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"We have to be sad sometimes to be happy": Helen Russell on happiness, hope and student mental health

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Helen Russell is a British author and journalist who left her job as a London magazine editor in 2012 to move to rural Denmark. Her experiences there inspired an international bestseller, The Year of Living Danishly, introducing readers to the highs and lows of Danish life, including countless cinnamon buns and the Danish concept of ‘hygge’. Her latest book, The Atlas of Happiness, takes this a step further to chart happiness concepts in countries around the world.

Image courtesy of John Murray Press

The Atlas of Happiness is an exploration of 33 different concepts from almost as many countries, from Iceland’s ‘þetta reddast’ (the belief that everything will work out in the end) to Italy’s ‘dolce far niente’ (the enjoyment of doing nothing). Russell tells me the idea developed after The Year of Living Danishly was published in 2015, featuring the Danish word ‘hygge’, loosely translated as ‘cosiness’. Readers from around the world began to approach Russell to tell her about concepts in their own countries, after which she went into ‘journalist mode’.

“I started researching the concepts further,” she says, “speaking to people from all over the world – either friends or friends of friends. I wanted to have a personal connection with everyone I spoke to. And they were normal people – that was important to me as well. They were normal people doing normal jobs, like stay-at-home parents, engineers, teachers, waiters… people on the ground, to give a flavour of what life is like where they are, and the different cultural customs that they use.”

Russell hopes the book will be a ‘jumping-off point’ for readers to do their own research – to find new ways to understand each other more and to become happier.

 “In these days of rolling news and social media it’s easy to get the idea that the world’s becoming more depressing by the minute,” she says. “But there are still things to be positive about, there are people managing to be happy every day in countries around the world, in countries that top the happiness polls as well as those that don’t.

“We have to work to find a way to stay positive, because otherwise we’ll just give up together. My rallying cry is that optimism isn’t frivolous, it’s necessary.”

I ask Russell more about happiness and mental health, especially in relation to students. She tells me she was inspired by the Brazilian/Portuguese concept of saudade, a melancholic feeling of nostalgia for a happiness that once was, or might have been. “We all have to be sad sometimes to be happy,” she says. “I think that’s really important these days, where mental health is more at the forefront of discussion. There are self-help tomes weighing down shelves nationwide, and we’re all trying to get happier, but it’s not about being ‘jazz-hands happy’ all the time.”

“It’s about finding meaning and purpose,” she continues, pointing to the Chinese concept xing fu, which involves finding something that gives you purpose in life. “Saudade acknowledges that sometimes you can give yourself over to those feelings, and have a sort of slackening to stay sane and keep afloat.”

On the subject of mental health and coping mechanisms, we discuss Russell’s entry for England: ‘jolly’. I’m somewhat sceptical, admitting to Russell that when I think of England I’m struck less by thoughts of rosy-cheeked jolliness than miserable people and bad weather.

Russell is, unsurprisingly, more positive. She points me to recent terrorist attacks, citing in particular a photograph of a man running from an attack on London Bridge still clutching his pint of beer. “There’s something there,” she says. “It’s a sense of keeping going in spite of adversity. Our satire, for instance, is about being a bit sarcastic. It’s a brisk cheerfulness.” She concedes that burying our feelings is perhaps not the most healthy coping mechanism, and that we might have something to learn from other cultures on that score, but points out that it does work in many respects.”

As a Brit Helen is well-placed to describe the English word jolly, as well as the entry for Wales. But what about the concepts from other countries? Is she concerned about the risk of ‘appropriating’ cultural concepts?

“I can’t take responsibility for what people do when it’s out there,” she says. “I think when you create anything you can only do it from a place of exploration, and a place of love. For me it was a positive thing to be able to share these concepts. I guess in more consumerist countries there is a drive towards making money from things but that’s not at its heart what it’s about.

“I would hope that The Atlas of Happiness is an indication that there is good in the world and that there are positive things, and almost an invitation to travel and to experience more of these things yourself. And as well reasons to be cheerful on the days when it does seem too much, I would hope that people can dip in and find something to make them smile or to give them hope.”

At this point Russell’s voice is drowned out by background noise on her end of the phone line. “I’m so sorry!” she cries, “a small child has just fallen over and is crying horribly.” Sounding concerned, she assures me the child seems fine, and explains that she’s in a library. “But it’s a Danish library.” As a student in Denmark myself, I’ve already learned that Danish libraries are not like British ones: here phone interviews and small children are acceptable, even encouraged.

I ask Russell why students in particular might be drawn to The Atlas of Happiness. She tells me excitedly that she’s just been to her 20-year university reunion, at Exeter where she studied English literature. “I’ve been thinking a lot about the person I was then, and how you feel as though the  world is ahead of you, and that’s a good thing and a bad thing.

“I found it quite stressful leaving university because I loved it there, and I had been in this safe cocoon and then I had to leave and go out into the world, which I found terrifying. I had to really work through a lot of things to be able to cope with that.”

As an only child, Russell loved living with other people at university, and says the experience taught her vital social skills that were useful later in life. “The friendships I made there are still my strongest ones,” she says, laughing warmly. “We’re all godparents to each other’s kids and we see each other all the time.”

Despite finding it hard to ‘go out into the world’ as she puts it, Russell has undoubtedly had great success in doing so. From starting as a researcher for the Sunday Times, she ended up as editor of marieclaire.co.uk, before moving to Denmark and working as a Scandinavia correspondent while writing The Year of Living Danishly. Her second book, Leap Year, followed in 2016, and her first novel, Gone Viking, was published in 2018 just nine months before The Atlas of Happiness. I ask if she has any advice for aspiring journalists or writers.

“Two things,” she tells me. “Firstly it’s just putting the work in and producing a lot that you will discard. The first thing you write doesn’t tend to be brilliant – unless you’re Zadie Smith – so just writing and writing and writing until you’ve done your 10,000 hours. And then it’s about getting really firm and good at getting the red pen out and editing yourself until it’s the leanest that you can make it.”

The approach seems to have worked for Russell. I ask what’s next on the agenda for her, and she tells me that nothing is set in stone just yet.

“I have a couple of non-fiction ideas and a couple of fiction ideas. I’m just letting things percolate and seeing what refuses not to be written, and which I am in love with more.”

The Atlas of Happiness is published by Two Roads, an imprint of John Murray Press. Hardback £16.99, for more details click here.

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