynic was the experience of having a baby in Denmark.

A few months into our Nordic adventure, I fell pregnant after years of trying - and discovered that Denmark is a great place to be a mother.

New parents are entitled to 52 weeks leave to share between them and my husband took nine weeks off, fully paid, to look after our baby son while I wrote a book. Childcare is 75pc state subsidised, available from six months onwards and so 80pc of new mothers return to work in Denmark (to jobs they probably like). Working hours fit in with daycare opening times and both men and women leave on time to look after their offspring.

The Nordic dream doesn't come cheap (see '50pc tax rate'), but most Danes feel the services they get in return for their tax kroner are a pretty good pay-off.

The government invests in care for the elderly and the disabled in the same way they invest in agriculture, transport and commerce and because everyone's looked after, there's little corruption, the lowest levels of violent crime in Europe, and the highest levels of trust in the world.

It's not perfect - Denmark is still flipping cold, the tax takes some getting used to and I miss friends and family back home. But my shoulders have unfurled from their customary position hunched up somewhere around my ears, I can now sleep at night, and I have a family. Living Danishly has made me happy - with lessons for life that I can take with me, wherever ends up being home.

Helen Russell's new book, The Year of Living Danishly, Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Happiest Country is out now.

Do it like the Danes

Trust (more)

It makes you feel better, saves you unnecessary stress, and trusting the people around you can make them behave better, so that trust becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Get hygge

Danes celebrate the simple pleasures in life — light a candle, make yourself a cup of coffee, eat some pastries. Be kind to yourself. See? You’re feeling better already.

Don’t do presenteeism

Working late is more likely to earn you a lecture on efficiency and time management than a pat on the back in Denmark. Unless you’re a brain surgeon, chances are lives won’t be lost if you actually leave work on time So try it.

Make your environment beautiful

The average Danish home looks like something out of a weekend lifestyle supplement and making your surroundings aesthetically appealing boosts your mood and makes home somewhere you’ll enjoy hanging out.

Get a hobby

Feeling a part of something can improve mental wellbeing and studies also show that being active and prioritising leisure makes you happier and healthier and even more productive at work.

Streamline your options

Living in rural Jutland isn’t exactly life in the fast lane but it turns out limiting your options can take some of the stress out of modern life. If too much choice feels like a burden rather than a benefit, then take a step back. Danes specialise in stress-free simplicity and freedom within boundaries.

Value family

Family comes first in all aspects of Danish living but even if you haven’t got as much free time as our Viking cousins, you can still prioritise spending some of it with the people you care about most. Your own relatives not much copy? Borrow someone else’s or create your own urban-family of friends.

Respect for equal work

In Denmark, there isn’t ‘women’s work’ and ‘men’s work’: there’s just ‘work’. Care-givers are just as crucial as breadwinners and neither could survive without the other Both types of labour are hard, brilliant and important - all at the same time.


In the land of Lego, playing is considered crucial — no matter what your age. So get building; create; bake your own pastries for a hygge time; just do and make things as often as possible (the messier the better).


Life’s easier this way, honest, and you’ll be happier too according to studies. Okay, so we can’t all influence government policy to wangle a Danish-style welfare state, but the principle still applies: Just. Share. More. Take some pastries round to a neighbour or invite someone over to your Scandi-happy home and let the warm, fuzzy feelings flow.

Irish Independent

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