Culture / Interview / Lifestyle

“My Year of Living Danishly Stretched to Eight”: Helen Russell in Conversation

When her husband got a job at Lego, HELEN RUSSELL moved to Denmark. Her bestselling book The Year of Living Danishly set out to discover why the Danes are some of the world’s happiest people…

How long have you lived in Denmark, where do you live, and what’s changed in your life since The Year of Living Danishly?

My year of living Danishly has somehow stretched to eight years. I no longer live in Sticksville-on-Sea. I’ve moved a little closer to civilisation and I have children now… spoiler alert if you haven’t read the book! I went from never thinking I’d have children to having a large family. We have a life here now.

Your book is about living Danishly, but we’re fairly similar cultures… how much of life in Denmark was the same as in the UK?

The weather isn’t great. If you look at a map, you’re talking Scotland really. The weather is so bad here between October and March that everyone does nothing but stay inside. I’m not in glossy Copenhagen, I’m in rural Jutland. So, it does seem very different. Certainly, having grown up in the south east and lived in London, where the emphasis is on ambition, the Danish values seem very different.

Was it a difficult decision to give up your job at Marie Claire, in order to follow your husband’s career and move abroad?

Absolutely terrifying! I had a nice job, lots of friends. People made mutterings of career suicide and wondered if I was having a breakdown… which perhaps I was! We moved to Denmark in the middle of winter. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t have a job. My husband left for work at 7:30am and I was alone in the house. I wondered if I’d made the biggest mistake of my life. It took a lot of bravery and tenacity. I put my journalist’s hat on and approached it as a project. I found out about a different area of Danish living each month and that gave me a focus. Otherwise, I would have just curled up in a ball and not come out until summer.

Copenhagen, unlike London, seems a fairly informal city. Nevertheless, living in Jutland, have you found there’s a difference in attitudes between urban and rural areas in Denmark?

That’s a good question. They’re all Danes. But yes, Danish is the ninth hardest language to learn in the world, and even in a county of just 5.6 million people, Copenhageners often don’t understand Jutlanders.

You talk a lot about childcare in The Year of Living Danishly. Denmark is well-known for generous childcare – what sets its system apart?

Every child is guaranteed a place in state-run day care from six months. It’s affordable: 2,600 DKK (£300) a month. By the age of one, children are all in day care as the parents go back to work. Black eyes, scratches, teeth knocked in… it’s Lord of the Flies-esque. But studies show it’s good for development and mental health. My son is seven, and I got a message from the Scout leader saying the children are going to build bonfires, so they need to bring their daggers with them. It’s normal for children to have axes.

You’ve written books on happiness, and your podcast How to Be Sad interviews guests about happiness. Was happiness something you were always interested in, or was it a fascination you developed living in Denmark?

Well, we’re all fascinated with happiness, I think. Working in consumer and lifestyle magazines, the underlying message of most features I wrote was happiness. And, actually, my podcast is about sadness. Since moving to Denmark, I realised it’s because there are fewer reasons to be unhappy. In a later book, I travelled to discuss my work and realised people are so obsessed with the pursuit of happiness, they have a phobia of being sad. Many of us have a very narrow definition of happiness: never being sad. In limiting sadness, we’re making negative thoughts worse. My podcast looks at how being sad can make us happier… in a roundabout sort of way!

Denmark is no longer the happiest nation in the world. Was there some jealousy when Norway and Finland, fellow Nordic countries, took up the position in the following years?

No, I don’t think so. You’ve probably heard of Jante Law, and that means it’s very un-Danish to show off about your achievements. Norwegians and Finns are similarly understated. Anyway, there’s a general feeling that if one Nordic country is doing well, they all are.

The UK is still pretty obsessed with Scandi lifestyle trends. Do you worry we’ll ever lose interest?

I wouldn’t say I worry about it. But you tell me…

I hope not! No, I don’t think so…

Yeah, I think it’s only natural to look at other countries and see what we can learn from them.

HELEN RUSSELL is the author of The Year of Living Danishly.

Feature image credit: Jonas Norrman

This article has also been published in Nordic Style Magazine.

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