The Road Less Taken: The happiness found in unhappy endings
Recently I wrote an article for Time Magazine about Danish children’s TV and in particular the show ‘Vild Venner’ (wild friends).
Let’s talk about death!
It’s a sweet show about two kids who rescue animals. I sat down very unassumingly one evening with my seven-year-old daughter to watch the friends save a bird in trouble.
“What should we do?” the vet asks as she studies a pigeon’s wounded head. While the kids begin to make some suggestions about treatment, the camera zooms in on the white milky eyes of the now unmoving bird.
“Oh,” says the vet. “This bird didn’t make it. Why don’t we give it a nice funeral?” And just like that, my Tuesday evening was taken up with deep discussions about head wounds and dying with my daughter.
While shocking for some non-Danes, I realise now this is just the Danish way of authenticity. I write about this concept with my co-author in the book ‘The Danish Way of Parenting’: what the happiest people in the world know about raising confident capable kids.
Unhappy ever after
I became aware of the Danes’ ‘honest approach’ many years ago when I first came to Denmark and was initiated into watching Dogma and Lars von Trier films.
For those who are unfamiliar with Danish films, suffice to say that they don’t always have a happy ending. In fact, occasionally they have a ‘rip your heart out and stomp on it on the floor’ kind of ending.
As a fresh-faced American, I felt it was my right to get a happy ending, so it took me some years to get used to having my emotions randomly run through a meat grinder at the cinema.
Happier as a result
Interestingly enough however, what I found in researching for the book was that sad, upsetting or even ambiguous stories can actually make you happier in a count-your-blessings kind of way. It puts you more in touch with your own humanity and can make you more grateful for what you have rather than what you don’t have.
Learning about this made me realise that the expectation of a happy ending for adults and for kids is actually not that realistic or authentic.
I began remembering the many times when I had left Hollywood films and wondered why my life wasn’t that great. Why my car, my partner, my house, or my job wasn’t as good as in the movie. It became clear to me that much of this wasn’t real, and yet, many of us are so used to seeing these kinds of storylines that it makes sense we might get disappointed by what reality actually looks like.
Being prepared for life’s inevitable ups and downs through films and stories, as the Danes do, builds resilience and empathy, and these are both tied to more happiness. So perhaps if we get more comfortable telling life like it is – the good, the bad and the ugly – we can all experience more gratitude. They say the truth hurts, but honesty may be the best policy in portraying what happily ever after really means.
Jessica is a bestselling US author, Danish parenting expert, columnist, speaker, and cultural researcher. Her work has been featured in TIME, Huffington Post, The Atlantic and The NY Times, among others. She graduated with a BS in psychology and speaks four languages. She currently lives in Italy with her Danish husband and two children.