Book Review: The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Happiest Country by Helen Russell
As I am currently in the midst of my own experiment with living abroad, I was immediately intrigued by the concept of this book. Helen Russell is a journalist from the UK, and when her husband gets offered a job working for Lego in rural Denmark, they decide to take the adventure. Denmark is consistently listed as the happiest country on earth, so Russell made it her mission to figure out exactly why that is, and emulate it as closely as possible for their year living there.
I love the way she organized the book. Each month she took a particular aspect of Danish life to focus on - health, food, leisure activities, work, parenting, etc. She has an insatiable curiosity and I admire her confidence to just call people up and ask them for their expertise on a particular topic. Her writing style reads as if you are chatting with a friend, without being overly familiar, a trap some author's fall into. I also found her quite humorous, and would often laugh out loud as I read.
As often as I would laugh out loud, I think I gasped out loud even more. Some of the statistics she presents are shocking - she would compare Denmark to the UK which would have drastic differences, and then she would compare it to the US where the differences were even more staggering! I returned the book on my kindle already (there was a line!) but one statistic sticks in my mind. Denmark spends 12% of its GDP every year on health care - spending that covers every single citizen. By contrast, the US spends 18% its GDP on health care every year - but we don't cover everyone. The US is no longer a leader in providing good health outcomes either (just check out our stats on maternal health) so in essence, we spend more money, for worse outcomes, for fewer people. Ugh.
The welfare state in Denmark is strong - it is one of if not the strongest of all the countries on earth. For instance, you don't just get covered by unemployment insurance if you lose a job, you are covered if you leave a job voluntarily! There is a 5-week "quarantine" period but after that, you will receive 80% of your previous pay for up to two years - giving you time to study, retrain, and enter a new field if you wish. If you want to study at a university - as long as you qualify - not only does it not cost you anything - you get paid to study. Not to mention the free world-class healthcare! Oh, and child-care is subsidized by the government!
This all costs money of course, and Denmark has one of the highest tax rates on earth, hovering around 50%. On the surface, this sounds pretty rough. But think about it. Some of the main reasons Americans needs money is to pay for school/student loans and to pay for health costs; because even if you are lucky enough to have employer-provided health insurance you are still paying plenty out of pocket every year. So when we have those expenses, imagining losing 50% of our salary to taxes sounds abhorrent. But imagine if those things were covered? Imagine if you didn't have any student loan debt and never had to worry about paying a penny for anything health related? Sounds nice, doesn't it?
One of the things Russell discovered was that because of the high tax rate, Danes tend to choose work not based on how much money they will make, but on what they are passionate about or interested in. After all, the more money you make the more taxes you pay, so why go for a high-powered job you hate, when you can be happy and just as financially stable doing something else? Work-life balance is incredible in Denmark with the average workweek hovering under 40 hours a week, and employers offer paid holidays that you are encouraged, nay, practically required to take.
Now before, we start thinking that Denmark is some sort of Utopia on earth, of course, it has its problems, as well. The divorce rate is high in Denmark (in part because it is not prohibitive financially for people to divorce) and it has one of the highest populations of smokers (why worry about your health when the state will just pay to fix you up?) They have some super weird traditions like the ritual burning of "witches" on bonfires in the fall, and despite being a leader in gender equality some sexism and misogyny still exists. Russell described it that it's as if they realize they are doing well in a lot of ways (almost no pay gap, women are in leadership roles in everything from business to government, maternity and paternity leave is supported, etc) so what does a joke or two here or there matter? Also, it gets freaking cold there! I'm from Iowa so I pride myself on surviving rough winter conditions, but I don't think I want to live through a Danish winter.
There is so much more in this book, and even if you don't ever plan to move from where you are, most of the information she gleans about how to be happier in life can be applied right where you are. (Except for health costs, can't really help ya there if you stay in the States.) If you want to learn more about how to increase your own happiness, this book is a great place to start!