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Podcast Transcript – Helen Russell

Helen Russell

Helen Russell (00:00):

Well, yes, we also have the behaviours that would be diagnosed as being ADHD in the US but in Finland we call that childhood.

Paul Boross (00:17):

Welcome to the Humourology Podcast with me, Paul Boross, my glittering lineup of guests from the world’s of business, sport, and entertainment, who are here to share their wisdom and their use of humour with you. Humourology is the study of how humour can dramatically improve every aspect of your business and your life. Humourology puts the fun into business fundamentals, increases the value of your laughing stock, and puts a punchline back into your bottom line. Please remember to like, subscribe, and leave a review wherever you get your podcasts.


My guest on this edition of the Humourology Podcast is the best-selling author of books like The Atlas of Happiness, Gone Viking, and How to Be Sad. Just name a few. Her first book, A Year of Living Danishly, was an international bestseller and has even been optioned for television. When she’s not writing critically acclaimed books, you can find her work in The Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph, and the Wall Street Journal. In addition to her work on the page, you can hear her insights on emotional intelligence and mental health on her podcast. How to Be Sad as a contributor on BBC Radio Four or critically acclaimed podcast like Freakonomics. Helen Russell, welcome to the Humourology Podcast.

Helen Russell (01:41):

Thank you so much for having me, Paul, and for that lovely introduction.

Paul Boross (01:44):

Ah, well, it was all true and I’m a great admirer of your work. I remember reading the year of living Danish Lee ages ago, and it was just such a joy and, and, and with so many insights, but we’ll come to that nin due course. The Jesuits say, give me a child of seven and I will give you the man or woman. What was the young Helen Russell like and was she humorous?

Helen Russell (02:13):

Um, I would, yeah, well, I was a little bit Hermione Granger – I hear reports and I sort of remember that I was quite, I was always sort of pushing my hand up the highest in class and really just bursting and probably incredibly irritating. But I grew up with my mum. I didn’t have brothers and sisters when I was growing up, so I was around adults a lot. Very few, seven or eight-year-olds endured a lifetime ban from Eton Wine bar, but that’s what happened to me because I would go out for dinner with the adults and I would be bored with their conversation. So I’d play with the candles and ended up setting fire to the table. And so I had a strong kind of sense of what I found funny, and it was in the era my mom was forever disappearing up to London to go to Jongleurs. So, I kind of, I was interested in the funny, quite early. I think

Paul Boross (03:04):

Your mum went to Jongleurs, you know, that, both my acts Maurice Minor and the Majors and the Calypso Twins used to play Jongleurs all the time.

Helen Russell (03:15):

When, when we met last, I did a little, oh, Paul, that sounds familiar. And then I did see yes. Oh, what, what happy day days must have been.

Paul Boross (03:22):

So me and Ainsley might have got your mum on stage to dance.

Helen Russell (03:29):

I will ask her if she has any recollection of such a tremendous occasion. <laugh>,

Paul Boross (03:35):

Well, I apologise now. so obviously your mum went to Jongleurs, humour was actually valued in your home then.

Helen Russell (03:45):

We’re from, you know, an Irish Catholic family. We, we sort of do humour, especially in the bleak times, and I think, but we are also growing up in, in England the whole time, it was very much that sense of, oh, well just, um, if you can laugh about it, then nothing’s ever quite so bad. So we would make jokes instead of maybe going to the grittier heart of many situations, I’d say. and yeah, humour was, was very important. I used to get sent away from Sunday lunch because I’d be giggling so much that I would be needing to go to the bathroom. I, it was very, it was a lot about, about humour, I think growing up.

Paul Boross (04:18):

And was, I mean, I dunno if this is a delicate subject, but I’d heard you, uh, talk that your, your sister died when you were young, and so you’ve experienced loss what happened, and you don’t have to answer this obviously, but within the fi family dynamic, was it, was it parked or, or was it, or were you protected from that and was humour important to dealing with that?

