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The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country Kindle Edition
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London-based journalist Helen Russell was living a career-focused life in the UK, trapped by long working hours and overwhelmed by the many demands of her high-paced life. When her husband was offered the chance to move to Denmark and work for Lego, Russell went from initially skeptical to seriously intrigued once she learned that Denmark has routinely been named as the happiest country in the world. Why were people in Denmark so happy, Russell wondered? In this memoir, Russell captures the adventure of moving to a new country and setting up a new life, while providing lots of interesting insight into what might make Denmark such an ideal place to live in.
What I Liked
The humor. There are not many books that can make me physically laugh-out-loud while reading silently alone in my room. This memoir was one of them. The awkward moments Russell finds herself in while adapting to her new life in Denmark are abundant and hilarious. Like her experience during her first Danish language class, when Russell tries to tell her professor that she enjoys watching Danish Drama The Killing only to realize that pronounced and spelled in slightly different ways, killing in Danish means alternately kitten, chicken and bitch. Russell has a sharp, self-deprecating wit and often pokes fun at her own inability to assimilate comfortably into Danish social norms, while also wryly commenting on her husband’s reactions to the various new and puzzling aspects of Danish society to which they are introduced. The cast of characters that make up Russell and her husband’s social life in Denmark – like the neighbors Mr. Beard 1 and Mr. Beard 2 and her friend American Mom – provide funny anecdotes as well.
All the interesting facts I learned about Denmark. Russell divides the book into 12 chapters (one per month for her first 12 months in Denmark), with each chapter having a loose focus on one of the aspects of society/culture/economics that may contribute to the country’s status as happiest on Earth. I found the chapters on work/life balance (Chapter 2) and child-rearing (Chapter 8) particularly interesting, though also enjoyed reading about the various other topics that Russell investigates including hobbies, pets, vacationing, food, healthcare, education and more. One of the most surprising facts I learned about Denmark is that education is completely free, and that in fact students are paid to attend college in a varying amount that depends on their choice of field and their family’s income. I’m so much more informed about Danish and also by extension Scandinavian culture, and I have to say I’m very very intrigued. Maybe my new 10 year plan should be to turn my blog into a full-time job and then move to Denmark to blog from there. (Sounds like perfect reading weather and a girl can dream).
The memoir aspect. Russell could have written this book as a straight up guide to what life is like in Denmark, but I think her personal story and perspective really contributed to the narrative. I’ve moved around the world a lot myself throughout my life, and I know firsthand that adjusting to a new country really teaches you so much about yourself. It’s the perfect catalyst to some major life changes. Russell was struggling to feel truly happy while living in London. Once in Denmark, some of the depressing personal difficulties she was facing eased and lifted. She goes through a significant life change (no spoilers) while in this new country and sher and her husband end up deciding to stay in Denmark longer than the initially planned one-year. I came to genuinely like Russell and ended up rooting for her to be able to find true happiness in her new home.
What I Didn’t Like
The iffy research studies cited. I work in research, so I’m naturally more tuned in to potentially spurious studies, as well as conclusions that may show correlation but are presented as causation. Some of the studies cited by Russell about different aspects of life in Denmark sounded more rigorous or believable than others, and I wished I had the time to investigate them further – which was impossible because to her credit Russell mentions many different studies throughout the book. Ultimately, the questionable nature of some of the studies cited by Russell did not ruin my enjoyment of the book. Most of Russell’s conclusions about Denmark and the happiness of its people were pretty common sense anyways, and believable in their own right.
A funny, informative memoir that will teach you so much about Denmark while inspiring you to reconsider aspects of your life that may not be contributing to your happiness.
I wanted a light and fun, but deeply interesting read to bring on a summer trip, and this book turned out to be the perfect choice. It offered a pretty entertaining look at Danish culture and society, all through the lens of why they continually rank among the highest countries in terms of happiness.
I’m not too hard to please with a good book that takes on the premise of “I’ll try this out for a year and then write about it,” and this book fits that description to a tee. The writing is light and engaging enough to make it easy to fly right through its pages, yet contains enough statistics and odd facts to keep you intrigued. Did you know that Danish women can get an ovulation discount for booking their travel around a ripe time for them to procreate? I do now.
After a while you get the formula of each chapter: an anecdote, a few statistics, an interview with a randomly found “expert,” and the constant questioning of various Danes about how happy they are on a scale of 1 to 10. That said, the book manages to be pretty interesting in spite of its persistence upon this formula, so I suppose that’s a big win.
As far as Denmark goes? I could probably do without the tax rate (although, that comes with some major benefits), cultural homogeny, and the never-ending darkness come November, but there’s a lot about the Danish Way that I do appreciate. The lack of self-importance reflected in that earlier quote… I think that’s refreshing. And I love the way they’re able to enjoy their work. Not to mention the practice of hygge and getting all cozy as a sport.
What could go wrong? Well, lots of things according to author Helen Russell, who admits that going to a remote small town early in winter is not a way to meet the local Danes, because people tend to hole up during long winters full of short days. More or less stuck at home, but armed with cell phone and the Internet, she proves her intrepidity by interviewing all manner of Danish experts on such topics as the elusive quality of "hygge" (which roughly translates as *Gemuetlickeit* though "cozy" is only a vague approximation), attitudes toward religion, day care, the rearing of children, and the role of government-sponsored health care. Russell's core concern is that the Danes regularly count as among the happiest of people, perhaps THE happiest, though at times she finds her new environment more than bleak and her neighbors a bit stand-offish -- even her high-tech dryer flashes "SLUT" at her when done, because that's the Danish word for "Complete."
With the changing seasons and her growing competence at modern Danish life providing minimal narrative "glue," the focus of this book is really a series of brightly written lifestyle articles based on her interviews with those Danish experts. While Russell kindly translates the value of DKK (Danish Kronor) into both Pounds Sterling and US Dollars, some of her UK locutions sent me straight for the dictionary: a "gilet" is what we Yanks would call a padded vest, and "Salopettes" are something like "overalls" for example. Many books currently on the market set out to define the elusive "hygge"; this book makes it clear that what you really need, besides a well-built, snug and orderly house with furniture and candles of the very first order, are something of a Danish mindset that LIKES to cocoon during the cold months. A fun book, though at times the attitude of a go-to journalist who was clearly unhappier than she liked to admit got a tad wearing. (To be fair, it seems that Russell and Lego Man did decide to extend their stay.) Recommended, with the above reservations.