Book of the month - Living Danishly

Living Danishly Helen Russell Happiest Country in the World Denmark

Can channelling a Danish worker give your career the edge?

In the first of our new ‘Book of the Month’ feature, we dissect the career lessons from Marie Claire editor-turned-author Helen Russell’s The Year Of Living Danishly: Uncovering The Secrets Of The Living Danishly Helen Russell Happiest Country in the World DenmarkWorld’s Happiest Country

Glossy magazine journalist Helen Russell had the exciting (if exhausting) career she’d always dreamed of. But then her husband was offered his dream job - at rural Jutland’s LEGO headquarters.

Dubious about what the land of midnight summer sun and brain-freezing winters can offer that London can’t, Russell gets busy on Google, and discovers that Danes top just about every world happiness and wellbeing study, chart and poll existing. Intrigued, she tentatively agrees to spend 12 months ‘Living Danishly’, in the hope she can discover the Danes’ secret to near-idyllic levels of contentment. 





Wearing pyjamas until teatime is one of the perks of Russell’s new status as a work-from-home freelancer, but her plans to make a living in loungewear are thwarted when her husband arrives home from work while it’s still light outside.

Russell is dumbfounded. She’s used to going from desk to bed, and regularly getting ‘take-out to pull an all-nighter’ at the office (where such behaviour is a ‘badge of honour’). But in Denmark, she discovers, presenteeism is not the hallmark of a true Viking. 

“If anyone plays the martyr card, staying late or working too much, they’re more likely to get a leaflet about efficiency… than any sympathy,” she learns.

With all her client employers back in the UK, Russell presumes herself exempt from the Danish way of working just 34 hours per week.

But inspired by her husband’s increasingly early home times she gives herself permission to log off at 5.30pm – hours before her London-based commissioning editors will be thinking about doing the same. 

The result?

Nobody calls me…to shout at me for not answering an urgent email. I have a startling realisation that I am not indispensable… If I take a break, no one dies. And this is A Good Thing. 

Her understanding raises an important question: What would happen if you left work on time? And if your workload apparently renders this impossible, what do you need to change?



Organising your working life in such a way that you’ve maximum time to spend on leisure or family pursuits – that’s how most people might approach the ever-present question of how a work/life balance is best achieved.

The Danes take a slightly different approach, taking as an orderly approach to the ‘life’ side of the equation as they do the ‘work’. 

Hobbies in Denmark are rarely self-contained affairs, with almost 90% of Danes belonging to an average of 2.8 interest clubs.

The government provides free premises and even bursaries for individuals who want to start their own niche society. Through her commitment to ‘Living Danishly’, Russell and her partner join a cycling club, a choir, language classes, and, almost, inadvertently, ‘adult night’ complete with Barry White soundtrack at the local swimming baths (use your imagination). 

The upshot is that Danes know how they’re spending their leisure time, weeks, even months in advance, thereby eliminating the need for very much planning – something from which they take a lot of security and comfort. 

That’s not to say that Danes spend every non-working second learning new skills or sharing a passion with their neighbours – they also devote a substantial chunk of time to hygge – a phenomenon that’s recently taken the rest of the world by storm.

Active social lives are important, but so is cosying up by the light of a stylish designer lamp, alone or with your nearest and dearest. The idea of planning your ‘life’ every bit as much as your ‘work’ in order to achieve the best possible ‘balance’ is an interesting one, but perhaps more pertinent is the question of when was the last time you allowed yourself to plan to do absolutely nothing.



It really is as simple as it sounds – Danes don’t waste time wondering if the grass is greener, or whether they should stick it out in a stressful job (yes, despite a 34-hour working week and an endless supply of employer-provided pastries, they still get stressed).

If they don’t like where they work, they just move on. As such, 25% of working Danes will get a new position in any given year. 

On the flipside of all the ship jumping, most Danes are pretty content with their lot, and that’s in part down to government-funded education.

Because they don’t have to pay to learn, Danes are less inclined to strive for big-buck paying jobs, and more likely to opt for subjects they’re genuinely interested in. And because of the generous living wage and benefits system, combined with a culture that frowns upon hierarchy, the community bin man is likely to take as much pleasure in his day job as is the CEO of LEGO (where the employee motto is ‘LEGO not EGO’). 

Small wonder, then, that 57% of Danes would continue in their jobs if they won the Lottery, or that they consistently top lists of the world’s most satisfied and motivated workers. Denmark is also officially ranked the easiest place to do business in Europe. 



It’s very easy to see why all this might be the case in a country where the government continues to pay you if you leave your job.

But where does it leave the non-Danish population? Of all the discoveries Russell unearthed in her pursuit of the reason for Danes’ happiness, one stands out as the most intriguing: as a nation, they have a tremendous amount of trust in the individuals around them, and the community and state at large. 

It’s the reason Danish parents leave their children in pushchairs outside cafes. In fact, 79% of Danes say they trust “most people”, something which Russell theorises must play a part in the fact that Danes have a single word, absent from all but Nordic languages – arbejdsglaede, meaning “happiness at work”.

The idea of having faith in your desk buddies, peers and bosses might seem an idyllic one, but it raises the question: what would it take for you to give your total trust to those you work with, and what might happen as a result?


Helen Russell Living Danishly Denmark Happiest Country in the World

The Year Of Living Danishly is published by Icon Books. Follow the author, Helen Russell on Twitter @mshelenrussell.

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