Danish author Askel Sandemose’s works are little read in his home country these days—except, that is, for a small fragment of one novel, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, published in 1933. The fragment of A Fugitive that has come both to define and to torment the Danes is a list of rules by which the residents of the fictional town of Jante were said to abide.
These rules set out the Law of Jante, a kind of Danish Ten Commandments, the social norms one should be aware of if one is planning a move to the north:
1 – You shall not believe that you are someone.
2 – You shall not believe that you are as good as we are.
3 – You shall not believe that you are any wiser than we are.
4 – You shall never indulge in the conceit of imagining that you are better than we are.
5 – You shall not believe that you know more than we do.
6 – You shall not believe that you are more important than we are.
7 – You shall not believe that you are going to amount to anything.
8 – You shall not laugh at us.
9 – You shall not believe that anyone cares about you.
10 – You shall not believe that you can teach us anything.
The truth is, Sandemose really nailed the Danes. My experience has been that Jante Law, which has become a national social manifesto of sorts, operates everywhere in Denmark on some level or another.
On the face of it, the Danes have considerably less to be happy about than most of us. Yet, when asked, they still insist that they are the happiest of us all.
What is one to make of this?
The obvious response is, “Define happiness.” If we are talking heel-kicking, cocktail-umbrella joie de vivre, then the Danes do not score highly, and I suspect not even they would take their claims that far. But if we are talking about being contented with one’s lot, then the Danes do have a more convincing case to present.
Over the years I have asked many Danes about these happiness surveys—whether they really believe that they are the global happiness champions—and I have yet to meet a single one of them who seriously believes it’s true.
They appreciate the safety net of their welfare state, the way most things function well in their country, and all the free time they have, but they tend to approach the subject of their much-vaunted happiness like the victims of a practical joke waiting to discover who the perpetrator is.
On the other hand, these same Danes are often just as quick to counter any criticism of their country—of their schools, hospitals, transport, weather, taxes, politicians, uneventful landscape, and so on—with the simple and, in a sense-argument-proof riposte:
“Well, if that’s true, how come we are the happiest people in the world?” (This usually accompanied by upturned palms and a tight, smug smile.) The happiness argument does come in handy sometimes, I guess.
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