Copenhagen

We all want to be happy. We may all define happiness in different ways, but it’s safe to say that happiness is a fairly universal goal for all of us. Of course, the challenge is figuring out how to get there.

On a recent episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, the former chef turned world traveler paid a visit to Copenhagen, Denmark. It was there that he learned about the Law of Jante and how it is a philosophy that strongly influences the culture in Scandinavia and the Nordic countries. It also turns out that the people in these countries consistently rank as being among the happiest in the world (side note: Canada is 6th and the USA is 17th out of the 156 countries included in that list). Is there a connection between the two?

What Is the Law of Jante?

Originally conceived by author Aksel Sandermose, the Law of Jante is based on the basic idea that no one should think that they are particularly special or that they are better than anyone else. It is a concept that promotes humility rather than hubris, the community over the individual.

The Law of Jante is broken down into ten rules, which basically all state the same thing:

  1. You’re not to think you are anything special.
  2. You’re not to think you are as good as us.
  3. You’re not to think you are smarter than us.
  4. You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than us.
  5. You’re not to think you know more than us.
  6. You’re not to think you are more important than us.
  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.

The North American Contrast

The Law of Jante is in stark contrast to the life philosophy typified by the North American lifestyle. Here, while we don’t necessarily encourage boastful behavior, we certainly do celebrate individual achievement. We revel in celebrity. We constantly compare ourselves to others, setting bigger and bigger goals for ourselves. We reach for the stars and really want to believe we can get there.

And this sense of boundless ambition has led to many great successes. However, it is also a double-edged sword that has led to a far greater number of failures. And it’s hard to be happy when you keep failing to achieve your goals.

The Key to Happiness

Money may not buy happiness, but it is an integral part of the equation. It’s hard to be happy when you don’t have a roof over your head or food on the table. You want to achieve a relatively high standard of living and you want this standard to be sustainable. You don’t want to worry about paying your next bill. You don’t want to fear that a sudden illness could bankrupt you. After these basic needs are met, though, what do we need to be truly happy?

If we look to the Scandinavian model and the Law of Jante, there are two critical lessons to be learned. First, it is generally helpful if the standard of living is elevated for everyone and not a select few. When everyone else around you is living a reasonably comfortable and happy life, you can be reasonably comfortable and happy too. When you compare yourself to others, you are far less likely to have feelings of jealousy or rivalry, because you’re all fundamentally in the same situation.

Second, because you may feel less inclined to stand out from the crowd, you likely have lower, more realistic expectations of yourself. This way, you are far more likely to achieve your comparatively more modest goals and feel good about yourself. Contrast this to setting far more lofty goals that you are far less likely to achieve. You just keep chasing the carrot. The latter scenario lends itself to feelings of inadequacy and failure.

Expect Less to Get More?

I thought that the key to happiness was novelty, but perhaps I was mistaken. It seems that the keys to happiness are humility, community and lowered expectations. Or maybe it’s just homogeneity and a sense of belonging. What’s your take? What do you think it takes to be happy?