In pursuit of an explanation for the Danish term of Hygge, which I am hearing so much about at the moment, I found myself reading this gloriously titled account of Helen Russell’s relocation from her native London to rural Denmark.
Helen opens her story sharing a picture of her life in London. Working for a glossy magazine she barely sees her husband or her home. She works longs hours, as does he. If she isn’t attending a glitzy party in the evening then she is home by about about 8 self-medicating on sauvignon blanc. There’s not a lot of down-time. She and her husband want a baby and have been torturing themselves with IVF for years.
One day they share their future hopes with each other. She wants to retire and live life like an Angela Lansbury character whilst he wants to live in a foreign country. She couldn’t think of anything worse. So when he comes home and tells her, out of the blue, that he has been offered a job with Lego in Denmark she is suspicious of his protestations that the job offer was unexpected. Nevertheless he asks her to seriously consider it as this is a life goal for him.
Eventually she agrees that this is the future for them, for 12 months, and in January she and “Lego Man” head off to an unexpectedly chilly Denmark.
Helen, having researched Denmark, sees their relocation as an opportunity to explore why Denmark is constantly topping the happiest country polls. Her happiness experiment starts straight away.
The book is broken up into chapters denoted by the passage of a month. Each month Helen explores a different concept that may or may not contribute to the overall happiness of the nation. Given that she is actually a journalist she researches the matter comprehensively, speaking to experts as well as documenting her own experiences. The culture in Denmark is quite different to that in the UK particularly with regards to working hours, trust and eating cake. Well these were the areas that jumped out for me!
Hygge originates from the long and difficult winters that Denmark experiences. During winter there is barely any daylight, it is extremely cold and snows a lot. Historically during this period family and neighbours would pull together to help each other through. Put simply once the sun went down everyone would gather in the kitchen around the stove, the only source of heat, with candles lit. They would eat and talk and be together. And this is central to Hygge. Cosy family time, probably during the winter. Obviously though we have electricity now and underfloor heating (a must have in Denmark) the sunshine hasn’t changed. It’s still very dark during the winter. People don’t tend to go out much. Home is central to happiness therefore and beautiful spaces, designer lighting, candles and comfort are top of the agenda.
I found the working hours in Denmark refreshing. The Danes apparently actually understand work life balance. Helen refers to the concept of presenteesim which is prevalent in the UK. I’ve long fought against it. She speaks of being very concerned with Lego Man arriving home from work around 4pm. He explains that if he were to stay at his desk longer than that he would, in all likelihood, get a note asking him to justify his inefficiency.
The Danish welfare system is amongst the most supportive in the world. The taxes are amongst the highest in the world too! If someone chooses to resign then after two weeks they are treated in the welfare system as if they had been made redundant or sacked. They get full benefits for up to two years. Most get a new job within a year. The lack of risk means that people are happier at work, feel that they can do the job that they want to do and don’t chase money. Childcare is heavily subsidised, healthcare is free. Even theatre tickets are subsidised to ensure that people can afford to go. All things that assist in increasing overall happiness.
Routines are a huge part of the Danish culture and most Danes are member of approximately 3 clubs. Clubs, again, are actively encouraged. Danes like to know what they are doing at any given time and the security club attendance gives them ensures a social life and increased life skills. Life-long learning is also encouraged.
The biggie for me was the issue of trust and something I had noticed on our recent holiday to Copenhagen. I noted that all the bikes I saw, and there were thousands, were unlocked. Just left outside cafes, railway stations, houses. All unlocked. I thought perhaps there were just so many that because everyone had one no-one would steal them. But the truth of it appears to be that the Danes just trust each other. They don’t expect to have their bike stolen so they don’t lock it. They don’t expect to have their baby stolen so they leave her asleep in her pram outside the cafe whilst they socialise. This is a serious shift of mindset isn’t it?
This was a great book and another one that wouldn’t have tended to make my basket on Amazon. I was glad of the recommendation because it was one of those books that helped me challenged my way of thinking. I learned a great deal about a country I really fell in love with in June and the book helped me fall a little more in love with it. I wish my husband would come home and tell me he had been offered a job in Denmark!