Chasing Danish happiness: The laws of Jante  

Denmark is often named the Happiest Country on Earth (although, Norway sent us to a temporary 2nd place in 2017). This title draws international headlines and spurs the question among investigative journalists:

What is the key to Danish happiness?

Growing up in Denmark and living in 4 different cities, has taught me how surprisingly different our social norms can be with just 100 km. of distance between us. But some elements of our culture remain steadfast throughout our little country. One of those is the laws of Jante.

The Laws of Jante (Janteloven)

The laws of Jante are not really laws, but rather a set of law-like sentences that describe the Danish (/Scandinavian) mindset. They were introduced by Danish-Norwegian Author, Aksel Sandemose, in 1933 and is a critical reflection on a Universal set of Laws that we all contribute to construct in our society.

Much like the narrative of the ‘American Dream’.

Or rather: The Laws of Jante are the direct opposite of the American Dream.

The Laws of Jante are neither celebrated nor proudly portrayed as the cornerstones in Danish society. Ironically, that is exactly in line with their message.

The 10 rules of Jante Law

You’re not to think you are anything special.

You’re not to think you are as good as we are.

You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.

You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.

You’re not to think you know more than we do.

You’re not to think you are more important than we are.

You’re not to think you are good at anything.

You’re not to laugh at us.

You’re not to think anyone cares about you.

You’re not to think you can teach us anything.

Now, you’re probably thinking that these rules are hash – brutal even. You’re not alone. If you ask a Dane about this set of laws, you will find that most are embarrassed by them and will try to convince you that it’s not not really a part of our culture anymore.

But it is. And it’s not a bad thing.

The rules are deeply embedded in our culture and they lay a foundation for a humble approach to life.

Let’s take an example:

You’re not to think you are more important than we are.

Now, please do not mistake this statement for being degrading or insinuating that ‘you’ are not important. The keyword here is ‘more’.

Equality in humbleness

Consider it as the baseline for equality. You are important, but not more important than others. Some are born into greater fortune than others, but none are born to deserve more fortune than others. You may achieve immense success in your life, but that does not make you better than others.

You will find this way of thinking embedded in Danish society; from the socialist welfare model built on high income taxes (starting at 40%) to our flat organizational structures where you sometimes can’t identify the CEO unless you ask.

Being humble about your achievements is essential because, more often than not, you are not solely responsible for how far you’ve come.

A society rarely develops without the help of its citizens.

And A CEO rarely achieves anything without help from her/his team. If he does, he is either bad at delegating his tasks or at training his employees and thus: not a successful leader.

So, how do these 10 laws affect our happiness?

Simple: Low expectations and a humble attitude with lead to less disappointments.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t be ambitious: I’m saying we should approach our goals with high ambitions and low expectations. And leave some room to feel surprise and joy when we reach our goals.

To quote Troels Kløvedal, a Danish author and world traveler:

“Happiness is when your expectations align with reality.”

– Troels Kløvedal

Now, I would love to hear your opinion on the Laws of Jante. Is there anything similar in your culture?
Leave a comment below 🙂

Until next time,

My

3 thoughts on “Chasing Danish happiness: The laws of Jante  

  1. I have heard much about Jante Law through Michael Booth’s The Almost Nearly Perfect People. Humility is, in some ways, also ingrained in the Asian culture and I can totally relate to this. Another aspect which I attribute to Danish happiness is the firm foundation of trust. I have written about this before after my first trip to Denmark, https://somuchtotellyou.blog/2016/10/30/trust-scandinavian-happiness/amp/ and I continue to find this fascinating! I do wonder if the Scandinavian values and cultures have been / will be eroded over time with greater human mobility on a global scale. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I just read your piece – very true! I’ve never even considered that someone could steal my things while I’m sleeping on the train 😂 And I join your wonderment on our values being eroded. Things change when we change. I believe globalization and the glorification of western culture threatens cultural diversity in general. For now, I would say that modesty is so embedded in our ways that it would take many years to erode.
      That’s one of the reasons I love traveling in Asia, because we share the modesty culture. Additionally, Asian countries have what Scandinavia is missing: hospitality 😄
      We’re quite a ‘shy’ people and sometimes come across as closed off. Which, from what I can read, you experience first hand. I’ve met many expats in Denmark and almost everyone have told me: ‘befriending Danes is SO difficult. But once you do, you have a true friend when things get tough. And you’ve got a friend for life’

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for your note. I think the “shyness” is interesting. Looking back in history, you would think that the one thing Vikings don’t lack would have been strength and courage (but perhaps the strength and courage to befriend strangers would be different). I’m glad to hear that the friendships formed are long lasting, that is just as important in the days of casual friendships. 🙂

        Like

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