Helen Russell (04:41):

Yes and no. I think parked is certainly, it wasn’t spoken about. And so that actually became quite problematic as I got older because I would tend to make light of any situation. I would make jokes at funerals and, you know, it just, it’s not always appropriate. It’s very helpful and there are far worse coping mechanisms, but actually it, it, it wasn’t really, um, so my sister died of what was called caught death at the time when I was, uh, very young, nearly three. And there just wasn’t the vocabulary to deal with any of that. So, so yeah, we kind of carried on and, and then when things were funny, we really lent into that, and then you didn’t have to think about the pain and the darkness. And I think, uh, I would say perhaps our sensibilities and, and comedy has evolved to, to bring in that light and shade and to incorporate all of those life experiences now. But growing up it was very much, if you had the light switch turned on, the comedy switch turned on, then you didn’t have to think about the painful things. So, in that way I’ve had to kind of relearn my relationship with laughter as I got older, I think,

Paul Boross (05:43):

Through writing. Do you think you’ve learnt more about

Helen Russell (05:46):

That? Well, I think they, I mean, one of the beautiful luxuries of, of being a writer is that you get to, there are different parts to the job as you know. So you, there are bits where you are out there talking about your work and you’re promoting, you’re being quite jazz hands. And then there’s other parts where you squirrel yourself away for months on end wearing sweatpants and jumpers with holes in as today and, and you’re just with your, with your thoughts. And there is no avoiding anymore. You can’t, I mean, you can make a joke on paper, but you kind of had to face anything that you’ve been running away from. And that’s quite helpful. And it’s, um, you know, I grew up, grew up Catholic. I’m quite good with a confessional, so actually there’s something very cathartic about writing, about how you’re actually feeling, knowing full well that you can get the red pen to it and edit it later. So yes, I think I found it much more comfortable in that very safe space to get to grips with the full breadth of the emotional, uh, landscape

Paul Boross (06:39):

In your book and your brilliant podcast, how to Be Sad, you say that, uh, sadness is going to happen, so we might as well learn how to do it well. Was that because you were initially looking at happiness and well come to that? Was that, uh, as a result of looking at happiness, you thought how we really have to address sadness?

Helen Russell (07:02):

Well, pre-pandemic, I was doing a talk at the barbecue of all places, and, um, it was all lovely. And I was talking about my book, the Atlas of Happiness, and I had questions afterwards and people were saying, oh, you know, if you’ve just lost a loved one, how can you be happy then? Or have you’ve just been made redundant or been made homeless? And it struck me that perhaps I had not been clear, or that I had been misleading even that, that we shouldn’t expect happiness at all times, and sadness is a very appropriate response to loss or disappointment in our lives. And when the lockdown hit and the world went a little crazy, I ended up talking to my then therapist about this who said, it’s no surprise at all to him that I had spent 10 years researching into happiness because I too was quite scared of that sadness, very scared of the darkness.


I had no tools with which to deal with it other than humour other than avoidance and trying to make light of it. So then it struck me that I was in the same boat, that I also didn’t know how to cope with being sad, but that it was always going to come to all of us. So that didn’t seem very healthy. And actually we’ve been sold a very narrow definition of happiness. That means never being sad and never doing hard things. And as you say, life isn’t like that. So I wanted to explore that and unpick it a little more.

Paul Boross (08:15):

Well, you mentioned that, that you went to a therapist and you’ve been very upfront about the fact that you’ve had therapy over the years. Do you think it is the search for happiness is as a result of the fear of sadness, perhaps?

Helen Russell (08:32):

Um, yes, but it’s almost, it’s almost worse than that because it’s almost complete avoidance. It’s not even daring to contemplate that that might be there. It’s. I think from a very young age, many of us, all that have been raised with, um, perhaps parents who grew up wanting to make things sunny and nice for us all the time. And so if you fall over, you’re told, oh, get up, it’s okay, um, or don’t cry, or It doesn’t hurt, you’ll be fine. And actually that’s really confusing as a young child from a young age, you learn to distrust your emotions or distrust your response or think that being sad is somehow wrong and there is then a shame attached to it. And so there have been studies from, you know, Harvard from studies going back decades now showing that actually if we try to suppress any sort of emotion, it will bob back up like a, like a, um, inflatable ball at the, at the beach or something. And so actually if we don’t, um, allow ourselves to feel this sadness, if we’re always running from it, if we think when we do feel sad that something is wrong with us in inverted commas and then try to pathologize it, then that’s even more harmful because then we’re gonna feel shame and we’re not going to be able to deal with the normal sadnesses that life will throw at us.

Paul Boross (09:38):

So it’s about acceptance, is it, in that sense?

