Sorry for the mess. I'm moving things around. It'll be better soon.

Happiness Adjacent

1st January 2017

Our life in Sweden started as these kinds of moves do for many people: in the arrivals section of an airport. After flying all night, and having a several-hours layover in Reykjavik, we landed at the Copenhagen Airport, ready to begin our life in Sweden.

It is well known around the world, and often celebrated in Denmark, that Danes consistently rank the happiest people in the world according to the kinds of people who try to measure such things. I find it hard to believe, having spent some time in Denmark and having interacted with many Danes, but the experts seem to agree on this point. If nothing else, the Danes are quite skilled at giving the right answers on the appropriate tests, and tests are how we measure and certify many other things so why not happiness, too?

Raymond was only 7 at the time, but we had done a good job of selling the move to him, and he was prepared for an adventure. He didn’t have a good sense of geography, international boundaries, time-zones, or cultural differences, but he knew that this move was a big deal. He was taking it all in. He inspected every object, read every sign, and asked many questions.

Raymond and I were tasked with fetching the bags, while wife and daughter went to explore the facilities. On the wall near the baggage claim, there was a floor-to-ceiling Carlsberg advertisement that referenced the happiest people in the world. Raymond read the sign and asked, “Daddy, what is a Carlsberg?” Having experienced Carlsberg I was able to answer honestly while watching for our bags. I said, “It’s shit beer that they make here in Denmark.” He walked closer to the sign and inspected it more thoroughly, now several metres away from me on the other side of the stream of people walking toward the exit. After thinking about it for a bit, he yelled across the crowded airport, “Daddy, why are they the happiest people in the world if they make shit beer?”

There were a few seconds of dead silence, followed by dozens of people chuckling. I didn’t answer my son’s question, in part because I was startled by the situation, but in part because I didn’t have an answer. The boy had made a good point.

When most people think of Sweden, they think of Stockholm. For people who have only ever travelled to Sweden, or those who live there and enjoy it, Stockholm is synonymous with Sweden. Much like Toronto is Canada for people who have only travelled there, or enjoy living there. And, much like Torontonians think that Toronto is the centre of the universe, Stockholmers1 often think that Stockholm is the only bit of Sweden that exists. It’s only sometimes said out loud, but it shows in their actions, and especially in those of the politicians who work there.

The part of Sweden that we moved to is its southernmost province, Skåne. Skåne was a part of Denmark until 1658, and much of the rest of Sweden pretends it still is. Many of the Skånska people would prefer it that way, as well. Copenhagen considers Malmö its own suburb, and thanks to Öresundsbron, in practice it is.

A few hundred metres from my house is a beach. From that beach, I can clearly see Öresundsbron. Öresundsbron is a marvel of modern engineering that connects the part of Sweden that Sweden doesn’t want, to the part of Denmark that still claims it. The happiest people in the world live on the other side of that bridge, and I live next to them. Happiness adjacent.

The move to Sweden has been amazing for me and my family. My kids are getting an excellent education, and they’ll get to continue their education for as long as they care to. Thanks to the sensible amount of vacation that I get here, we actually get to do things. Because the working culture is reasonable, and people are respected as important parts of society, it is possible to actually do things that aren’t related to your job.

It hasn’t all been perfect, of course. The job didn’t turn out to be any of the things I thought it would be, and I’ve had a really hard time figuring out where I fit in. It has been very difficult at times to integrate and learn the customs, and when you make a mistake or social gaffe you often don’t know for quite a while, if ever, because people here tend to be quite indirect. To top it off, many things that used to be nearly reflexive routines like reading mail, paying bills, and seeing a doctor, have become chores that are painful and error prone.

But the positives outweigh the negatives dramatically. My life here is wonderful, and my whole family is far better off for the move. All of the issues I’ve experienced will only get easier, too: I’ll figure out where I best fit at my job; I’ll learn the customs and expectations; and I’ll get better at reading my mail, understanding my bills, and navigating public services.

The future is so much more promising here in every way, too. At work I get to work on Free Software, in a domain that has a lot of interesting use cases. Many of my colleagues are the smartest and most skilled people I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve made many great friends at work.

Sweden has excellent education, public services and infrastructure, and the people are generally quite excellent and easy to get along with. I’ve also been learning that not only will I not have to give up any of the dreams I had before moving here, many of them are even more attainable than they were in Canada.

There are a lot of things to like about my day to day life. I live in a quiet house, on a quiet street, in a quiet neighbourhood. A few hundred metres away is a beautiful beach. If you look at a map, I live on a peninsula next to Denmark, the place where the happiest people in the world live.

For the last year and a half, geographically, I have been very close to the happiest people. On a clear day, I can even see how to get there. And now, mentally, I am very close to the happiest I can be. With a clear mind, I can even see how to get there.

  1. nollåtta is the term used for a Stockholmer, and I’m told the plural is nollåttor, referencing the region prefix for Stockholm phone numbers: 08. It would be like calling a Torontonian “a 416.”