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Why is Jante Law Making People Happy?

By Azriel ReShel on Thursday May 11th, 2017

The Acceptance of Being Average

The small Nordic nation of Denmark has international repute as the happiest nation on earth, and not just once, but nearly four years in a row. Denmark topped the United Nations World Happiness Report which surveys 156 countries, in 2013, 2014 and 2016, dropping a few spots to third in 2015. Clearly the Scandinavian nation known for lego, Hans Christian Anderson, top notch food, and artistic homewares is bursting at the seams with contentment.

So, despite the weather and darkness for most of the day during winter, why are the Danes so happy? It could have a lot to do with something called Jante Law.

In short, Jante Law has ten simple rules and they are all about the happy acceptance of being average. And, it seems that the idea of jante has a big part to play in the smiling Danish faces.

Alt text hereCan we find contentment in being just the way we are? Image by Moyan Brenn.

Striving for More

Unlike highly competitive countries, which have a revealingly low happiness index, average seems to be working just fine for the Danish. It can seem peculiar at best to those of us raised on a diet of high achievement.

From our earliest days we are encouraged to be better than average. Our education system, familial values, economics, corporate world, and society, all proclaim success at any cost. You’re encouraged to talk early, children are put into advanced early learning programs younger and younger, with even toddlers are on a tight study schedule. You only have to attend your child’s sports field on the weekend to witness the parental passion for beating the rest.

Average is most definitely not part of this game. So, why then, do the happy Dane’s hail being average?

Not standing out from the crowdDanish people are happy not to stand out from the crowd.

What is Jante?

It is a list of ten simple rules, a bit like the Danish Ten Commandments, which encourage being ordinary. These are the social norms and rules of what is known as Jante Law:

  1. You’re not to think you are anything special.
  2. You’re not to think you are as good as we are.
  3. You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.
  4. You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.
  5. You’re not to think you know more than we do.
  6. You’re not to think you are more important than we are.
  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.
Jante LawJante is a list of ten simple rules that encourage being ordinary.

Just as You Are

While to some, this list may sound intimidating, or downright drastic and offensive, it has much merit, and I do feel that the Hindu god, Shiva would be rejoicing in this glorious quashing of the overinflated ego that occupies most of our modern world.

There is something comforting and tremendously freeing about not having to be anything. To be gloriously brilliant just as you are, and to revel in your averageness could be a real boon. I can see how this sense of safety and acceptance of being normal, could be a wonderful gift for creative endeavours, as well as a perfect recipe for enjoying life, just as it is.

Jante hails from a book written by Aksel Sandemose, called A Fugitive Crosses his Tracks, which was published in 1933. The book is an attempt to satirize Scandinavian small towns, and Sandemose writes about the people of the southern Danish town of Nykobing, which he renames Jante, including in the book a set of rules, or Janteloven, discouraging individual success and denoting every person’s goal as that of being average.

Simple pleasuresThere is happiness to be found in being ordinary.

It’s claimed that in writing these laws, Sandemose was inspired by a belief that existed in ancient Norse culture that to preserve one’s happiness one should be cautious and humble. In his book, these laws ensure harmony and stability in the town.

All are Equal

Children learn these rules very early in life as Jante Law is part of all Danish education. There is no elite education or any gifted or advanced programs. Children who excel are meant to help other students who are not as good as them. Danish schools have no competition and the children work in groups. The focus is on the child’s social life, which is considered the most important aspect.

Above all else, Danes value equality and community. It is said that in Denmark you see less individuality in homes, decorations, and clothing choices. I wonder, is it comforting not to have to try to be different or unique? Is there something satisfying about just being ok with being normal and the same as everybody else?

The city of CopenhagenCopenhagen is one of the most liveable cities in the world.

Denmark is considered to be one of the most egalitarian societies in the world, where both men and women have careers. Schools and universities are free and the government spends more money on children and the elderly than in any other country in the world. Copenhagen is a multiple award-winning city for its ecological design and is known as one of the greenest cities in the world, reflected generally in that half the population of Denmark cycle to work.

