The happiness of the Danes can easily be explained by 10 cultural rules

The answer is much simpler than you think.
The answer is much simpler than you think.
Image: Unsplash/Clem Onojeghuo
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Last spring, Denmark regained its title as the world’s happiest country, after briefly relinquishing it to Switzerland.

Aside from the obvious reasons for Denmark’s success—including income equality, trust in government, and personal freedoms—apparently there are also subtler forcers at play. Danes, it turns out, have a lot of cultural rules geared around how to enjoy life. For instance, in his new book, Meik Wiking, chief executive of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, cites the importance of “hygge”—loosely translated as an enjoyment of good, everyday things in life.

Writing for the Psych Central blog, Lindsay Dupuis, a Canadian therapist working in private practice in Copenhagen, points to another Danish code of conduct called the law of Jante. The term, borrowed from the satirical book A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, published in 1933, suggests that Danes are happy because they aspire to be average. Danish-Norwegian author Axel Sandemose wrote the novel (and the tenets of the fictional law) to skewer the people of the small town and region where he grew up. Jante is the fictionalized name of the protagonist’s hometown.

The 10 rules of Jante Law

  1. You’re not to think you are anything special.
  2. You’re not to think you are as good as we are.
  3. You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.
  4. You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.
  5. You’re not to think you know more than we do.
  6. You’re not to think you are more important than we are.
  7. You’re not to think you are good at anything.
  8. You’re not to laugh at us.
  9. You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
  10. You’re not to think you can teach us anything.

Though Danes may be loathe to admit it, Dupuis explains, the law of Jante is real, and still culturally relevant. In his 2014 book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People, author and journalist Michael Booth, who lives in Copenhagen, observed that while it may be on the decline and less marked in the capital, “Jante Law operates everywhere in Denmark on some level or another.”

One friend of mine, the newspaper columnist Annegrethe Rasmussen, sparked a recent Jante Law debate when she wrote about her experiences of coming home from Washington, D.C., where she lives, and telling her friends about her son’s performance at school. “As a kind of quick way into the subject,” Annegrethe told me shortly after the column was published, “I said, ‘He’s doing really well, he is number one in his class.’ And the table went silent.” Though she is Danish, and so should have known better, she realized immediately that she had breached the code. “If I had said he was great at role-playing or drawing it would have been fine, but it was totally wrong to boast about academic achievement.”

Dupuis argues that the benefits of the law are born out by happiness research. Following the 10 rules, “You’ll probably set your sights on living a very average life. With such a mentality, you’re likely to be quite content when life hands you very average things,” she writes. “On the other hand, if life happens to hand you something above and beyond average, you’ll likely feel pleasantly surprised, and in most cases, pretty darn happy.”

In a happiness study by neuroscientist Robb Rutledge of the University College of London, low expectations helped boost happiness. Rutledge’s experiments involved decision-making games in which participants would be rewarded by small amounts of money for making certain choices. He used self-reported ratings and MRI scans to measure their level of happiness in response to the cash rewards. The results showed people were happier when they received a reward they didn’t expect than when they received one they did. “Lower expectations make it more likely that an outcome will exceed those expectations and have a positive impact on happiness,” Rutledge wrote.

It’s a sentiment that’s present—if not prized—in other cultures. As American radio personality Garrison Keillor reminded Americans every week in his decades-long radio program, A Prairie Home Companion, ”Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”