If you grew up in America, you’ve been encouraged to stand out and excel since you were born, right? You had to get the best grades, be the MVP on your sports team, lead a club at school, dig a well in a poor country, and ultimately leverage all of those accomplishments to get a high-paying job with a fancy title.
In other words, you had to be special or, dare I say, perfect. Anything less is seen as abject failure. That’s why rich kids — who have everything in the world at their beck and call — have to pretend to be on sports teams and bribe admissions officials to fraudulently weasel their way into elite universities (read here if this lovely story didn’t bless your social media feeds!).
The hallmark of American culture is a veneration of individuality, independence, achievement, and lack of conformity. Americans like to stand out and rise above the pack. And they like to gloat loudly about their accomplishments.
“Greed is good,” said Gordon Gekko once upon a time. “There’s an ‘i’ in win,” Michael Jordan famously retorted in response to his coach urging him to play a more team-centric style of basketball. Puffing out your chest is the most quintessential American gesture. Striving for greatness seems like a noble goal. ‘I’ and ‘me’ are the dominant American pronouns. But when you dig beneath the veneer of ambition and self-reliance, it loses its luster.
American individualism breeds a Darwinist mentality, which encourages you to win at all costs. That mentality has paid off financially for many Americans; the United States is the wealthiest country in the world, and there’s no better place to get rich (or die tryin’). Americans pride themselves on their self-sufficiency and personal responsibility.
But zero-sum thinking and unquenchable ambition don’t translate to happiness. If anything, they create stress from the constant lust for bigger, better, and more. Ambition usually stems from external expectations. And as Alain de Botton writes in Status Anxiety:
“Anxiety is the handmaiden of contemporary ambition.”
Don’t believe me? Let’s turn to the data. Despite America’s individualist, achievement-oriented ethos, the United States never tops world happiness rankings. In the latest rankings, America placed 18th. Of the 17 countries ranked above America, 12 are in Europe.
Scandinavia occupies the top of the rankings. Four of the top seven happiest countries are up north. There’s a lot to be said for that maxim. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Scandinavia’s penchant for happiness is to adopt a philosophy that represents the complete opposite of trying to “lead the pack.”
One Scandinavian country — Denmark, which placed second in the rankings and has two of the world’s five happiest cities — has broadly adopted a philosophy perfectly tailored to accepting an average life and embracing low expectations. If you’ve ever been advised to hope for the best but expect the worst, you’re on the right track.
The Roots of Jante
Aksel Sandemose, a Danish-Norwegian writer born in Denmark in 1899, once wrote a book called A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks. He wanted to satirize the character of Scandinavian small towns. Sandemose named his fictional town Jante, and the name became a cultural symbol in his home country.
The Jante laws expressed in Sandemose’s work are almost as simple as the Fight Club rulebook. Here they are:
1. You’re not to think you are anything special.
2. You’re not to think you are as good as we are.
3. You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.
4. You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.
5. You’re not to think you know more than we do.
6. You’re not to think you are more important than we are.
7. You’re not to think you are good at anything.
8. You’re not to laugh at us.
9. You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
10. You’re not to think you can teach us anything.
If you have a well-inflated ego balloon, reading these laws will pierce that bubble in an instant. As the Scandinavia Standard wrote in a piece about Jante, “The ten laws of Jante, written by Sandemoose, are a fascinating look at the wide net this pattern of behavior casts across society. Notice that they’re directed at you, and refer to us, meaning the culture or community at-large.”
Jante embraces the community and the greater good — ‘us’ and ‘we’ — over the individual — ‘I’ and ‘me.’ It aligns with the famously egalitarian ethos that defines Scandinavian society.
Denmark’s school system emphasizes social skills, not test scores and good grades. It lacks the gifted/advanced programs common in American schools. High-achieving children don’t try to outcompete each other; instead, they’re taught to lend a helping hand to other students who need one.
You also see an embrace of humility and mediocrity in the Danish business world. For years, alcohol brand Carlsberg branded itself as “probably the best beer in the world.” That first word — probably — is the Jante element; it gently undercuts the central claim of the slogan. And last year, Carlsberg updated that slogan in a typically self-deprecating fashion. After being accused for years of having poor taste, Carlsberg now says it’s “probably not the best beer in the world.” Imagine Budweiser or Miller Lite saying that. Not going to happen.
Like Fight Club, Danes don’t really talk about Jante. They simply live it (and use it in great advertisements!). Whether or not you hail from the land of Legos and colorful houses, you can learn quite a lot from Jante.
