For the past couple of years, I have been on a mission to scale down my possessions and to be a minimalist. Somewhere along this journey, I heard about the book: The year of living Danishly by Hellen Russel.
Over the festive season, I borrowed the book via Libby from the local library. I finished the book in 10 days. It was such an enjoyable book – easy to read with the chapters not too long.
Key points from The year of living Danishly
Here are my key points from the book if you just want a quick overview of the book:
- Make your home comfortable with high-quality furniture and decor.
- Spend more time at home and with family and friends on cold days when it is unpleasant outside.
- Enjoy life’s simple pleasures of good, fresh food but also indulge in little pleasures, such as Danish pastries and good coffee.
- Work less, play more. Be more creative and have more fun. Try new recipes or activities to increase your happiness.
- All people are equal, regardless of job or income level.
- If something or someone makes you unhappy, find out whether you can cut them out of your life or reduce contact with them.
- Spend time outside in the sun and be more active to be happier.
- Share what you have with others!
- Live simpler – fewer choices make life easier and happier.
- Celebrate traditions or start your own to enjoy in future.
Background to the Year of living Danishly
Helen Russel was working for a large publication in London when her husband was offered a job at Lego in Denmark. They decided to accept the position and Helen became a freelancer. Initially, they went for a year but towards the middle of the book, her husband was offered an extension.
The fact that Denmark has been identified as the happiest country in the world intrigued Helen and she decided to find out whether this applied to everyone she met and also why the people were so happy. The book covers her research and main findings, but in a fun way! At the end of the book, Helen gives 9 tips for living Danishly.
The book is structured as a chapter for each month of the first year they lived in Denmark. Each chapter has a specific theme based on the seasonal experiences in Denmark or other topics that surfaced in Helen’s life during that month. Helen also summarises her main discoveries at the end of each chapter. My summery includes some of Helen’s and my own observations.
Helen and her husband arrived in the small town of Jutland in Denmark in January. Not only is it bitterly cold, but they find the streets of the town deserted. Upon further investigation, Helen discovers that the Danes prefer staying at home in winter and practice Hygge while doing that. Hygge intrigued Helen and she aimed to find out what Hygge involved.
Hygge refers to being at home in a cosy and comfortable environment. it includes the use of candles and good food such as excellent Danish pastries. The Danes love beautiful things such as art and designer furniture. They fill their homes with beautiful, high-quality items to make it more pleasant to be at home, especially during the winter when Hygge is such a focus. Since Danes stay at home in winter, it is difficult for newcomers to make friends with the Danes since they tend to stay at home or socialise with friends or family at someone’s home.
While living in London, Helen and her husband worked long hours and would often get home late at night. There was not much time for hobbies or doing fun stuff as a couple. After moving to Jutland, Helen and her husband discovers that the Danes don’t work long hours. They work until 15:00/16:00 and then they go home. Not working such long hours mean they have plenty of time for their hobbies and spending time as a family. For Helen and her husband getting used to this is quite an adjustment since they now have so much of free time! During this time, Helen discovers that nothing bad happens when people are not “on-call” at all times. She mentioned that she found Jante’s Law “strangely liberating”.
Jante's Law: Jante's Law is all about being average, which is something Danes abide by. Here are the 10 rules of Jante's Law, taken verbatim from Quartz: "The 10 rules of Jante Law 1. You’re not to think you are anything special. 2. You’re not to think you are as good as we are. 3. You’re not to think you are smarter than we are. 4. You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than we are. 5. You’re not to think you know more than we do. 6. You’re not to think you are more important than we are. 7. You’re not to think you are good at anything. 8. You’re not to laugh at us. 9. You’re not to think anyone cares about you. 10. You’re not to think you can teach us anything." Apparently, the principle of Jante's Law is that you should expect to live an average life. If anything exceptional happens or you achieve excellence in something, it would then be a pleasant surprise.
Income equality is greater in Denmark. The tax rate increases as the salaries increase, resulting in low and high-income earners ending up with similar take-home salaries. This also means that people from different income levels live in the same suburbs and streets. People from different income levels are members of the same clubs.
In March, Helen and her husband started looking for new hobbies and activities to fill their free time with. Helen discovers that the Danes love joining clubs for different activities, including sports, choir and language learning. The Danes socialise and meet people by becoming members of these clubs. They fill their free time with these activities.
Helen and her husband try different activities, including learning Danish and cycling. They also try a class at the local swimming pool, which had a surprising twist. There are also a couple of hilarious incidents explaining how difficult learning Danish is – I thoroughly enjoyed these although I understand how embarrassing it must have been for Helen.