Helen Russell (09:42):

Yeah, acceptance, which sounds very simple, but actually it is quite radical because so much of our society is or at least historically, has been set up to, to not accept it and to not even acknowledge it. So I guess since post World War ii, and of course there were perfectly understandable and legitimate reasons for wanting to just, just keep carbon carry on and, and the old, you know, Winston Churchill ideas, and obviously you didn’t say that, but that, that idea that there was nowhere to put the, the extent of the grief and the mourning, and so we just had to carry on. But it’s, you know, what we don’t talk about can hurt us. And so I think it’s acceptance yeah, but it’s then sitting with it and thinking, well, how do I deal with this? Because I’d never learnt how I, my parents never learnt how, so where do we then go from there? So it felt like a bigger, um, you know, carpet to unravel.

Paul Boross (10:32):

It’s really fascinating for me from a psychological perspective of the acceptance. But where does that stop and where do you start wallowing in it and, and not leaping out of it, you know, where’s the happy medium in that?

Helen Russell (10:49):

It’s so interesting. It’s only ever men who ask, how long does the wallowing have to last?

Paul Boross (10:54):


Helen Russell (10:55):

I find it really interesting. But yeah, absolutely. I think, um, there has to, and I’ve experienced depression as well, but we have to differentiate between, uh, normal sadness, which is a response to loss or disappointment or things not turning out how we might have hoped. And depression, which for better or for worse, is currently defined as having five out of these nine symptoms for two weeks or more. So there is a medical definition of when it’s too much wallowing, that’s also quite problematic and probably quite individual. There used to be, as you’ll know, the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual from the US, which is meant to be just for the US for the whole world ends up using it was meant to, it usually had a grief clause so that you couldn’t be diagnosed with depression within, I think, two months of experiencing a bereavement.


Well, that was done away with the last, uh, DSM 5. So now, even though you could be having a perfectly normal response to losing a loved one, for example, you could still get a diagnosis of depression. You could be prescribed antidepressants, which I’ve also taken. So I’m not anti any of these things, but I just want to sort of be clear and look at the granularity of those things. So of course, yeah, you don’t wanna, you don’t want to stay at home forever. So part of what I then research was, well, when, when do we actually need to get help? When do we need to even though we may not feel like it, put ourselves back into our community and try and do something for someone else. And that’s a really helpful way when we are feeling low. When do we need to get a different perspective from books or from culture or just getting back out there in the world? So it’s not just about sitting on your own, um, in a darkened room, but that might be a part of it for a day or so.

Paul Boross (12:35):

Yeah. Oh, I, I like that you’ve, you’ve given it for a day or so at the end of that <laugh>,

Helen Russell (12:41):

That’s not, not official guidance,

Paul Boross (12:42):

No, <laugh> Exactly. No, I’m interested because when I first started, , training doctors at, at Guys, Kings and St. Thomas’s, DSM, we were still on DSM 1 or 2, I think, which was this thick…

Helen Russell (12:57):


Paul Boross (12:58):

And now, uh, DSM 5 is this. And I always wondered, well, is this led by the pharmaceutical industry trying to find more things to give pills four, if you like? Uh, and are we overdoing it by giving everything a label?

Helen Russell (13:23):

It sounds like you think so. I do think so a little bit as well. I think, um, I’m currently looking into, uh, the Nordic approach to various things, uh, within childhood. And for example, ADHD, is something that’s many Finnish Academics will say, well, yes, we also have the behaviours that would be diagnosed as being ADHD in the us but in Finland we call those, you know, we call that childhood, we expect those things. So I certainly think there is something around yeah, of course, a big pharmaceutical industry whose interests lie within pathologizing many human conditions. I, I like the idea of not what’s wrong with you, but what, what’s happened to you. We all have stories, we’ve all been through some stuff, and that will have an impact. But, um, I also spoke to neuroscientists and, um, geneticists and, um, psychotherapists and just some of the best minds in the world who, who all kind of agreed, we don’t know, which, which was so rather disheartening, but also it felt like less of a sinister plot to destroy our lives because people were saying, we just don’t know why the brain reacts the way it does.


It’s incredibly complicated, obviously. And so the neuroscientist Dean Burnett was, was really interesting talking about, you know, actually how the brain is working. And that, although maybe giving antidepressants, for example, may be a bit of a blunt instrument, it’s kind of the best we’ve got, especially in an overstretched NHS. And so, although it would be great if everyone was able to access talking therapies, there aren’t even enough therapists to go around, even if there was the financial resources for that. So it’s, it’s a problem without solutions right now. And there are some great minds trying to work on fixing that. But at the moment, yeah, there isn’t, there doesn’t seem to be a very clear route and, and that’s really unfair for many people.

