Happiness. Next to health and wealth, it’s one of the most commonly-sought, yet elusive, goals in our society. Stressed out by work, children, elderly parents, finances, and more, we wonder how we can even find the time to be happy. The two books I’m going to recommend today both purport to hold the key to happiness and, while they differ markedly in tone and content, their core ideas both centre around finding and holding onto the things that matter to you over those that don’t.
Last weekend I had the joy of travelling to Copenhagen. The Danes are ranked among the happiest people on earth, and it was no surprise when I took in the cycles strewn about the city (seriously, no one seems to lock their bikes up), the leisurely meals on patios outside restaurants (complete with blankets and heat lamps), and the clean, minimalist design (our hotel room was small, but the space was used so efficiently). As often happens after I’ve gone on holiday, I came home eager to seek out information on my new favourite country, and that’s how I came across Helen Russell’s The Year of Living Danishly. After her husband, an inveterate Lego fan, was offered his dream job working for the toy company itself, Russell, a journalist who was, at the time, working long hours and dreaming of retirement, decided to use the opportunity to seek out the clues to the Danes’ famous happiness. For each month of the subsequent year she learned about a particular aspect of Danish culture and life that might help explain the phenomenon, including, but not limited to, their famed minimalist interior design, their solid social welfare system, and the concept of hygge.
Part travel diary, part self-help book, The Year of Living Danishly is a funny, honest look not only at what it’s like to be an immigrant but also at what it means to live life to the fullest.
While minimalism is only one aspect of Danish life that Russell attributes their happiness to, it is the core of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Minimalism and decluttering are often associated the act of finding things to get rid of, but in contrast Kondo focusses not on choosing what to discard, but on choosing what to hold onto. She uses the phrase ‘spark joy’ to describe the way the things you retain should make you feel. Paring down your possessions, Kondo asserts, will not only provide you with a calm home but also encourage you to take the same approach to life, placing your own joy at the centre of decision-making.
Kondo’s advice to only keep books you have read and loved will probably make most book nerds cringe, but it’s worth considering in conjunction with her advice to only hold onto things that ‘spark joy’. For many bookish types, unread books do spark joy, holding between their covers infinite possibilities and promising excitement and pleasure when we do get the chance to read them. So many readers get stressed by the size of their TBRs and anxious about all the books they haven’t read. If this is you, then your TBR is not bringing you the joy it should. You know what I’m talking about: The excitement of running your finger along the spines, tugging one book out only to replace it because it’s not quite what you’re feeling right now, only to slide out another and curl up on the sofa with it, ready to tumble into the world held in its pages. This is a vital part of living joyfully for me, and so I interpret Kondo’s advice a little differently. If I pick up a book on my TBR and feel excited about reading it, then it belongs on my shelf. If I can’t even remember why I bought it, then it goes in the donation bin. Because Kondo emphasises holding onto things that make you happy, you’re free to interpret her other advice based on what does and does not make you, as an individual, happy.
Do either of these books hold the secret to lifelong happiness? Perhaps they do, and perhaps they don’t. But The Year of Living Danishly was a tremendously enjoyable read and, while I have yet to entirely tidy my home according to Marie Kondo’s advice, I haven’t been assaulted by the Tupperware Tower of Terror that used to lurk in the kitchen cabinet in months, and both of those things most definitely make me happy.
Nicola’s wanderlust has found her in a tiny apartment in Edinburgh, where minimalism and tidiness are essential to keep her happy.