Our adventure in Denmark is coming to an end. We lived here for four years, so I had time to experience many sides of this culture and society. Denmark is a very peculiar place. Perhaps these remarks will be useful for somebody thinking of coming here to study or work. And just for the record, I did not have any really negative experiences while living here; we are not leaving for any such reason. My experiences here were positive.
I will start with the most important Danish notion, the mysterious “hygge”. This blog will be about that.
This concept is indeed part of the Danish way of life. If you come here, this is something you will have to deal with. But what is it?
At first, if you try to study the concept from books and blog posts, it makes very little sense to a foreigner. It is described as “coziness” or “being together with friends” or “enjoying life,” for example, but everybody can do that. So, what is it? What makes Denmark special? Couldn’t also Italians or Germans enjoy life?
The concept is simple, however, once you understand that we foreigners have a different word for the same thing. It is called “being lazy.”
That is, hygge is synonymous with “to do something pleasurable with minimal effort.” You are at home, drink beer, watch television, chat with friends, in general do anything that feels good and is nice but does not involve any effort. But because it would be embarrassing to admit that the national sport of Denmark is lazy hedonism–enjoying life–an obscure philosophical notion had to be invented. But that’s what it is. I don’t mean this in any negative way. The whole thing is just very funny.
Once you understand this, many other things here start to make sense. I mention a few. Another important concept in Denmark is “work-life balance.” It is repeated continuously. It does not mean “work-life balance,” however. It means “to use as little effort and time to work as possible.” People invent countless reasons to avoid working, such as holidays, activities at school that require parents to be presents, leaving early from work at every Friday, and so on. Free time is valued over anything else.
The work culture is structured similarly. There is no competition, and very little attempt to achieve anything of any significance. Everything is pursued with the single goal of being able to enjoy life with minimal effort. Many foreigners who come here find this surprising and astonishing. In many other cultures, work life is permeated with a certain implicit or explicit culture of competitiveness or achievements that is just completely absent here, it is in fact perceived negatively. That’s why in the academia, for example, “nonacademic personal qualifications” are measured instead of merits, people are just not suppose to work hard. They are supposed to enjoy. Again, it’s not a bad thing . There are exceptions, but this is the general pattern.
Danish laziness has, I suspect, historical origins. Most cultures in Europe are shaped by what happened to them during the World War II. Denmark avoided the type of disasters that hit almost everybody else. Thus, having enjoyed an exceptionally long period of relative prosperity and peace, these people have adopted a fundamentally serene and inactive philosophy of life—the hygge.