Paul Boross (15:13):

Yeah. Uh, my, my slight concern is, well, more than slight concern is that, uh, that once we label everything, what happens psychologically is that people start to play up to the label. So they go ADHD or dyslexic, and then they start to wear it as a badge and act as if they have that, and then it becomes normalised within them. Well, I can’t do that because I am x rather than, and and I think maybe it was done to help, but it also can be a hindrance to people moving forward. What do you think about that?

Helen Russell (15:54):

It’s really challenging, I think, and, and, you know, this is not my area of expertise, but I think in terms of ADHD, it’s a really interesting one. And having two small boys it’s a constant thing that parents and, and teachers are talking about. And many of these behaviours, I would just think, well, that’s just a child that’s just, of course they don’t wanna sit still. But on the flip side, I know a lot of women my age in their thirties and forties getting diagnosis of ADHD that have actually been a really helpful and a huge relief because for so long there was such a rather narrow idea of ADHD is really, it’s for young boys. And because these women are high functioning, they’re, um, highly educated, there’s a sense that, well, there can’t be anything wrong, but actually it’s not that they’re not acting out their lives hugely differently, but it’s been very comforting and helpful for them to understand the why. Things sometimes, sometimes feel harder for them than they might for other people. So I take your point, but I don’t know, I’d be kind of cautious about taking away something that has, from my experience of friends experiencing ADHD has hugely helped them.

Paul Boross (17:00):

And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Because it, on one hand, it can do, I mean, I think probably we’re all on some kind of spectrum at different times in our lives, but if we keep subdividing it into it, then we’ll all be going, I’ve got something, you know, because there are certain situations whereby we are all, you know, a little bit, you know, ADHD with that, you know, is it ADHD to get upset when there’s washing in the sink? And nobody’s done it. You see what I mean? Is it, I don’t know where it stops or starts, but this is about humour. So, uh, we’re looking at it humorously, obviously <laugh>. I was intrigued cuz you, uh, were the editor of and you lived this glamorous life in London, and then as a result of your husband getting his dream job at Lego, you ended up in a small town in the rural hinterlands of Denmark. Now Denmark, as you have so beautifully told us over the years is routinely or near the top of the every happiness and ranking compiled by the United Nations. And your book, which I talked about earlier, The Year of Living Danishly, is all about uncovering the secrets of the world’s happiest country. So we’re on the Humourology podcast, what are the secrets, Helen?

Helen Russell (18:40):

<laugh>, no pressure, right? Um, I think, well it’s not the weather for starters, that is terrible. It’s so cold. I had to run home from the supermarket today and I was not dressed for it. It was just so perishing. Um, yeah, not much sunshine. I think there is a big thing to do with the trust here. It’s hard to know what feeds into each other, but 79% of Danes trust most people, which I found extraordinary. I grew up, you know, living near London and in Thatcher’s Britain and then worked in, lived in London for 12 years. So it’s just not my experience of the world and it took a long time for me to relax into that a bit. And I wouldn’t say I’m quite there yet, but I’m working on it. Um, I think they have this great work-life balance that helps. You are going to feel a little cheerier if you know that you are going home at 4:00 PM Um, admittedly they do start at 8:00 AM but it’s, it’s quite a nice environment and there’s this really flat hierarchical structure, so it’s totally accepted.


You can call out your boss or or a colleague and everybody is quite informal. So at school there’s no uniform. You call your teacher by the first name. This carries onto office life where it’s, I haven’t seen anyone wearing a tie for, I mean years now it’s very low key and there’s lots of times that they stop and have coffee and cake. So it’s quite a nice life. Everything costs a lot, but um, there’s more of a sense, well, you don’t need money is not a status symbol here as much as it might be elsewhere. They do this great thing whereby if you buy a car, which is horrifically expensive anyway, I think it’s still 180% tax. So even my old banger costs an absolute fortune. But if you buy a car, the registration number gives no indication of what year it’s from as it does back home, because that wouldn’t be fair. That would be showing off your wealth and you might make other people feel bad if they saw that you had a new flash car. So it’s just little things like that that you think that there’s so much evidence that inequality leads to unhappiness and although it’s not perfect, there is less inequality in Denmark and the Nordic countries in general. And so I think they take away many of the reasons for unhappiness, I would say rather than that they are all jazz hands happy all the time, cuz they are certainly not that.

