On our family holidays this year we took the train to Sweden, and spent some time in Copenhagen on the way. The city immediately lodged itself in my list of favourite places. Nowhere is perfect, but Copenhagen seemed to be getting more things right than most, with great public spaces, an obvious sense of public trust, and bikes everywhere. While we were exploring, I came across the Happiness Museum, an intriguing little visitor attraction dedicated to how happiness has been defined through the ages, and why Denmark consistently comes up as one of the happiest place on earth.
I got a swift no from the rest of the family, who had already humoured me with a visit to the Danish Architecture Centre. And so I did the next best thing and read a book about it instead.
The Year of Living Danishly isn’t the sort of thing I normally read. It’s in that vein of ‘Brits abroad’ books that riff on how strange other cultures are, and play up the haplessness of being British and foreign. I usually find that kind of thing a little tiresome, but there’s a charm and wit to this one that won me round. And as well as gamely throwing herself into Danish culture, Helen Russell is attempting to understand it. So she talks to experts of all kinds. There’s a curator at the Danish design museum (also vetoed by my family), entrepreneur and workplace happiness expert Martin Bjergegaard, sociologists, parenting experts, broadcasters, and a chef who “looks like a cross between a Scandi hipster and Jesus.”
Chapters explore various aspects of Danish culture, such as work, leisure time, raising children, or how to survive the winter. Personal discoveries sit alongside research and expert comment, looking at how Danish culture delivers good lives, and how it came to be.
There are a handful of recurring themes. Equality is one of them, both economic equality and between the sexes. Men play a more active role in raising children and running a household than many other countries. Equality is fed by policy and reinforced by culture, as pushing yourself forward isn’t part of the Danish way. You don’t think you’re better than others. Public spaces and shared traditions act as levellers, and so do social clubs, where everyone is considered equal and “you’ll find a CEO playing football with a cleaner”.
There’s a level of detail to this that I found quite interesting, like the way that secondary school students call their teachers by the first names. It’s deliberate, to suggest that while teachers might have the authority, nobody is more important than anyone else in the classroom. Or when you buy a car, a new licence plate is generated at random rather than by date, so that there can be no one-upmanship over how old your car is.
Trust is another theme, starting with the freedoms that children and schools have. Denmark is among the safest places to live in the world, and social trust is important to that. That includes trusting the government, which is vital to sustain the high tax regime that the country runs.
Those taxes are spent on high quality healthcare and a social security safety net that is second to none. With the basics covered, Danes are free to pursue happiness higher up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, through culture (which is subsidised), lifelong learning (also government supported), and meaningful work (generous welfare support makes it easy to change jobs.)
Of course, you don’t need me to tell you that Scandinavian culture is idealised and romanticised in the public imagination. The Year of Living Danishly, written in Russell’s first year in the country, has a touch of that, though it also dwells on drinking culture, sexism and depression. The updated edition of the book contains an extra chapter that adds more context, such as far-right politics and structural racism. “My access to the country has been completely different to someone arriving from, say, Syria” Russell acknowledges. Denmark is not a utopia, and it has its fair share of underlying darkness.
Nevertheless, there is much to learn from a country that has chosen, over the decades, to use its wealth for the benefit of society at large. This is the not the case in Britain, where wealth consistently flows upwards. As a nation, we are accelerating (on fire and screaming) in the opposite direction from almost everything this book describes – greater inequality, erosion of trust in politics, instability. No need to labour the point. It’s a long road from where we are, but perhaps it’s never been more vital to ask that most unBritish of questions: what can we learn from other countries?