How to Hygge

The Law of Jante governs the Nordic countries above every other law or constitution. And along with another famous, or should I say, ‘average’ uniquely Danish trait, it ensures that the nation stays up there in the global happiness index.

The Danes seem to have perfected the art of cosy social gatherings, encapsulated by the Danish term hygge, which means cosiness, intimacy and warmth. Danes place a high priority on spending quality time with your family and friends, in the evenings and on weekends, and in Denmark a normal working week is 37 hours, with employees benefitting from five weeks of holiday a year.

How to be cosy togetherHygge means cosy and refers to a form of everyday togetherness.

Happiness expert Meik Wiking is, of course, a Dane and his book The Little Book of Hygge, explores a word he believes is central to that happiness:

In all the work I have done within the field of happiness research, this is the point I am surest about: the best predictor of whether we are happy or not is our social relationships.

Closer Community

So along with jante, it seems these two ideas ensure a life of greater contentment for our Danish friends. Jante Law is in fact widespread, if unofficial, in all Scandinavian countries. This negative attitude towards individuality and success could be the saving grace and success of the Nordic nations. In a world dominated by ‘I’ and ‘my’, a return to community and the values of the whole over the individual, is not a bad thing.

The happiness of social relationshipsSpending time together is one of the surest ways to find happiness.

It harks back to tribal times and is very much a survival technique and important way to create harmony and cooperation. The oldest unbroken culture in the world, Indigenous Australians living the traditional way, have no sense of ‘I’ and ‘my’, and whatever they own belongs to the group, and must be shared. There is no greed and desire to accumulate, as everything is shared equally. This kind of system does away with many problems and negative traits in people, as there is no room for selfishness, greed and vanity.

In our world dominated by ego, social media and the desire to be special, famous and better than everyone else, we are becoming increasingly deluded, arrogant, disillusioned and disconnected. Maybe the shiny jewel of the highly individualised, yet lonely individual, is beginning to lose its sheen, as we realise it’s far more satisfying to have close friends and family than to compete and win at all costs.

Perhaps a dose of the controversial jante, is something we could all do with having more of in our lives – it certainly has its upside for the people of Denmark.

Azriel ReShel

Writer, Editor, Yoga Teacher & Healing Facilitator

 

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6 Responses to Why is Jante Law Making People Happy?

  1. Thanks. Not at all inspired by this article. I rather prefer the Indian traditional model which gives space to everyone to fulfill its highest potential and yet, has a natural sense of community.

  2. It’s fun listening to this perspective and I want to thank you for bringing it up. I cannot help but give my input because this is a subject I have a strong opinion on. I understand why you link the Jante Law to the general happiness of the Danes because it is VERY defining of our culture. However, I think most Danes would agree with me that there is nothing directly freeing about the Jante Law. Quite the contrary. It is a strong force trying to fit us all into the same mould. What it does do though – is that nobody takes significant risk and it feels very safe. The keyword in your sentence “contentment in being just the way we are” is WE. If you want to be just the way YOU are, you will often have a harder time in Denmark. As long as you want to be the way WE are, you will find togetherness, no risk and a good degree of predictability in life. Those are all basic elements to be fulfilled in order to move up in the pyramid and consider happiness. Another thing we have to help our happiness is freedom of movement. From early age kids can get around on their own with their bikes and as adults, we can travel to where ever we want basically. We are not slaves to (much) corruption (in fact the lowest in the world according to one survey).