Paul Boross (20:48):

Oh, I love that, uh, idea that they take away the reasons for unhappiness and everything and so, I mean, I I work a lot in Norway as well and I have done some work in, in Denmark, so I’ve noticed it and that ability for, we’re all the same. I, I was, I was recently doing some lectures in Norway and I was chatting to an American barman in a bar and he said the brilliant thing about this is nobody looks down on me. When I was in America, everybody was, oh, you’re just a barman here I am, uh, respected in society and also I’m paid almost the same as a teacher

Helen Russell (21:30):

Because you are paying such high tax anyway, it kind of doesn’t matter so much what your job is because the take-home pay at the end of the massive tax man taking all your money is is pretty similar. So yes, absolutely you could be a barman. I mean, I’d probably earn more working by a bar than I do as a writer here. So, um, yes, it’s, you take a job because you’re interested in it and education is free so you can train to get a job you actually like. So that’s gonna help you even get paid to study over the age of 18. The student wants.

Paul Boross (21:58):

Um, I can actually see your face light up for those of you listening and not watching, Helen’s face lights up when she talks about the fact that there is an equality and so therefore, do you think that repressed Britain with its sort of history of class and everything means that there is no intrinsic trust and ability to have that happiness and trust across everything.

Helen Russell (22:28):

There’s something about this sense of community and I don’t know if you can get that sense of community, but you haven’t got the trust and the equality. There are many things I miss about the UK and the US where I used to work quite a lot. And I think coming out of Lockdowns, there isn’t much sense of awe or wander or any of that stuff, especially in Denmark, which is very flat, you know, Norway’s got, you’ve got the fjords, it’s a little bit more dramatic, but, um, life isn’t always exciting and by always, I mean, <laugh> exciting, <laugh> <laugh>, yeah, but it’s these sort of simple pleasure. So I, I personally, I’m finding that now quite a hard balance. I’ve been here for 10 years now and, and it’s a very nice life. It’s very hard to leave, but I miss those highs and lows and I don’t know, I don’t know whether it’s just because I’m actually a masochist or whether there is something in the human spirit or just my personality that just craves that, you know, excitement or, um, those highs and I don’t know. But it’s a really good standard life. And yeah, I haven’t seen a similar thing in the UK for a while now.

Paul Boross (23:36):

I know that when you were stressed and we are talking about that stressed in London with this stressful lifestyle, having to get the magazine out online and and do that, um, you were trying to start a family, but despite various fertility treatments, it’s was not working. And the feedback from professionals then was, it was probably down to stress. Um, you fell pregnant just six months after living in Denmark. Coincidence?

Helen Russell (24:07):

Pastries, who knows <laugh>? Um, I think there is, yeah, I think, yeah, it’s a, it’s a very strange one and I’m very grateful to Denmark for that calmness, I think, who knows what goes on. I think I’d had a lot of fertility treatments, maybe there’s still stuff lurking around in me that was helping. I think honestly, I think coming from the world of fashion magazines 10 years ago where it was very, um, I’ve worked with wonderful people and sort of really sort of women at the top of their game, really inspirational and amazing women, but it’s the fashion world. And so the goal in London in the two thousands was stick thin and all of that stuff. And, and that’s not very helpful either. And I think coming to Denmark where the aesthetic is more strong and Viking and nobody wants to be stick thin because you will not survive winter, you will crumble. So I think there’s definitely something about that and, and just relaxing into it a bit more and eating all the pastries. And so yes, I was very grateful for, for that. And yeah, after years of fertility treatment and being basically a pin cushion to finally be pregnant was amazing. And I was very, that did help with my happiness a lot.

Paul Boross (25:18):

Well, and you have three children now. What have children taught you about humour?

Helen Russell (25:25):

I think an awful lot. I mean, wouldn’t you say? I think, I think it kind of woke me up into my body. I’d been a column for my head. My body had been for as long as I really remember. I mean probably since childhood and then suddenly it’s such a core experience, especially as a woman. And so your whole body is changing. You feel these people growing inside you. I mean, that’s funny, just for starters, the experience of being pregnant is just bonkers and surreal and people are wriggling inside you. And then I had, you know, I had twins, so I had twins via IVF because it’s hard to relax enough to get pregnant again once you already have a very angry red-headed toddler running around. So <laugh>, um, IVF not so funny, but being pregnant with twins, I mean, hilarious for a moment until I went on bedrest because I was enormous and I’m small and it didn’t work.


