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How Helen started living Danishly

From Fashion Weeks and freelance journalism to researching happiness and raising Vikings.

Photographs: Simon Meyer Fotografi / Helen Russell

Text: Michaela Medveďová

When preparing to relocate to Denmark, 'The Year of Living Danishly' by Helen Russell should definitely be on your reading list.

The British journalist-turned-writer moved to Denmark in 2013, and ever since then, she's been following the thread of her curiosity where it leads her as her life in Denmark evolves, documenting it all in her collection of books.

Happy place

"I always liked journalism. I've had experience with it since I was a teenager in the local paper. I'm very nosy and curious about the world, and I've always loved to write. So finding out things and writing about them is my happy place."

And she's built an impressive career out of it, too. She worked her way up from being a researcher to features writer and then editor and ultimately held the editor position at "It was a nice, sometimes glamorous job - going to Fashion Weeks around the world, wearing nice clothes… I haven't worn high heels in I don't even know how long. Now my life is nothing like that."

Then, one Wednesday, her husband came home and told her he'd been offered his dream job - working for LEGO. "Not in Copenhagen, not the fun part everyone's heard of, but a Jutland town. So we were very sceptical." But when they visited the place, Helen was immediately impressed by how different it seemed to her busy life in London. People seemed more relaxed, children were running wild in the forest… "Denmark had just been voted the happiest country in the world by the World Happiness Report. I became fascinated by that. How could this tiny country pull off the 'happiest nation on Earth' title? I decided we would give it a year. So I quit my job, and we shipped all our stuff across the North Sea."

Without a job, not speaking the language, and not knowing anyone - that did not make Helen's start in Denmark very smooth. When they first moved to Jutland, they lived in the countryside and there wasn't a big international community. "I'm aware of my privilege and that my experience moving here as a white middle-class woman is going to be very different. I'm aware I will have had it much easier compared to others. But it was still hard. There were no other internationals - it was not such an international place as it is now. There were huge challenges every day. There were many times when I thought: I can't do this." It got better once Helen started making friends and cultivating her network instead of conducting her social life via Skype or Ryanair flights. With the acceptance from a Danish friend circle came the feeling: This is good.

Ultimately, Helen and her husband had the loveliest reason to extend their stay in Denmark. "We've been trying to start a family for years. I've had years of fertility treatment, but nothing was working in my busy London life. And then, within six months of moving here, I discovered I was finally pregnant." That put a different spin on their Danish plans. Helen had already seen the country as a perfect place to have kids. "Plus, I had quite a tough pregnancy, and it got to the stage where I couldn't fly. So that was the first year trickling into two years - and I've kind of been flying by the seat of my pants ever since - then I went on to have twins. The chaos of a busy family combined with how great Denmark is as a place to have kids has meant that it's ended up being home for a lot longer."

Researching Denmark

Moving to the countryside instead of the capital city of Denmark certainly created a different Danish experience. "Just like you can't compare London to the rest of the UK, you can't really compare Copenhagen to the rest of Denmark. When I first moved here, it certainly was in the proper countryside. These days, I would say many internationals move to Jutland, and there's a big international community now because of LEGO. But I've always lived in predominantly Danish places, and at all times, my neighbours are Danes. My Danish still isn't great, but I like being able to experience the culture."

Such exposure was definitely helpful in the next chapter of Helen's professional life - writing a column about Denmark and working as a Scandinavian correspondent for The Guardian. "Having just arrived in Denmark, without a Danish qualification and not speaking Danish, I knew I couldn't work for women's magazines here. So it was more about being tenacious and looking for opportunities." This paired well with Helen's interest in how Denmark topped the chart of the happiest countries. She wanted to know what Denmark and other Nordic countries were doing differently.

However, it got a bit too much after a decade of corresponding for The Guardian, with three children at home. "It's difficult to be flexible and responsive once you have caring responsibilities as well. I was no longer able to hop on a plane to cover a breaking news story in Sweden or Norway, for example, when I had to pick up the kids from school. There are wonderful things about being a freelance journalist - the freedom, meeting amazing people, and the license to go out into the world and find interesting stories. But it's not easy."

Helen's life in Denmark brought another new chapter in her professional life. She became a published author. Writing longer form is always a slightly different skill, but as most of her books are non-fiction, the process is similar: backing things up with evidence, research, and citations. Helen enjoys that she can spend longer on a singular topic - and maintain her work-life balance better. "Freelance journalism always has a very fast turnover. Suddenly, book writing allows me to have that time. There can be days when one of my kids is sick, and I think: Well, I'm not gonna get anything done today. But that's okay, I can do something tomorrow. Having more autonomy over my time is a real privilege."

She did venture out into the world of fiction, as well, with her novel 'Gone Viking'. "It's very liberating because while research is often helpful, it's your imagination and the world you're creating in your head. On the other hand, it's challenging because it's all on you. With three small children and a dog that won't stop barking, I don't really have time to have writer's block, but with fiction, I think it's an easy thing to have."

Trust equals happiness

However, it was her non-fiction debut book 'The Year of Living Danishly' that launched her author career. The idea of writing the book came out of the column about Denmark she was already writing - and a decision was made. Helen would dive even deeper to see what makes Danes the happiest nation in the world. Besides landing her an international bestseller, all the research into Danish society helped her get to know her new home. "I am not naturally so confident at talking to strangers, but when it's for my work, I will overcome that fear barrier. I will go to that event, but at the same time, I really would rather not. Having a project and a purpose was really helpful. I do a lot of talks with new internationals in Denmark, and if people don't have that sense of purpose when they arrive, it's really tough. So this was a real gift for me."

