The Little Green Line of Good
Denmark is renowned for being one of the happiest countries on earth. How is it that this tiny, sparsely populated country with some of the worlds highest taxes and longest winters consistently ranks so highly in the world league of happiness? 6 weeks into life out here and I think I’m starting to understand the secret…
This weekend I was invited to my boss, Christian's, birthday party. Somewhere towards the middle of the night, Christian gave a little speech of all the things he was grateful for as he welcomed in a new year. At the end of the speech, he took a moment’s pause and finished by saying, 'You know, I'm just... good.'
Simple as that. No grand proclamations. No hyperboles about how wonderful his life was. Just a small expression of gratitude that he had everything he needed: friends, family and a job he loves.
Despite the fact that he runs an award-winning agency, has probably the nicest home I've ever been to, and even had a stint producing platinum selling records (true story...), he was totally unassuming about the awesomeness of his achievements. Having spent such a long time in London where there's a pretty relentless quest for an undefinable 'more', hearing those three little words - I'm just...good' - really struck a chord with me.
It got me thinking - perhaps at the heart of Danish happiness is the fact that Danes crave less of the things that money can buy. I'm not sure exactly why that is, but my best guess is that it all stems back to a book...
If you've ever read anything about Danish culture before you may have come across the infamous Jante Law (janteloven). Put simply, The Jante Law is a set of rules written by a Danish author in the early 20th century that enshrined modesty and humility in Scandinvian culture. It’s a bit weird, but this guy called Aksel Sandemose wrote a novel about a Danish town called Jante which abides by 10 (rather harsh) laws, all of which can be boiled down into one sentence: You’re no better than anyone else, so stop trying to prove otherwise. (I know, charming right?!)
It’s strange but true - a book written in the 1930’s pretty much paved the way to Danes shrugging off the western ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ mentality, in favour of a more humble ‘ordinariness’. That’s not to say that Danes aren’t extraordinary (I think they’re pretty stupendous), it’s just that they don’t feel the need to prove it.
Now, for someone who’s lived enough time in London to be shaped by it in some way, I’m finding that an absolute revelation. I’ve spent years feeling like I needed to prove something. I’ve wasted so much time feeling too unfashionable, too nerdy, too unassuming, too vain, not vain enough… the list goes on. In my quest to fit in, I spent a long time trying to prove that I was what people wanted me to be. I suppose on some level it was driven by an unconscious need to ‘keep up with the Joneses’.
And yet here I find myself in a society where it’s not about what clothes you wear, or what car you drive, or what job you have. Instead of pushing myself to be in the best in the crowd, I'm part of a culture where it’s more respected to just be a together and supportive sort of person.
I recently listened to a podcast that was recommended by the brilliant blog, Our House in Aarhus, and was struck to find out that the doctrines of Jante Law - albeit probably unconsciously - are a central part of Danish schooling. There’s no elite education here, no advanced, or gifted and talented programs. If one child is better than others at a certain subject, their job is to help others who are not as good.
I fricken love that. From year dot, Danish kids are taught to be supportive to their peers, not to compete against them. Ok, maybe that means that Denmark will churn out less Olympians than China or the States, but it sure as hell helps to raise happier and healthier citizens.
Being here is forcing me to reflect on my own measures of happiness. I love the idea of striving for a consistent feeling of ‘just being good’. In my head, it’s a little flat green line that centres the good and the bad days, so that over time, you achieve a consistent okayness, an overarching feeling that it's all alright.
It’s sort of comforting to live somewhere where there’s no pressure to be exceptional, where it’s ok to sometimes just be normal. Having grown up in a society where there was such an immense pressure to be special, where you're taught from day one that you will go on to achieve something extraordinary, I hit 25 and felt a failure that my life was distinctly average (Hello Quarter Life Crisis!). I felt like I was going nowhere cause I wasn’t [insert some unobtainable goal here].
Now I’m in Denmark and I realise that you can still dream of achieving amazing things, and that if you work hard enough those things will come true, but whilst you’re in the process of getting there it’s ok to just be you. No-one is going to judge you cause you don’t have a 6 figure salary or own a home. It’s fine right now to just keep on keepin' on.
That’s not to say that it’s all a bed of roses. One of the offshoots of the janteloven mentality is that Danes tend to be more conformist that I’m used to. I can count on one hand the people I’ve seen who dress or act distinctly. People (both men and women) tend to be skinny jeaned and messy bunned. I suppose the downside of a culture where it’s ok to be normal is that people are more nervous to be very outwardly ‘other’.
Despite that, after a long while of feeling off balance, my little green line of happiness is centering somewhat now that I'm here in Denmark....Here’s to a lifetime of being Just Good. No going back now!