To Be Average is to Be Happy: A Lesson From the Danes

(3 min read)

Ahhh Denmark. The little Scandinavian country that is home to tall, beautiful blondes, beautifully designed homes, and students who get paid to go to university.

Oh, and some of the world’s happiest people, to boot.

For a country that seems to have it all (which, for a lot of people would be grounds for some serious gloating!), the Danes have an unusual way of keeping humble about their good-fortune. Sure, it could be their extremely high taxes, dark and dreary winter weather, or that they’ve lost possibly more wars in history than 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.

Developed by Danish-Norwegian author, Axel Sandemose, in his 1933 novel, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, Jante Law is a set of rules that goes something like this:

  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.

Ouch. Pretty harsh, isn’t it?

Or… is it?

On the surface, while Jante Law appears to be pretty brutal, it’s widely suspected that these 10 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.

…naturally, through the process of setting them up with some pretty low expectations in life.

Once again, harsh, right?

Try to think about it this way:

If you’re consistently told that you’re not better than anyone else, then it’s kind of like you’re being told that you’re a pretty average person. With this being the case, then you’ll probably set your sights on living a pretty average life, and let’s face it, with such a mentality, you’re likely to be quite content when life, indeed, hands you pretty 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.

Now, compare this to the good old U.S. of A., 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, when it comes right down to it, big dreams often are – well – just that. With expectations set so high, the attainment of anything less is viewed as nothing short of a disappointment, and when this happens, depression soon sets in. To make matters worse, if you do reach the stars, heck, don’t stop there! See if you can reach another galaxy!

… and so the cycle continues.

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 well we expect to do (Rutledge, Skandali, Dayan & Dolan, 2014). In other words, if performance matches or exceeds our expectations, happiness ensues. On the other hand, if performance falls short of our expectations, unhappiness ensues. With this being said, we can see why the Danes might have the upper hand when it comes to levels of happiness.

So, keeping this phenomenon in mind, the next time someone tells you to “set your sights high,” perhaps you ought to question them a little, and even go so far as not setting them high (or, at least, not setting them too high). When it comes to our happiness (which is all most of us really want at the end of the day, right?), maybe we ought to learn from Rutledge, and of course, from the Danes.

But then again, try not to strive too hard in doing so, otherwise, you are simply bound to be disappointed.

***

Note: Many Danes claim that Jante Law isn’t all that serious (and some are even embarrassed by it), but to this day, it continues to play a role in defining Danish culture and values.


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.

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