Denmark is not all hygge.

denmark-bookWith winter coming on, it’s time I gave a report about a book I read on my Kindle, under my wool blankets last winter: The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country by Helen Russell. Why did I choose this book in the first place? It had something to do with the erratic and perplexing workings of my mind in that first year of widowhood, combined with the popularity of the concept of hygge and the instantaneous nature of Kindle shopping.

Once I began, an unhealthy curiosity took hold and overcame my better impulses; I wanted to find out if the author decided to stay a second year. I also hoped she might reveal moral principles in herself, or a change of attitude, or anything to show that she was more than an unemployed journalist using the Danish experience to make a buck.

Russell’s husband had been offered a job with LEGO, and after some deliberating about leaving her job and mother behind in Britain, they decided to try it for a year. Why not, when it’s known to be the happiest country in the world! During the year that they live there, she writes about various aspects of Danish life, and gives the reader tons of statistics (which I didn’t check) from various research studies not specifically about Denmark, to show that maybe the Danes are on to something. She does not hide statistics about the sky-high divorce rate, the highest anti-depressant use in Europe, high suicide rate, how people change jobs frequently (certainly not because they are unhappy at work), but the many people she asks personally always say that their happiness level is either 9 or 10.

What bothered me was how the author didn’t appear to like the Danish people, her new neighbors and friends. She uses them as humorous subject matter for her book, but if she likes living in Denmark, it doesn’t appear to be out of appreciation for the natives. Also, I kept waiting for her to show that she held to principles against which to assess the culture, but by example, she quickly got over an initial concern over the way Danes casually expose children to pornography, and seems to easily absorb whatever socialist values are expedient, in trade for living in a welfare state with free everything.

denmark-happy_children
Danish children – www

It may be that Russell is only trying to maintain an objective stance as a journalist; when she lacks her own ideas, she finds some statistics to throw out there. We are told about the Danes, “They cherish their freedom to indulge every whim,” and they “really enjoy themselves, safe in the knowledge that they’ll be looked after if (or rather, when) anything goes wrong.” This is important, because “women here have the highest rates of lung cancer in the world, and Denmark also tops the overall worldwide cancer charts for all types of cancer in both sexes.” Related statements are about how they are “among the highest drinkers in Europe,” and “smoke with zeal.” She also lets us know, using language I find oddly travelogue-ish, that Denmark is the “top spot for STI’s [a.k.a. STD’s] in Europe.”

She’s less non-committal about the many more wholesome customs she learns about. When a neighbor tells her about the importance of church confirmations, saying, “It’s tradition!” she calls the concept “That old chestnut.” One belief I’m sure was inculcated before she ever left the U.K. is “…sometimes the practice of religion goes against human rights, for instance in the case of abortion.” That she doesn’t say whose human rights she is thinking of, we must chalk up to her not being in the habit of thinking outside the box that the typical journalist these days is ensconced in, and not even being aware of her bias. She states in several places her assessment that religion doesn’t really mean much to most Danes, but if it is “going against” something in the popular culture, I am encouraged.

As to hygge, Russell does try to learn to slow down, to burn candles and eat pastries in the winter as she’s told to do, and she credits this more relaxed life with ending her infertility. Though it means that the grandmother will be across the sea, the couple do decide to stay another year.

fire-zoe

I can’t help wondering if her new friends read her book, and how they felt about it. Maybe they don’t like to be the targets for her sarcasm… but probably she is a good neighbor in real life and they forgive her for not treating them as more than superficial-sounding book characters. I don’t like to think about the possibility that the author and her subjects truly have been reduced to mere contented, or sated, consumers; but when I factor in all those alarming statistics, the image I get of what people are doing on those long winter nights is not inspiring.

This winter, I will be glad not to live in a frigid place like Jutland. I will work on my own style of being cozy at home, and it will no doubt include the reading of many books. But reading this one hasn’t made me want to pursue anything Danish, and it has done nothing at all for my hygge.

17 thoughts on “Denmark is not all hygge.

  1. Hmmmm. I wonder then about the reports of ‘happiness’ and if anyone there (outside of those who have morals etc) is really happy. That does give a pause to reflect and I appreciate this. I know that I loved Holland but of course their morals are not admirable at present and there is a lot that is hidden or not understood.

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    1. That’s what I was wondering — how do they define happiness? Also, I wonder if the Danes are told they’re happy, therefore they believe they are happy. Same as Americans — we’re told we have all these freedoms, more than anyone else in the world, and so we believe we’re free and we’re proud of that. However I feel more akin to Joel “Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal” Salatin. I’d like to be able to sell my raw goat milk, ya know?

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  2. “sky high divorce rate”…doesn’t exactly fit “happiest country” title…? Wow. And her attitude? Surely she didn’t need to take her negative attitude with her. She sounds extremely unhappy, therefore not a good fit with Denmark.

