(Header photo cred: Copenhagenize)
It is no secret that many consider the weather in Denmark to be “not great” for much of the year.
The climate here in Denmark has been likened to that of Seattle–gray, cloudy, and wet. Based on my personal experience, I would add to this a more-than-healthy dose of strong, cold wind.
But, occasionally, the sun does come out, and when it does, it’s kind of a big deal.
We Expats-in-Denmark chortle amongst ourselves that on days when the sun is out and shining, the Danes are also out and shining: They are out sunning themselves in tank tops and shorts. When indoors, they are sitting near the window with the curtains drawn back–eager to feel the full heat of the sun’s rays. They are out walking their dogs, visiting the beaches or playing sports–out and about with huge smiles on their faces. The Danes definitely know how to appreciate and take full advantage of the good-weather days.
However, the long cold winters with their short days of sunlight and long dark nights still may have their effect on the people of Denmark.
Residents of Nordic countries, which include Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland, have been found to have high rates of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
SAD, also known as “winter depression”, is a type of mood disorder that occurs at the same time each year, most commonly during winter. Because SAD occurs at higher rates in Nordic countries with their long winter nights and short hours of sunlight, it is suggested that SAD could be attributable to lower levels of Vitamin D, caused by low exposure to UV light (sunlight).
To counteract the risk of SAD here in Denmark, I have received a few tidbits of advice: “Never wear sunglasses during the winter.” “Take a Daily Vitamin D Supplement, particularly in the winter.” (Scientists have determined that, due to the limited amount of sunlight, Danish residents benefit from well over the typically-suggested daily dosage of Vitamin D). Additionally, many Danes own sun lamps to expose themselves to UV rays inside their homes while others visit tanning beds.
And yet…even with the risk of SAD…the Danes are often cited as the “world’s happiest people,” achieving this title many years running. (This year they fell to third place behind Finland and Norway). Some have said that perhaps the Danes’ tendency to rate themselves as being so happy is due to a lower expectation, or standard, of happiness. Others suggest it may have more to do with the linguistic nuance of the translation of the word “happy”–perhaps the Danes translate the word more as “content”.
“Because really, how can the Danes be the world’s happiest people with such lousy weather?” (Something else I’ve heard).
Well, for one thing, the Danes don’t let the wet weather stop them, with children and adults continuing their outdoor activities in less-than-ideal weather conditions. Some even go so far as to say that the Danes are waterproof…
In true Viking spirit, they are out persevering in all kinds of weather.
Their ability to do so (persevere in all kinds of weather) is attributable partially to their serious stance on outerwear:
A saying you will hear repeatedly in Denmark: “There is no bad weather, only bad clothes.”
A while back I attended a soccer game with my five-year-old Charlotte. Somehow I was the elected parent to attend, and generally I would enjoy this, but this particular morning was promising to be rainy. I put on a jacket and even dug around and found an umbrella…that’s the American way to prepare for rain. As parents gathered at the soccer field and the rain drizzled around us, I began to notice something. The other parents were all wearing full body rain gear–black rain jackets and matching black pants. They also all had rain boots. I looked down at my sneakers with the mud already squishing through them. Throughout the game, the rain was pretty inconsistent, on again, off again–I kept having to put up and then collapse my umbrella when I would realize that I was standing there like an idiot with an umbrella when it wasn’t actually raining.
Meanwhile, the Danish parents stood contentedly on the side lines in their waterproof gear.
I can’t really speak for all areas of the United States, but in the places I have lived (as far as I have observed) adults don’t usually “do” rain gear…other than possibly an umbrella.
In Colorado there’s not a whole lot of rain, so I think most people probably don’t see the need to own specialized rain clothes.
In Mississippi, however, we get lots of rain, but instead of learning to continue our activities in spite of the weather, seems like we mostly just try to run from it–like literally running from the house to the car on the days with rain, possibly with a newspaper over our heads because we don’t own a raincoat. Even kids often don’t own a raincoat or rainboots and are simply required to stay indoors whenever it rains.
Maybe we Mississippians could learn a thing or two from the Danes on how to deal with wet weather.
Last year we got season passes for Legoland, and obviously it’s always a good idea to check the weather before attending an outdoor amusement park. However, the weather report in Denmark is notorious for not always being correct. A fellow Expat gave me a word of advice: “If you want to know what the weather is going to be like, look at what the Danes are wearing.”
So one day we were headed out to Legoland, the weather was nice at the moment, but the weather report seemed to think there might be some showers later, so I stuffed my kids into jackets, rain boots, rain pants–the works. As we arrived at the park entrance, the sun was shining, promising to be a very nice day. Oh no! I thought, in a panic, Am I going to have to lug all this gear around all day because I dressed the kids wrong?
Then the voice came to me: Look at what the Danes are wearing.
I took a quick look at the Danes milling about. At first glance they seemed to be wearing clothes for a nice spring day outdoors…long sleeved shirts and regular pants. I guess I got it wrong, I thought, I’ll be carrying around all the extra clothes all day. But then I looked closer at the passersby. Jackets were tied around waists. I spotted rain pants tucked beneath strollers and backpacks stuffed with bulging gear. Ah-hah! I breathed a sigh of relief. Sure enough, not 20 minutes later, the clouds rolled in, the temperature dropped, and the first rain drops began to fall.
In addition to managing to go outdoors in spite of crappy weather, I will touch on two other things that the Danes do to get them through the long, dark winters: hygge, and lots of indoor sports.
We’ll start with the indoor sports. Ever seen a group of grown men competitively and aggressively playing indoor badminton? That’s something you’ll see “on the regular” here. There’s always a plethora of groups/clubs to choose from in any town (even a very small town, like the one we are living in). These may include indoor cycling, cross-fit, dance, strength-training, swimming, etc. I’ll probably have to write another post to explain the phenomenon of “clubs” in Denmark, but suffice it to say, pretty much everyone is a member of at least one, and most adults are involved in an exercise group or club. Gymnastics is especially popular with young people, with almost every child in the country participating.
And then there’s hygge. (You can pronounce it “hoo-guh”, that’s about as close as we Americans will get). Again, I’ll need to devote an entire post to this topic alone. If you haven’t heard of hygge before, it’s a concept that has been trending globally in recent years. Although there is no exact translation, a simple place to begin is “coziness”. But that one word doesn’t really do hygge justice because hygge is an art–it’s a verb, it’s a noun, it’s an adjective, it’s an integral part of existence for the Danes. And most importantly here, it’s often achieved indoors, and with other people. Thus hygge is perfectly suited for helping the Danes through the cold winter months. Good food, a flickering fire, a group of friends, a sheepskin rug, laughter, candle light…all these can contribute to achieving hygge. The arrival of Christmas lends numerous opportunities for hygge, but you definitely don’t need a special occasion.
If you’d like to learn more, google “hygge” or search it on YouTube, you will get all the ideas you could ever ask for (and more!).
So there we have it. The winters are long here in Denmark. They’re cold, they’re damp. Worst of all, they’re just kind of gray, so it’s pretty easy to start feeling gray yourself.
So how is it that the Danes (and other Nordic peoples) keep their spirits up? How do they consistently top the charts of the world’s happiest nations?
I think that the crux of it is that they decide to live life “whatever the weather”: They continue going outdoors (with appropriate apparel), they stay active with indoor sports, and they embrace the art of hygge.
Then again, perhaps the Danes’ happiness has less to do with all the gray-weather-and-gray-weather-activities, and more to do with what they do when the sun is shining.
On those rare sunny days, the Danes are outside–they are feeling the sun’s rays, and they are smiling.