Ah, Denmark: the little Scandinavian country that is home to tall, beautiful blondes, tastefully designed homes, students who get paid to go to university — and some of the world’s happiest people.
For a country that seems to have it all, the Danes have an unusual way of remianing humble about their good fortune. Sure, it could be their extremely high taxes, dark and dreary winter weather, or that they’ve lost more wars in history than possibly any other country, that keeps them grounded, but many suspect it’s an unusual little law known as the Jante Law that keeps the Danes’ heads on straight. (Many Danes claim that Jante Law isn’t all that serious, and some are even embarrassed by it, but it continues to play a role in defining Danish culture and values.)
Developed by Danish-Norwegian author Axel Sandemose in his 1933 novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, Jante Law is a set of rules:
- 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.
Ouch. Pretty harsh, isn’t it? Or is it?
On the surface, while Jante Law appears to be pretty brutal, it’s widely theorized that these ten little rules might actually be grounds for not just the Danes’ very humble ways, but also (and, perhaps, quite ironically) for their very happy ways.
If you’re consistently told that you’re no better or any worse than anyone else, then you’re essentially being told that you’re a very average person. 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. 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.
Compare this to the United States, where people are raised to shoot for the stars and beyond, and to put their blood, sweat, and tears into living the American Dream: ”You deserve the absolute best in life, and anything else is simply unacceptable.”
Of course, some good may come from this mentality, but generally, big dreams often are just that. With expectations set so high, the attainment of anything less is viewed as nothing short of a disappointment, and depression soon sets in.
Interestingly, in 2014, neuroscientist Robb Rutledge and colleagues of University College in London put this theory of expectations and happiness to the test and determined that happiness is, indeed, relative to how well we’re doing compared to how we expect we should be doing (Rutledge, Skandali, Dayan & Dolan, 2014). In other words, if performance matches or exceeds expectations, happiness ensues. On the other hand, if performance falls short of expectations, unhappiness ensues. With this being said, we can see why the Danes have the upper hand when it comes to levels of happiness.
The next time someone tells you to “set your sights high,” perhaps you ought to question them a little, and even refuse to set them high (or, at least, not set them too high). When it comes to our happiness, maybe we ought to learn from Rutledge, and of course, from the Danes. But try not to strive too hard in doing so; otherwise, you are simply bound to be disappointed.
Rutledge, R. B., Skandali, N., Dayan, P. & Dolan, R. J. (2014). A computational and neural model or momentary subjective well-being. PNAS, 111(33), 12252-12257.
Sandemose, A. (1933). En flykning krydser sitt spor (A fugitive crosses his tracks). Aschehoug Tradisjon.