The Year of Living Danishly – Helen Russell: A Review

Date finished: January 7th 2017

I’m something of a Scandi-phile. Something about fjords, wool jumpers, social democracy, high happiness, equality and education just appeals to me. Indeed, I imagine at least one of those things must appeal to everyone. Most likely, the happiness part, which the Nordic countries regularly top in surveys of satisfaction with life. I’ve already Michael Booth’s excellent The Almost Nearly Perfect People but getting another perspective on our hygge neighbours is always a good shout for a nice read.

img_4058The Year of Living Danishly follows journalist Helen Russell and her husband’s move to Denmark after he accepts a job at the Lego company. Tired of the stress and bustle of London life, they decide to give Danish life a go after finding out that it’s the happiest country in the world. The book is divided into the months of their year in Denmark, chronicling how they settle in to the Danish lifestyle with its quirks, perks and eccentricities.

The Almost Nearly Perfect People was mostly focused on the socio-economic side of the Nordic countries – how their political and economic systems as well as their national mannerisms played a part in their supposed perfect society. The Year of Living Danishly, focused as it is on just Denmark, looks more at the domestic side of things – how the Danish live on a day-to-day basis, their education, healthcare, jobs, home life and culture, rather than their stereotypes and statistical averages. Both are written with equal measures of serious journalism and English cynicism, ensuring a read one part fascinating and one part hilarious. Russell’s writing sparkles with wry humour which makes the whole thing immensely readable. Come for the Scandi-facts, stay for the witty remarks.

Just a handful of things I’ve learnt about Denmark whilst reading this include:

  • Virtually all Danish houses have underfloor heating – the very idea of a draft in the house would be unthinkable.
  • The Danes average working week is 35 hours compared to 43.6 hours
  • The Danes high taxes (averaging 56% of earnings) subsidise an immensely strong welfare state which funds everything from childcare to extra-curricular activities – 90% of Danes are a member of at least one state-funded club.
  • One of these clubs is an adult swimming club, where couples go to make out in a swimming pool whilst other couples are present. Do not go to an adult swimming club in Denmark.
  • The Danes will get their flag out at any opportunity, and flying the flags of other nations on Danish style is generally forbidden without permission from the state.
  • Danish TV broadcasts an hour of Disney works on TV from 7pm every Friday so that parents can, shall we say, “reconnect” with one another without interruption.
  • In England you pay to study in a higher education institute. In Denmark, the state pays over-eighteens to study.

Some of these ridiculously Utopian ideas, such as the shorter working week, subsidised leisure activities ingrained into the culture, and free (and even paid!) education are the reason I have a fascination with Denmark and the other Nordic countries. Quite simply, Scandinavia is the world done right. Whilst here in Britain we overwork ourselves to the point of stress, the Danes are working 8 til 4 at the most and using the rest of their time for leisure, volunteering and family time. And they’re measurably happier as a result. A lot of factors come into it, but the fact is, we can learn a lot from our Scandinavian neighbours. Denmark and the rest of the Nordic nations aren’t perfect, but they’re approaching life from a much fairer, logical and reasonable angle than the British and American systems, which are slowly consuming one another.

And that makes The Year of Living Danishly an incredibly valuable book. It’s a fascinating immersion into a different culture, but it’s also a timely reminder of how bad things in England have become, and the kind of society we should be working towards. And it’s a heartwarming, entertaining and hygge read all round with plenty of tips on how we can all take a moment and find ways to make ourselves happier. A perfect winter warmer from a nation with a lot of experience in winters and keeping warm.



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