If you haven’t noticed lately, Denmark has been taking the publishing industry by storm: Specifically, the Danes ability to create a ‘quality of coziness’, hygge in Danish, is being lauded and held up as the path to an ideal and happy life. There are several new titles on the topic including How to Hygge: The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life, The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living, Happy as a Dane: 10 Secrets of the Happiest People in the World and The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident Capable Kids to name but a few. So are the Danes, and their Nordic cousins, the happiest people on earth? For the pro argument, definitely take a look at the titles mentioned above. There are other works by and about the Danes that suggest a more nuanced view however. Here are a few I’ve read and watched that might be of interest.
The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth
Michael Booth has lived and worked in Denmark for many years, even marrying and starting a family there, but he can’t quite let go of his very British wit and outlook. This gives him a unique perspective as he examines the culture of not only Denmark but also the other Nordic countries he travels to including Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland. He finds much to admire (a strong sense of community and egalitarianism) but also sees some contradictions (a distrust of exceptionalism and pressure to fit in). None of his musings are mean-spirited, he clearly loves his adopted culture, but he does enjoying taking a few hilarious jibes at their foibles (Swedes seem incapable of addressing each other, let alone forming a proper queue). This work is a great place to start if you want to examine the Nordic cultures with a more critical eye.
Nors is an outstanding Danish writer who specializes in brief tales that seem to hover on the surface of things but ultimately expose a deeper and often darker meaning underneath. She likes to experiment with form as well, with her subject often being contemporary culture and an individual’s place in it. Karate Chop is a collection of brief short stories, many just a page or two in length, that exposes the weirdness lurking underneath the seemingly mundane actions of everyday life. Each word is selected with care and to a devastating and darkly humorous effect. So Much for that Winter is more playful and experimental. It consists of two novellas, one told in a series of lists and the other in a series of headlines, which charts the inner lives of two very 21st century women grappling with all that life sends their way.
Watching popular television shows are another great way to try to understand the Danes. The police procedural series Unit One is a good example. A bit like the Law and Order franchise, Unit One follows the members of an elite mobile task force that travels to different locations in Denmark to help the local police solve crimes. While definitely fiction, it is an interesting way to compare and contrast different cultural attitudes towards crime and punishment. It is also fun to watch Mads Mikkelsen, of Hannibal fame, in a very early and very different role. Borgen is another series that is helpful for trying to understand the Danes, this time in the political arena. Borgen is the fictional story of Birgitte Nyborg, the first female prime minister of Denmark, who has to learn the art of wielding power in a way that will benefit the greater good while, hopefully, doing the least harm. This series is also concerned with the press and how the news gets reported and spun to suit various interests. Even if you aren’t a big fan of political drama, there are plenty of personal and family machinations to keep you hooked.
So are the Danes the happiest people on earth? As with all interesting questions the answer is a bit complicated. Best to come to your own conclusion after checking out all of the great material here at the library.