“Frodo: What are we holding on to, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.
Just as Tolkien, Hemingway wrote one day that the world is a wonderful place that worth fighting for. Nowadays, it is easier though to see the fight than the wonderful. It is easy to point out the grey sky and clouds, but we should maybe be more like Samwise Gamgee and to see the good around us…” writes Meik Wiking in his book called “The Little Book of Lykke: The Danish Search for the World’s Happiest People”.
I am in a library. I am supposed to look for a present but I get lost in the ideas of the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute of Copenhagen. The more I read, the more I feel the urge to talk to a Danish, someone who can explain to me what is the secret of happiness in one of the happiest countries in the world and how it is translated in the day to day life.
I eventually find the present for my friend and the moment I am offering it to him, I receive one myself: someone at the party gives me the phone number of what he calls a truly happy Danish: Frank. It feels a little bit awkward to contact Frank and to ask for an interview, but he welcomes my call with a warm voice and so much openness that all my apprehension fades away. I ask him what would be the most convenient time for him:
– After lunch, he answers.
– What does lunch exactly mean to you?
– Well, I have my lunch break at 12, I am done at 12:30.
– Because in France, lunch is more from 12 to 2 pm…
– I know… Every country has its habits. In Denmark, if you invite friends over at 7, they arrive at 7.
– In France or in Romania, if you are invited at 7 and you really arrive at 7, you might have the surprise to find the host undressed. So you arrive more at 7:15-7:30. In France, even one hour later…
Our dialogue starts so naturally that I feel like wanting to do the interview right away. But I practice patience and when the day comes, I try to find the secret of lykke taught by a Danish. I explain the point of our discussion and I invite Frank to introduce himself. This is his answer:
I have turned 57 on December 31st. I have been married for 27 years and I have three children. Two boys, who are 29 and respectively 27, and a daughter who is 22. I am born on the west coast of Denmark and my blood line is a fisherman family. Mainly from my mother’ side. I have been kind of influenced by the environment around the North Sea.
I have a technical background and I have been working in a machine shop (installation fishing hardware and supply for mid side vessels, power generators, fishing equipment). In 1991, I worked on the implementation of the first automatic system on the market and now I am with the same company for 28 years.
At that time, I was working whenever the company needed me. The engagement was very high. I had a lot of work and I was tired, I had minimum resources and the whole business to run. Later I had multiple jobs in Denmark, then assignments in Singapore and Golf Coast, Texas, to finally take responsibilities across the North Sea, Europe and Mediterranean countries. But I wanted to stay in my country. I politely excused myself and used my explanation to say no. The work life balance was really important to me.
You had and you have now very important responsibilities. How did you manage this balance?
I think the sport helped a lot. It was kind of pillar for the family. I used to play ice hockey and my boys did it too. They also ski since they were three years old. Across Europe as Denmark is a completely flat country. On the other hand, my wife and my daughter were doing a lot of dressage competitions. It was very time consuming, it required a maximum support and it was also very expensive. From the category “stupid but priceless…” This horse thing implies huge financial capabilities. Buying the horse, performing and so on and the environment around equitation is upper class. My wife used to have a horse when she was 17-18. So it became kind of… mom thing and dad thing. I always had the desire to go and enjoy it together. It was a family thing supporting the sport of the kids.
It all looks so perfect but I am guessing that it implies some efforts…
Well, it was not a dance of roses indeed…
Actually, when I was 24, I found my mom dead. A heart attack. My father was a fisherman. He was out sailing. My little brother was away for business and he came back after two days. I had to deal with all that alone. That impacted me a lot. But it shaped my personality too. I had to grow up fast.
Few years later, my dad died of cancer at 57, despite the chemo treatment. At the end, he was weighting just 35 kg, smelling badly, tough to see… it was a choc. To some extent, on the leader role, being the older brother, I sometimes had to carry the biggest lot. At a certain point, it became normal. Like a natural process. Circumstances made me what I am today.
How were you as a kid?
Good question! I don’t know… I think I was privileged to grow up in a home where there has never been any doubt about love and appreciation. I had a very happy childhood. We always had strong tradition for Christmas, around the dedication period. I have never been a kid longing to be the centre of attention. I was not good at football, not the first in a role. But neither the last. Just normal average. Maybe a bit boring. And my family was a traditional one. I didn’t benefit from the same attention that kids have today, nor the same facilities. Parents didn’t use to nurse kids as it is done today. But we always spent together quality time. I have never felt that I should fear coming home if anything bad happened. I felt it was ok even if I did something not that positive. My parents were open-minded. It was accepted to make mistakes, it was seen as good thing and I was given the level of trust that I would be treated fairly no matter what.
How did you transmit that to your own kids?
