The Year of Living Danishly: My Twelve Months Unearthing the Secrets of the World's Happiest CountryThe Year of Living Danishly: My Twelve Months Unearthing the Secrets of the World's Happiest Country by Helen Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This fun, easy-to-read book is deceptive. While making me laugh-out-loud inappropriately while reading in public places, it also got right under the skin of a powerful human question: what is it that makes me happy?

The premise for this autobiographical foray is that Russell, a London-based writer, finds herself reluctantly relocating to an out-of-the-way Danish coastal town with her husband who has secured the job of a lifetime, at Lego. Since the Danes are apparently the happiest nation on earth, she embarks on a quest to find out why.

Before reading this book I had a pretty positive view of Denmark. I have a few Danish friends, I'm a big fan of Scandi-style socialism, and, of course, Sandi Toksvig is quite funny.

But this book delves much deeper than my half-formed hunches. Scandi-style socialism really is a big thing. Wages are far more balanced to begin with, but where they diverge, wealth is redistributed and the state guarantees a bewildering array of options for Danish citizens. The school system is wilder and more creative, welfare security means people can retrain and move jobs till they find one they really love, and healthcare is both free and competent from cradle to grave.

Then, of course, there's 'hygge' - the winter-cosy craze that broke on Britain a few years ago, helped on, in part, by this book. It's deeper, apparently, that just blankets and candles and mood lighting. It's a way of being, to turn dark winter months into something re-creative. I got the impression that hygge takes some commitment, like a hibernation takes preparation to really be renewing.

But under all this there was a side to Denmark I hadn't glimpsed before. Paying tax is considered a privilege - something I have argued for before, as a way to reconceptualise our relationship to the State. But the State is so all-organising, that it seemed to me that Danish society functions on a fundamentally trusting submission to its paternal all-seeing authority.

I was busy brushing that concern aside when Russell wrote more about the Danish love of tradition. Churchgoing among the Danish population is very high, but generally only for traditional events. Religion isn't a fervent personal faith, but a cultural glue that holds people together. That ritualised culture isn't just evident in formal religious observance. Russell recounts multiple (often very funny) accounts of falling foul of 'the rules'. Behind the sharing and caring is a code that must be followed, embedded in Christian tradition and under the benevolent jurisdiction of the State.

Committed socialist that I am, something anarchic within me flinched.

One of the consistent features of the book is Russell's interviews with various influential or knowledgable Danes, which she always ends by asking them how happy they are, on a scale of 1 - 10. Almost no-one dips below 8. It's not difficult to understand, given the society that Russell describes. Not perfect by any means. But as countries go, pretty damn good.

But I couldn't get past the sense that there was something anachronistically homogeneous about the Danish culture about which I was reading. Progressive on women's rights, and social liberal on sexual ethics, this relaxed, super-equal Scandi culture can manage its internal challenges because globalisation has not really hit. Immigration is super-low, so this quietly traditional culture has most of its glue still intact. Whatever difference exists, it is all still subject to this longstanding 'way of doing things'.

This first-person easy-read has forced me to think in much more depth about my own culture here in the UK. We are currently far from happy, and immigration is being blamed as a major source of our woes. I believe very strongly in the positive power of immigration, not just economically but culturally. All cultures are hybrid, but the ones that pretend they aren't quickly ossify. Yet many of the people most opposed to immigration speak sadly of a cultural death, a lost way of life and a new country they no longer recognise.

The Danish utopia is food for thought. The Danish model is a popular idea among left-wing enthusiasts. But cultural stability is credited - at least by Russell and her interviewees - as being a major part of their happiness. If high levels of immigration are to be a continual part of our globalised future, we will need to think carefully about what makes us happy, and how to find it in the face of fast-paced change.

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