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The Secret of Happiness

Unhappy people have always tried to find ways to be happy, and today more than ever we have access to seemingly endless ways of making ourselves happy. The internet provides a wealth of advice and opinion but does nothing to help us discern the plausible and worthwhile from the ineffective or downright dangerous. Relatives, friends and acquaintances make suggestions when asked (and even when not asked!), but might not be best placed to offer advice. A useful question that you could ask of anyone who offers you advice about how to be happy is “On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you?”. If they aren't 10 out of 10, ask them what would make them a 10. Their answers should help you discern whether their advice might be worthwhile.


A high-flying London businesswoman worked hard for more than 12 hours a day for years as the editor of a women's magazine. As a journalist on a glossy magazine, she felt like a fraud – she would write about how readers could 'have it all' – a healthy work-life balance, success, sanity, sobriety, all while sporting the latest styles and a radiant glow. In reality, she was still paying off student loans, relying on industrial quantities of caffeine to get through the day and self-medicating with Sauvignon Blanc to get herself to sleep. She'd been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant for two years and had been undergoing fertility treatment. She was permanently exhausted, her life felt scattered and fragmented, she was always trying to do too many things at once, and she felt as though she was falling behind. She had headaches, intermittent insomnia, on/off tonsillitis that didn't shift despite months of antibiotics and she seemed to come down with a cold every other week. (Subtle hint from Angela – this is where acupuncture and Chinese medicine can really help make a difference.) She was offered the chance to do something completely different for a year and decided to accept the challenge, agreeing to move to a small town beside the North Sea in Denmark with her husband when he started his new job with Lego in January 2014. She wrote a book called 'The Year of Living Danishly – uncovering the secrets of the world's happiest country'. At the start of her year of living Danishly, aged 33, she rated herself as 6 out of 10 for happiness. She soon learned that there's a difference between eager-to-please-nice-girl syndrome and feeling genuinely good about yourself.


One of the things she was told before she moved to Denmark was that Danes don't believe that buying more stuff brings you happiness. A bigger car just brings you a bigger tax bill in Denmark. A bigger house takes longer to clean. Greater wealth means additional anxieties. Fewer new shiny things = fewer hours overtime = happier life.


Here are her first questions about being happy in Denmark:

  • How do Danes stay upbeat when it's minus 10 every day in the winter?
  • Doesn't a 50% tax rate really stick in everyone's craw?
  • Could the much-celebrated Danish aesthetic influence the nation's mood?
  • Or are they just high on dopamine from all those pastries?

I've read the book, so you don't have to. Actually, it was a very interesting read and I would recommend it to everyone. Helpfully, Helen Russell summarises her top ten tips for living Danishly at the end of the book. Here they are:

  1. Trust more – this is the number one reason the Danes are so happy. Try it – you will feel better and save yourself unnecessary stress, and trusting the people around you can make them behave better, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  2. Get 'hygge' (a Danish word that is very difficult to translate into English) – remember the simple pleasures in life – light a candle, make yourself a cup of coffee, eat some pastries. You're feeling better already.

  3. Use your body – cycle, run, jump, dance, have sex. Shake whatever you've got. Using your body not only releases get-happy endorphins, it also makes you look hotter, Danish-style.

  4. Address your aesthetics – make your environment as beautiful as you can. Danes do, and it engenders a respect for design, art and their everyday surroundings. Remember the broken window syndrome, where places that look uncared for just get worse? The reverse also applies.

  5. Streamline your options – cutting down on choice can take some of the hassle out of modern life. Too many options for things to do, places to eat or what to wear can feel like a burden rather than a benefit. Danes specialise in stress-free simplicity and freedom within boundaries.

  6. Be proud – find something that you or people from your home town are really good at. Own it. Celebrate success. Wave flags and sing at every available opportunity.

  7. Value family – national holidays become bonding bootcamps in Denmark, and family comes first in all aspects of Danish living. Reaching out to relatives and regular rituals can make you happier, so give both a go. If your family isn't up to much, start your own with friends by using tip number 3 (the sex part).

  8. Equal respect for equal work – remember, there isn't 'women's work' and 'men's work', there's just 'work'. Caregivers are just as crucial as breadwinners and neither could survive without the other. Both types of labour are hard, brilliant and important, all at the same time.

  9. Play – Danes love an activity for its own sake, and in the land of Lego, playing is considered a worthwhile occupation at any age. So get building. Create, bake, draw. Just do and make things as often as possible (the messier the better).

  10. Share – life's easier this way, honest, and you'll be happier too according to studies. Can't influence government policy to wangle a Danish-style welfare state? Take some of your cake round to a neighbour, or invite someone over to share your 'hygge' and let the warm, fuzzy feelings flow.


There were some big surprises in the book, which I will also share here.

  • Anti-depressants (Danes have the highest levels of anti-depressant use in Europe and rising levels are attributed to use of medication in milder cases of depression and increasing 'work stress'), cigarettes (smoking rates dropped from 45% in 1990 to 20% in 2010 – smoking is commonplace in Denmark), alcohol (Danes are among the highest drinkers in Europe – the WHO says they consume 11-12 litres of pure alcohol per person per year) and cancer (Danish women have the highest rates of lung cancer in the world, and Denmark tops the world cancer charts for all types of cancer in both sexes).
  • Danes work an average of 34 hours a week, get five weeks paid holiday a year and 13 days off for public holidays, so work an average of 18.5 days per month. They enjoy their jobs too and most would work even if they didn't need to. They are also ranked third in an OECD study into productivity. If anyone stays late or works too much, they're more likely to get a leaflet about efficiency or time management dropped on their desk than any sympathy.
  • Welfare safety net – everyone is looked after equally well. There are free schools, universities, doctors, hospitals, automatic holiday pay that is very generous, and employers pay into a good pension system that really benefits Danes and those who settle there. If you lose your job, you are paid 80% of your salary for up to two years. The tax system pays for it – income below $10,500NZD is tax-free, then you pay 37% on earnings up to $115,000NZD, with a top rate of tax of 51.7% on anything you earn above this figure. Plus everyone also automatically pays 8% social security tax and there is 25% gst added to almost everything. Homeowners also pay property tax and there is a separate levy paid by members of the Danish national church (to which most of the country belongs). Cars, petrol and electricity are also heavily taxed to regulate consumption.
  • Research shows that there is a basic threshold beyond which any extra money adds nothing to levels of well-being (around $50,400NZD in Denmark) after which we apparently get wealthier but less contented. Also, research shows that rich kids have a higher risk of succumbing to eating disorders, cheating and stealing. But don't despair if you're already taking home more than the happy-income threshold, there are three solutions – work less, pay more tax or migrate to a poorer country.
  • Jante's Law – everyone is equal, nobody is better than anyone else.
  • Getting a divorce in Denmark is very easy – a straightforward one costs around $228 and takes 1-3 weeks.
  • Helen Russell didn't mind paying more for a coffee in Denmark because the person serving her didn't hate her or have a crappy life. Everyone is paid a decent wage, everyone is looked after and everyone pays their taxes. And if everyone has marginally less money to buy more stuff that they really don't need anyway as a result, then it's a deal worth making.