Good question! I have seen some examples when parents pushed their personal ambitions on behalf of the kids. If I couldn’t go on the football team my kids have to do it. Or if my wife couldn’t get the education she wanted, our kids have to. I never intended to accomplish myself through them. We never tried to pick things nor ambitions. We had no rules of engagement. Our kids had to do their homework, the dishes and so on but we never imposed to them meeting this kind of expectations.
I spent a lot of time in my head making sure that our home is a pleasant place. Like it is said: make to others what you want them to do to you… Hopefully we set a few good examples. We did our best. It takes effort and hard work to make a happy life.
What is a happy life to you?
One big thing, one that I have from my parents, is health. It is important to function, mentally and physically. I put efforts in being in good shape. Not to look good, which obviously also counts as hopefully my wife will still find me attractive. But to be able to function, to go skiing, and to keep up with my kids.
It is also about the quality of life. I work in a very competitive environment and I have to perform. For me, as an individual, being in good physical condition has an impact on my mental balance. I thought about it and it is absolutely true that I perform better when I am in good shape.
Another aspect is a kind of a positive vision. One has to be able to focus on the positive side. I for sure have learnt to get better on that. I have been in this business for a very long time, and I quickly realised that when business decisions must be implemented, it can have a negative impact if you are on the wrong spot at the wrong time. But instead of worrying, I learned to focus on things that I can influence.
At the beginning of my career, it was important for me to fit in. To be the same as my peers. To have the same opinion as the others. Becoming older, I changed my mindset, my behaviour and my vision of what is important. I am who I am, I can make mistakes and I can forgive others for their mistakes even if it has been unfair. I try not to focus on that, but going on the positive. It begins with small things. As an individual, you are not in control. For example, this morning, it was raining. Afterwards, there was this blue sky. I felt appreciation for that. Life have taught me that you really have to cherish small things.
How do you manage stress and pressure?
I personally associate stress and pressure essentially with the professional environment. It is obvious to me that when you are mentally fit, you cope more with stressful situations. But when tired, your tolerance to negative is so much lower. The reason why I am aware of that is because I have seen too many bad examples. When we mess up as a team, the management puts tremendous pressure on people. And if there is one thing those people don’t need is exactly the pressure. Nobody comes to work with bad intentions. But we fail recognising that. We should bring back the positive instead. I have only seen bad results after pressure. And this is a wrong definition of leadership.
As far as I am concerned, I have a good and a bad approach in dealing with stress. The first way to manage stress is by taking my high performance bicycle. Two hours on the bike with mates and younger people taught me peace. It completely clears the brain. You have no time, no energy to think of anything else. And this is why I have to stay healthy.
On the other hand, I am doing my best not to fall into work to often and bring frustration home. It is the worst thing to do. In general, if it is within my abilities to influence the situation that generated stress and pressure, I do everything I can. And I am able to tell myself that I have done what was needed and then let it go. You can only do that much.
Now, if I think about how my wife would answer this question, I think that she would say that I don’t necessarily have the right balance. It is because sometimes I answer work calls during the weekends. Not as often as it used to be. But still. She thinks that being positive home is healthier for all.
What would you do in an ideal world?
I don’t think I know but I have an idea. If I were in an ideal world, I would do something to help people in difficult situation. I am not talking about a good friend who needs to repair his house. I wouldn’t mind working in Africa for a period of time to support people that are in tough situations, help kids who cannot afford things, or even open our home to kids not that fortunate…
In my work, I think it would be arrogant for me to believe that I make a difference. I would rather like to think that I have the respect of my peers, and that our clients and people in the organisation, me and my team included, we contribute with something positive.
But right now, that my kids are independent, they don’t need mom and papa anymore. So, to answer your question, I would definitely use my resources to do something meaningful.
Before finishing, Frank completed a questionnaire measuring happiness. His score is largely above average. And when you think about it, it is true. He is a happy person. He has most of the features that scientists identified when making the happy people profile: he dedicates time to his family, he expresses his gratitude, he helps others, he is optimistic, he has long term objectives, he is strong in front of setbacks and last but not least he exercises.
Listening to Frank I had the feeling that happiness is so simple. Not simple to attend. But simple as a concept. We are complicating things instead of focusing on what is truly important. The ancestral wisdom teaches us the way to happiness but in the digital era we are looking for happiness in the wrong place. We are all equipped with everything we need in order to live a happy life but we are getting confused with all the things that we think we should be looking for.
What if we go back to basics? What if instead of distracting ourselves with all sorts of activities we spend more time on cherishing the things we do have? Small or big. Those things that intrinsically give us so much energy and well-being!
As Frank was saying, it takes effort and hard work to make a happy life. But I believe that lykke worth searching and that we are all able to achieve it. Lykke is not for the few ones (people or countries). It is for all.
The take away from this story is that we have to live our life fully and never forget that we already have most of the things that really make us happy!