The Magic Of Jante Lies In Dampening Expectations
In a Season 3 episode of Seinfeld, George Costanza reflected on the potential of removing expectations to boost his happiness. While slovenly devouring a plate of pasta at the dinner table, Costanza donned his philosopher hat (I rank him with the likes of Aristotle and Aurelius) to deliver the following gem:
“I don’t want hope. Hope is killing me. My dream is to become hopeless. When you’re hopeless, you don’t care, and when you don’t care, that indifference makes you attractive.”
The irony of this quote stems from the character who delivered it. Costanza was constantly neurotic and aggrieved; he always worried about how others perceived him and about where he stood in the social pecking order (a concern you can see in the ending of this quote and in the rest of the episode). He once went as far as to have his friend Elaine take an IQ test for him when a girlfriend requested it. But even if Costanza didn’t practice what he preached, and even if hopelessness doesn’t seem particularly attractive, he was on to something.
The magic of Jante — a code Costanza would have been well-advised to follow — lies in its dampening of expectations. In this vein, it’s similar to Buddhism, which emphasizes the suffering born by desire.
In our fast-paced, hypercapitalist, ego-centric world, expectations drive our decisions — at home, in the classroom, in the office, and in our everyday choices. Comparison games incent us to slap sexy titles on our resume, brag about marathon times and bank account sums, or buy sexy clothing that empties our wallets and ultimately our reserves of happiness.
If you can accept the essence of Jante — you’re nothing special — you will remove yourself from the rat race of expectations and comparisons. You will learn to be happy with who you are and view any good fortune that comes your way as just that rather than a natural byproduct of your brilliance and exceptionalism.
Rather than anchoring your self-worth to the beliefs and expectations of others, following Jante will buoy your self-worth by tying it to a well-grounded anchor. There’s more to life than the material things you own or your place in the social pecking order. The less you desire and expect from the world, the happier you’ll be.
Lower Expectations Make Us Happier
In a happiness study by neuroscientist Robb Rutledge of the University College of London, low expectations boosted happiness. Using self-reported ratings and MRI scans, Rutledge found people were happier when they received an unexpected reward than an expected one.
Rutledge’s research makes sense in the real world. If your significant other treats you to a romantic meal you weren’t expecting or buys you something you subtly mentioned you’d love to have, you’ll be over the moon. If, in contrast, you’ve been expecting an engagement ring for a while but haven’t been proposed to yet, you’ll be feeling blue.
You can extend this truism beyond romantic pursuits. The final season of Game of Thrones disappointed its fanbase because the show had set such a high bar. Nothing short of a world-class season would’ve met the expectations of GoT fans. But even though I’ve never watched it (true story!), I’d imagine even a mediocre season from Benioff and Weiss is far better than the vast majority of entertainment people regularly consume (hello reality TV fans).
Pivoting away from Westeros, Tom Brady’s success feels great to millions of fans largely because no one expected much from him — he was the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL Draft. Same with Russell Wilson (the 75th pick in the 2012 draft) and Drew Brees (the 64th pick in the 2001 draft).
In contrast, Baker Mayfield, the first overall pick in the 2018 draft, has performed about as well as these Hall of Famers did as young quarterbacks. But Mayfield has been pegged as mediocre because he hasn’t met the sky-high expectations heaped upon top draft picks.
In sum, expectations govern our happiness. The more you can lower your expectations, the happier you’ll be! Jante doesn’t necessarily decry the value of expectations. It’s okay to want to succeed and be great — in the workplace, in the classroom.
Instead, Jante discourages you from seeing your life as a nonstop quest to differentiate yourself and treat yourself and others accordingly. It prevents you from becoming consumed with ambition itself or the things it can spawn: stuff, status, or superiority. It encourages you to choose your priorities intentionally. Ask yourself the following question when pursuing something that normally carries external rewards:
Am I doing this out of healthy internal ambition, or am I doing this to meet or exceed external expectations?
If you‘re not sure, Jante will set you straight.
I can’t help but feel a certain connection with Stoic philosophy in Jante. Both philosophies highlight acceptance and humility. Both seem quite grim and serious. Stoicism tells you memento mori — remember you will die. Jante reminds you that you are not special; you are just one of eight billion humans, a small speck of flesh in a big universe. Both philosophies encourage you to live according to an internal compass rather than one set by the outside world.
Instead of trying to compete and win at all costs to meet high expectations, subsume your individuality to the greater good. Remember that the best things in life — close friends and family, a good walk outside, serving the greater good — are both priceless and very valuable. And they’re not about you.
So if COVID or life in general is stressing you out, refer to the Jante laws and ask yourself whether your expectations are out of whack. Accept your inherent averageness and lower your expectations. You don’t need to give up like George Costanza, but remember this: you’re good enough, and if you can calibrate your self-worth as such, you’ve got a leg up on everyone else.
Not that I recommend caring about that last bit. I wouldn’t be a good Jante adherent if I did :)
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