But, um, but yeah, just feeling, I mean basically two wrestlers inside you fighting each other, that’s just surreal. And then having once I, they were all out on the outside, um, just funny, I mean there’s just a sort of visceral pleasure and growing up without siblings it was really moving and profound to be part of that, almost like lion Cubs play fighting. And so I’m very physical with my children and they have a dad, which I didn’t growing up. So it’s a, a very physical, um, play-fighty family, which I love and I never had before. And that is such a source of joy and often much hilarity. So that’s been really special. And then of course kids say ridiculous things. My five-year-old son right now likes to get down stairs first every morning and find the old CD player that we have and put on a full blast. Everybody dance now, um, by C&C Sound Factory I think from the 1990s. And that’s what we all start the day to. So they are just, yeah, frequently hilarious and everyone thinks their kids are hilarious. Mine really are.

Paul Boross (27:15):

<laugh>. Well, of course, but also, isn’t there that thing whereby don’t the statistics say that children laugh three to 400 times a day and adults only laugh 17.5 times a day, so we could learn a lot from children and having children around you, do you just find that you are laughing along with them more?

Helen Russell (27:39):

Yes, I mean there’s something very infectious about giggling and giggling children. I think Sophie Scott, I’m sure you’ve spoken to, but she’s very good on, um, laughter being infectious like a yawn. And so yeah, there’s certainly that. Although actually there’s, there are many studies from showing that parents are less happy than non-parents except for in a few countries. But Denmark is one of the countries parents are meant to be less happy cuz they’re just stressed and it’s just tiring and it’s hard work and, and because in Denmark everything’s so expensive, people tend to do their own stuff. So you clean your own house, you do your own, I don’t know, I can’t think of other things that you outsource. I haven’t done it for so long, but you’re, you’re not outsourcing any of the more menial jobs of life. So, um, parents are all working, 80% of mother’s work in Denmark, so people are exhausted, but they are doing it. I don’t think they choose any other way, but yeah, I think I I’m sure there’s something about catching the laughs from them as well.

Paul Boross (28:30):

Well, yeah, there’s a saying in psychology that if you want anyone to go into any state, you have to go into that state first. So, I mean, I think children are the ultimate state changers, aren’t they? And it just, it just reminded me because, uh, the only Danish comedian who I’ve ever heard of, Victor Borge, I dunno if you’ve ever heard of him, but uh, you should look him up and all our listeners should look him up. He had a quote, which was the shortest distance between two people is a smile. And I just, I just love that. And so if you are surrounded by giggling children, children are having fun. It’s hard for that not to be infectious, isn’t it?

Helen Russell (29:14):

Yes. I wouldn’t like to overstate the fun versus tears quote though, <laugh>, I think I would say it’s the emotional extremes. So whilst I can often catch the giggles from them, if I went with them every time they were having full on tensions on the floor, then it’d be a very a much sader picture. So yeah, there’s… it’s not all rainbows and unicorns,

Paul Boross (29:38):

But isn’t that one of the lessons with your books, so you’ve been on this journey that, you know, there will be tears before bedtime, for instance, but guess what? We can shut those down quite quickly and get to laughter quite quickly as well – isn’t that the journey you’ve been on?

Helen Russell (29:58):

We mustn’t shut them down, right? So th this is the, the Danish way, but also, um, the way that from, from researching how to be sad that all the, the psychologists and experts said it’s, it’s more about, it’s acknowledging their feelings and it’s okay. And it’s, it’s not saying that that’s nothing to worry about. It’s saying, I see that your, your home pain there, that you are very worried about that or that’s upset you. We talk about that. We make a plan, we’ll maybe try and work on it together and then you can relax and read Tin Tin or Yeah,

Paul Boross (30:26):

Well, yeah I know. I, I accepted my language pattern wasn’t exactly full on but it’s kind of like, um, but you have to accept when it’s real tears, don’t you? Because when my son, my son’s now 21, but when my son was young what I noticed obviously doing what I do is whenever he was with his grandparents, he, the grandparents would panic when he fell over. And uh, and they would do that horrified face and he would look to see, um, if he should be upset by it. And so I anchored him into a completely different state that whenever he fell over, he would go, well that’s funny, isn’t it? And so early slapstick, so it was funny. And by the way, if he really was hurt, then he would cry. But his first notion was to go, oh, it’s funny, rather than it’s tragic. And I think that’s the balance we have to find whereby not every time they fall over is terrible, is it?