    • Hi as an 56 year old Dane , it’s nice to see how other countries look at Denmark and what strange strangers in that the inhabitants of a small country are so happy. Yes sometimes it may surprise us too, not because we are not good but because I personally think many of my countrymen are crazy about everything. But perhaps the fact that we can safely overcome us all without the big consequences are also contributing to underpinning the great degree of security that we feel Danish, whether at one end or another of the socially distant . However, there are many factors that make v feel happy, an important factor is also the one who is at the same time our country’s little hammer, the great middle class, where we have a very large middle class and very few real riches and very few poor, This means that the vast majority are doing well, but at the same time we may not have the big urge to create something big, a man in Denmark does not get divorced to create something big, but we have people who have created big tin in our society, and at the same time, Meger is respected for it. Just mentioned, Mærsk, who for over 70 years was at the forefront of one of our country’s largest and most respected companies. We are all proud of HC Andersen and his amazing stories, which, among other things, also take the starting point in the Danish folk souls, and perhaps better draw us than Axsel Sandemose’s “Jante Law”, take the “ugly eel”, “the Emperor’s clothes” and “how other countries look at Denmark and what strange strangers in that the inhabitants of a small country are so happy. Yes sometimes it may surprise us too, not because we are not good but because I personally think many of my countrymen are crazy about everything. But perhaps the fact that we can safely overcome us all without the big consequences are also contributing to underpinning the great degree of security that we feel Danish, whether at one end or another of the socially distant . However, there are many factors that make v feel happy, an important factor is also the one who is at the same time our country’s little hammer, the great middle class, where we have a very large middle class and very few real riches and very few poor, This means that the vast majority are doing well, but at the same time we may not have the big urge to create something big, a man in Denmark does not get divorced to create something big, but we have people who have created big tin in our society, and at the same time, Meger is respected for it. Just mentioned, Mærsk, who for over 70 years was at the forefront of one of our country’s largest and most respected companies. We are all proud of HC Andersen and his amazing stories, which, among other things, also take the starting point in the Danish folk souls, and perhaps better draw us than Axsel Sandemose’s “Jante Law”, take the “ugly eel”, “the Emperor’s clothes” and “how other countries look at Denmark and what strange strangers in that the inhabitants of a small country are so happy. Yes sometimes it may surprise us too, not because we are not good but because I personally think many of my countrymen are crazy about everything. But perhaps the fact that we can safely overcome us all without the big consequences are also contributing to underpinning the great degree of security that we feel Danish, whether at one end or another of the socially distant . However, there are many factors that make v feel happy, an important factor is also the one who is at the same time our country’s little hammer, the great middle class, where we have a very large middle class and very few real riches and very few poor, This means that the vast majority are doing well, but at the same time we may not have the big urge to create something big, a man in Denmark does not get divorced to create something big, but we have people who have created big tin in our society, and at the same time, Meger is respected for it. Just mentioned, Mærsk, who for over 70 years was at the forefront of one of our country’s largest and most respected companies. We are all proud of HC Andersen and his amazing stories, which, among other things, also take the starting point in the Danish folk souls, and perhaps better draw us than Axsel Sandemose’s “Jante Law”, take the “The ugly duckling”, “The emperor’s new suit” and “The tinder-box”. But the fact that we are a fairly homogeneous population is certainly also making us happy, something that has also been evolved in recent years and something that certainly also influences the happiness of the coming years

  3. Interesting to know how other people look upon my country and culture. I don’ entirely agree with the author. Our school system is for example not without competition. On the contrary. Lots of students get stress because they feel pressed to the extreme. Further, we have three towns by the name of Nykobing, one on the Island of Sealand named Nykobing S, one on the island of Falster (in the south of DK, which I think is the one the author is referring to) named Nykobing F and one on the island of Mors in the Limfjorden in the north of Jutland, named Nykobing M. Sandemose is referring to Nykobing M where he was born and spent his childhood. This part of Denmark is very special. At Sandemose’s time – and to-day – it was not a very wealthy part of DK. The Jante Law was an expression of a suppressive, small-minded and prejudiced society – not a divine law. The people in Nykobing M took very much offence to the Jante Law and to my knowledge Sandemose as a well-known writer only visited his ´hometown once – not an entirely succes.

  4. This is so awesome, i don’t know if it’s got anything to do with being born in Denmark but I’ve always lived by these rules. Which is a foreign concept in Australia where i grew up

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