    Then again, what do I know?
    lol

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  3. I always appreciate your straightforward book reviews. Knowing nothing much about the Danes except what I have read in the books like Wheel on the School, I appreciate your thoughts. I suppose like everything, someone from the outside looking in would see my pasture as nothing but weeds and dirt while I see a dream. I like to think of there being some place in the world that hygge is going on every day. Maybe after all, life is what we make it in our corner of the world. I love your thoughts so much. They always make me think. Thank you Gretchen.

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  4. I come from what was once termed “good Swedish stock.” And, there are many Danes in Texas — as in California. What occurs to me is that the same cultural shifts that are taking place in this country have been gaining steam in Europe for some time. Several bloggers I’ve known from Denmark, Sweden, and Finland, no longer are blogging, and some of them said, quite explicitly, that their opinions were so far from the increasingly questionable practices and opinions of the country, they simply preferred to be silent.

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  5. I was not familiar with the word hygge and had to look it up. It all sounds lovely and I can certainly understand why you would want to light a fire, get a snuggly blanket and have a little sense of hygge in your life. This is such a fine book review; it does what a good review should do, even when it is not a recommended book. The idea of a happy country, let alone the “happiest country,” seems odd to me. One would have to agree on so many underlying assumptions about the universe to agree on some metric to measure the flighty bird of happiness. As your subtle review reveals, better we yearn for fruit of the Spirit “… love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control. Against such things there is no law.” Gal 5:22-23

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  6. I love Jeannette’s comment. I hated that book. I can’t stand it when an author’s selfish motive is so apparent. I couldn’t finish it because it was so off the mark (my understanding of hygge was formed when MK introduced me to the concept).

    The author’s sassy attitude became immediately laborious. The Book of Hygge is much gentler.

    I really don’t think anyone thinks the Danes don’t have their human troubles. I guess I think of the concept of hygge as a warm love for our neighbor, an acceptance of our in-common human frailty, sort of an “everybody is everybody” awareness.

    I subscribed to another hygge blog for a while and I still get the alerts when there is a new post, but I don’t read it. Again, without real LOVE there is no understanding of hygge.

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  7. Temp dropped 25 degrees within a few hrs here in Oklahoma City today. It will be in the 40’s tonight. Then back up to the high 80’s by Sunday. Living here is like sailing in the SF Bay- you can experience every kind of weather in one day! I dove into my husband’s shearling-lined driving mocs and heated up some Fairlife chocolate milk.

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  8. I enjoyed your review, and Jeanette’s comments, as well. Happiness is an elusive thing to describe.

    As I write, I’m sitting on the floor in front of the fire (gas, alas), listening to the rain dripping outside. It’s darkish because of the cloud cover, but the tops of the trees outside my window are dull gold. In this moment I am replete with a sense of well-being. Happiness bubbles up and down in my life, but well-being and contentment can be a way of living.

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  9. Well – now I have a dilemma. It doesn’t sound like a book I’d want to read! but I also want to be able to take it apart, which I can’t do without reading it. however – this all seems to be dealing in stereotypes, and stereotypes only. I’d be more interested in reading one or other of the available books (in English) about the idea of ‘hygge’ written by Danes – this author’s personal agenda seems to get in the way. ‘Hygge’ doesn’t mean ‘happiness’!

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  10. I agree with Pom Pom, hygge comes from the heart of love — Love of home, of family, of neighbors, of God. The heart that wants to serve, to share, to give comfort, joy, and peace can give hygge.

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  11. I don’t see anything here about music in Denmark (it goes way back, & American jazz musicians went to live there), Danish art and architecture, Danish writers, & I bet there are other dimensions of life-giving experience that aren’t covered in the book — ???

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    1. That is a good point – those cultural elements were lacking in the reporting. More recently I learned from another American about some music by Danes that has been very enriching to me, and I will be sharing about it here soon.

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  12. You might enjoy exploring the perspective on Bhutan’s “Gross National Happiness” concept, described in a Wikipedia article. I recall seeing a PBS interview with Bhutan’s Prime Minister about three years ago. It’s a rare concept to see dealt with at all, & Bhutan’s culture is quite another thing from Denmark’s, one might assume.

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  13. I am Danish and very sorry to hear you don’t want to visit my country, although I would understand why you would want to avoid Denmark in the winter.

    We honestly don’t think a lot about happiness and hygge in Denmark. Most of the time we are complaining about the weather, it’s raining too much, it’s too hot, it’s too cold. Or we are complaining about the public transportation, the Politicians etc..

    We probably drink too much. And we probably eat too much as well.

    But overall I do think that we are happy without being told constantly that we are. The tax is sky high but we get paid to study. Hospitals, schools, education are free.

    And that gives us the freedom that makes us happy. Not happier than a lot of other places in my opinion.

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    1. How wonderful to hear from a real Dane! Thank you, Stine, for writing and giving me your personal point of view. I’m sorry that I read that particular book about Denmark. Certainly before I visit – and I would never throw away the whole idea of traveling there – I would read something that you and your countrymen have written. I understand about the ability to complain about the weather and to be happy at the same time 🙂

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