The Danes like following rules. They like the order rules give them and they have no problem enforcing these rules onto others even when some rules don’t really make much sense. For me, rules give structure and it seemed like the Danes like structure and predictability by following the rules.
In April the weather warmed up and the Danes started spending more time outdoors. The Danes, young and old, are not squeamish and don’t mind seeing the slaughtering of animals and other such activities. For the Danes, animals are just animals except for their dogs. The Danes expect dogs to be trained well and to behave at all times. The Danes celebrate the change in seasons through animal activities, such as “dancing cow” activities. The Danes have their way of doing things and convincing them that there is a different or better way is almost impossible.
The Danes are patriotic and often hoist the Danish flag at home, but there is a specific way of doing it. Flags from other countries cannot be hoisted in Denmark. The Danes are not very religious, but find comfort in their traditions instead. Danish parents are very understanding and supportive of their children.
In June, summer in Denmark started and it became quite hot. The Danes spend a lot of time outside and love the sun. The days are long and warm.
Gender inequality is still an issue in Denmark, but the government is taking steps to improve the situation. Although this is still an issue in Denmark, the laws in Denmark to promote gender equality are better than in many other countries.
In July most Danes go away for a month-long holiday. Being away for a month is a really long time and can become quite borring. Sometimes a month-long holiday is too long for some marriages to survive and there is an increase in the number of divorces in the months following July. The Danes don’t have a hangup about divorce as they don’t believe in remaining in an unhappy marriage – being happy is more important than staying married and being unhappy.
The Danes are not shy about sex as it makes them happy. They enjoy it and often with multiple partners in non-traditional manners.
The Danish taxes are high. The Danish government uses the tax collected to give many benefits to the citizens. Schooling is subsidised or free, even up to university level. Children tend to stay in the same school throughout their school careers as the belief is that this builds better relationships and gives more stability to the children. Maternity and paternity leave for new parents are generous in Denmark which allows both parents time with their newborn babies.
During September, Helen and her husband went to Copenhagen for a few days. They discovered that there was a lovely variety of food and cultural options in the larger Danish cities than in the more rural areas. The Danish diet focuses on fresh local ingredients and healthy options. Helen discovered that good food, beautiful lighting and furniture increases happiness.
The Danish winter is tough! The healthcare in Denmark is excellent, but Danish people are often not living a very healthy life as it seems that they think they don’t have to – the healthcare is free and will take care of them regardless of how healthy their habits are.
Winter in Denmark comes suddenly and is dark most of the time, even during the days. Danes make it through the tough winter by remaining positive at all times and remaining at home most of the time. Despite the positive thoughts, suicides increase in Denmark in winter. Even pets get affected by the dark and cold winter weather in Denmark.
The Danish tax year is from January to December. Although the tax rate is high, most Danes don’t mind paying the high tax due to the benefits they receive from it. The Danes have a high level of trust for each other and for their government. There is a low level of corruption in the Danish government. Trusting people increases happiness!
Christmas is a HUGE event in Denmark. The Christmas festivities start on the first Friday in November with free beer distribution by Carlsberg, the largest beer producer in Denmark. This has been a long-standing tradition and a different theme is used each year for this event. Carlsberg produces a special Christmas beer, which is the fourth most popular beer in Denmark despite only being sold over the Christmas season. The Danes love drinking beer and eating liquorice. The Danes spend the festive season at home with their families, which helps connect family members. The Danes have specific traditions for Christmas day and it involves a lot of singing around the Christmas tree while burning candles.
New Year’s day is another big celebration with friends, family, lots of drinking and jumping on couches.
Nine tips for living Danishly
At the end of the book, Helen gives 9 tips for living Danishly, wherever you are. In short, these are:
- Trust the people in your life.
- Get hygge by focusing on the simpler things in life, such as eating good pastries and enjoying a cup of coffee. Use candles!
- Use your body and be more active. Activity increases endorphins and happiness!
- Make your home environment as beautiful as you can with good quality furniture and lighting.
- Simplifying your options reduces the number of decisions you need to make.
- Value your friends and family by spending more quality time with them.
- All work should be respected equally.
- Play more by being more creative and trying fun things.
- Share what you have with the people around you.
Helen also indicates at the end of the book that she and her husband stayed in Denmark and were still enjoying their life and increased happiness with their kids.
I enjoyed the book and will be implementing some of the tips Helen gave to make my life more “Danish”. Have you read this book? Have you implemented any of the Danish traditions?