The woman came into the DSK bar looking as if she were trying to find someone. She sat on a stool next to me. I returned to my book, but she soon asked me if I knew the bar’s owner. I pointed her out. The woman, whose name I no longer remember but I’ll call Brigitte, went over to the owner and after a short conversation, left. A few weeks later, I learned that Brigitte had been hired as the bar’s manager.
Over the next month or so, I found out that she was married to a Frenchman who cooked in a restaurant a couple miles away. She, however, had been born and raised in Denmark. I asked if she was aware of the book The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell, which I had recently read. She was not but asked me about it.
I told her that Russell, who is English and had edited a British magazine, moved to Denmark when her husband got a job with, what else, the Lego Company. Russell had seen surveys that placed Denmark at the top of lists with the happiest populace. She set out to figure out why because she learned quickly that there were some reasons not to be happy about in her new home. It has a harsh climate and high taxes. (When a Britisher complains that somewhere else has an unpleasant climate, you can be damn sure that the weather is not an attraction.) Russell soon realized, however, that the Danish had learned to cope with and accept the weather. They also did not bitch much about the taxes because the country used them to provide excellent health care, education, childcare, and other social services. In addition, partly because of the tax structure, extremes in wealth were much less than in England. Riches were seldom flaunted, and few people seemed to think they would be happier if they only had a few more euros. Russell thought that this led to more contentment throughout Danish society than what she observed in Great Britain.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for Russell and her husband was the many fewer hours the Danes worked compared to the English. The Danes had a lot of days off for holidays and national celebrations and were provided with extensive vacation time. In addition, the Danish work day is short. Her husband came home from work much earlier every day than he had in England. Danish life was not simply work, eat, and sleep. The Danes had time for other activities, which they did in abundance. They did them, however, in a different fashion from the way Russell was used to. Danes seldom acted by themselves or just with another person or couple. Instead, they did them in groups. There were clubs for almost everything, from biking to knitting, and the Danes regularly participated in club activities. As a result, Russell realized, the Danes were almost always connected to others.
Russell, however, was struck by an anomaly. She noted that many studies had found a positive correlation between happiness and religion, but Denmark, which is not very religious, belied that. She was not surprised by the lack of religiosity. She cited studies concluding that the better educated and wealthier the country is the less likely its population believes in a higher being and participates in religious rituals. Russell noted that the USA is an outlier for this correlation—a country that is wealthy and highly educated, but still high in religious practices and beliefs. Russell went on to say, however, that America may have much in common with third world countries. Unlike highly taxed Denmark, the US lacks universal healthcare, has scant job security, and has a flimsy welfare net. Perhaps, she speculated, people are less likely to need a God if they live somewhere that is safe, stable, and prosperous. In other words, those in a secure and prosperous land, living without fear of health and financial disasters, are more likely to be happy than those in a more god-fearing country without universal healthcare, good job security, and a tightly knit welfare net.
Helen Russell also found that several clichés about Denmark were true. First, there were a lot of candles. Lots and lots of them. (Get your hygge on.) Second, she discovered that its reputation for excellent pastries was well deserved. She mentioned this repeatedly, and it was clear that she had much firsthand (firstmouth?} experience to back up the claim.
The bar manager listened with interest to Russell’s exposition of Denmark’s strengths. Brigette did not agree. She did not think of Denmark as a place to be happy. Instead, it was a land of enforced conformity that undercut individuality. Brigette had been happy to leave her homeland and had no desire to return. (Yes, she did know who Victor Borge was. I did not ask her about Hamlet.)
Brigitte did not remain as bar manager for long. I was told that she and her husband moved to France. I hope she is happy.