Out of all the aspects of the Danish culture, the work-life balance and the short week were very easy to take on. "There's the idea that it's sacred family time between four and seven in the evening. It makes a huge difference. When I speak to US or UK colleagues, the scrambling around for childcare and the erosion of family time is very striking. It's what people take for granted here, and I think it's very special."

When she sums up how she's living more Danishly now, a decade into her Danish life, Helen singles two things out: She is less stressed and more trusting. That comes pretty naturally in a country where people leave their babies sleeping outside in their prams and forget to lock things. "It's just assuming that the people around you are nice. In the UK, we were brought up with this idea of 'stranger danger' and taught to trust less, whereas trust has always been high here. I appreciate it, especially coming from London, where it sometimes feels unsafe." Whether the big things - trusting in the good of people - or the small things - eating dinner at 5.30, which she would previously call ridiculously early - doing them the Danish way became second nature to Helen. After all, she's already lived so much of her adult life here.

By providing an outside look at the Danish culture, Helen was a little worried Danes would think she was being a bit cheeky about them. "But I came to learn pretty quickly that the Danish sense of humour is quite similar to the British. Danes have been really supportive. I've even had the former prime minister and other high-up people read it and be supportive. It's been amazing to see that people who know this country really well said: Oh, yeah, I hadn't thought about that! But you've seen something in us with that outsider's perspective. So I've been very honoured - and relieved - by that."

With the increasing number of internationals who arrive in Denmark and make it their home, the country's diversity is naturally increasing, too - and so is the number of outsider perspectives on how work culture should look like, for example. Is it possible the famous Danish work-life recipe can be altered? "There are more internationals arriving because Danish companies need that. There is much to be celebrated there; diversity is always good. I hope we can find a balance. For corporations hiring people from all over the world, who may come from a very different work culture where they're used to working long hours and a dog-eat-dog work culture - I hope the Danish way of working collaboratively and efficiently and still being productive, will end up being the norm. I would hope there's a way to hold on to that.”

"For Helen, the recipe for happiness does not have many ingredients. It's time with friends, time and peace to be creative, and the giddy hilarity of spending time with children and dogs, enjoying the silliness and the sense of ridiculousness."

How can we be (not) happy?

But Danes, even though successful at it, are not the only ones with a recipe for happiness. 'The Year of Living Danishly' was published in 21 countries, and Helen soon started hearing from readers worldwide, saying: This is what happiness looks like in my country. Helen, the curious journalist she is, started documenting them. "In the end, I had 33 unique perspectives from around the world. So I spoke to my publisher, saying this would be a great opportunity to celebrate cultural differences for people travelling to, working in, or just wanting to understand more about different cultures."

And so 'The Atlas of Happiness' was born, a study of global secrets to happiness. When she was promoting the book, however, someone in the audience always pointed out: Okay, but how? I've just lost my job, apartment, and relationship - how can I be happy? "It struck me that many people were actually assuming that happiness is the state we should be in at all times. And I felt like I've done a disservice, really, because I don't think sadness is the opposite of happiness. Sadness is a natural response when we experience loss or disappointment. Yet many of us in many of our cultures are taught to think of it as something negative, something to not even acknowledge, let alone process. But if we suppress negative thoughts, they're more likely to pop up elsewhere. So I thought we need to know how to be sad well, too, and wrote 'How to be Sad'."

For Helen, the recipe for happiness does not have many ingredients. It's time with friends, time and peace to be creative, and the giddy hilarity of spending time with children and dogs, enjoying the silliness and the sense of ridiculousness.

Investing in Vikings

Luckily, with three small children and a family dog, she has plenty of opportunities for it.

The fact that Helen is raising three little Vikings is apparent when their family from the UK visits or when they are with other international families. Her children are happy to wear their full outdoor gear or a snowsuit and be out in the snow, sledging for hours. They'll climb the hill again and again - fall and get back up again without really minding.

It's only natural that what consumes most of Helen's time now - parenting - is also reflected in her book writing. Her next book, 'How to Raise a Viking', is out now.

"I was really interested in the Nordic way of parenting from conception all the way to the teenage years. Giving parents good parental leave and offering subsidised childcare is so important for equality and mental health - and it's actually better for the economy. For every $1 spent on childcare, the economy gets at least $1.50 back. The Norwegian government recently valued the contribution of working mothers to the country’s GDP at £626 billion – equivalent to the value added by its oil reserves. So it makes bad financial sense to not look after mothers and parents. In countries like the UK, where there is still squeamishness about subsidised childcare or so much paid parental leave, or in the US where there's no paid parental leave, many will argue that it's because the country can't afford it. But childcare pays for itself and parental leave benefits both parents. So not having it isn't about the economy - it's a choice that has been made."

She also points out that the lack of pressure and respect going all the way up in the school system helps mould nicer teenagers with better preparedness for adult life. "They have that bedrock of respect, and they're taught to be quite body neutral, so there's no shame around the body. If they go to efterskole, they learn about cleaning, doing laundry, and looking after themselves. Even though there's a lot of permissiveness around alcohol or curfews, teenagers just seem to be quite nice here.

So it seems, from pregnancy all the way up to parenting teenagers, there is a lot to learn from the Nordic way."

How to Raise a Viking, the Secrets of Parenting the World’s Happiest Children, by Helen Russell is out now, published by 4th Estate in the UK (available on Saxo or at Books&Company).

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