Helen Russell (31:40):

No, you’re absolutely right. Yeah. Resilience, I’m all about physical resilience and I think they’re quite good on that in Denmark. It’s, it’s my, all of my kids go to scouts and they learn to, that fire is hot. They learn that when they whittle wood, they will cut themselves. Or me sometimes if I’m holding the sticks, it’s terrible. Um, yes, there’s lots of, cuz the weather is so terrible. You are, you are experiencing physical discomfort every day. Lucky old them. So yeah, they are often cold and damp and a bit unhappy about that. Um, and yeah, if they fall over, it’s, it’s up again, it’s up again. Um, but yeah, you can tell can’t you, if it’s real tears or if it’s just my brother’s got something that I haven’t.

Paul Boross (32:18):

Well this, I have a, I have a theory that, um, what’s happened generally to people, and I’m just interested if, if this is going too far, but life is now, like, you know, it, when you lived in London, you’d wake up in the middle of the night and a car alarm would’ve gone off and <laugh> now it’s house. Yeah. Which I think is nice, but, but the car alarm would’ve gone off and you go, oh, is the car, uh, being broken into? But then you’d realise that actually just a cat had had walked past it and the alarm was set wrong. And I think sometimes people generally set themselves wrong. So, you know, something minor happens and it’s, it’s terrible and it’s a disaster when in fact, resilience, which you just met mentioned isn’t my father was 17 in the Second World War, you know, a different level of, you know, of thinking about what is a disaster. And, and it sounds like in Denmark they’ve got a good balance on that.

Helen Russell (33:34):

There’s a lot of data around that. The way our brains are still set up is that we still think we are going to be attacked by a sabre-toothed tiger any minute. And so we put that same yeah, you’re right, level of, of fear or, or anxiety or fight or flight response or, or freeze, um, onto things that don’t warrant it. So I think there’s certainly something there. And then the kind of the negatively bias of always sort of thinking the worst, which made sense if we were trying to learn that picking those strange red berries meant danger. But now we probably don’t need that all the time. And yeah, there’s our brains are not perfect, are they?

Paul Boross (34:14):

No, but we can train them to be appropriate and better is what I think. And I think that’s one of the hardest things about parenting is to point your children in the right direction for each of those ways.

Helen Russell (34:29):

They’re all different, right? I mean, I think I have one who’s, who tends towards a negativity bias far more than the others, and they have been parented the same as far as I know. So they’re, they’re just themselves.

Paul Boross (34:40):

Yeah, no, that’s true. What makes you laugh, Helen?

Helen Russell (34:45):

I think, I mean it’s really, I mean, the scatological still makes me laugh, which I’m not proud of. But I think what makes me laugh, I like the kind of the pricking pomposity. I like, um, I like things that are ridiculous but true. I tend to gather people around me, good friends who, who are also magnets for the ridiculous. And that is a source of, of just constant joy. So that’s fun for me.

Paul Boross (35:11):

You talked of your mum going to Jongleurs. I mean, is there any comedy that, you absolutely crave and love?

Helen Russell (35:19):

all of it basically, I used to love, I mean, I used to see sort of people like Sarah Pascoe and Josh Widicome and, and Rob Beckett back in the day when they were just starting out in London. And I loved all that stuff. So I do miss seeing live comedy, Sophie Hagan’s great Danish comedian. Um, but I, yeah, I don’t see comedy as much as I would like to anymore, so I have to consume it all through my ears or on tv.

Paul Boross (35:40):

Apart from the odd one, there aren’t many great Scandinavian comedians that have broken out into the world. Is that as a result that everything’s too comfortable and for comedy to actually, uh, flow, it needs to be a little bit uncomfortable.

Helen Russell (36:00):

I don’t know that in the UK or there is, um, there is such a, uh, tradition of embracing as, as one of your own, um, comedians from countries where English is not the first language. So you think about maybe like Henning Wehn, but other than that there aren’t that many breakthrough comedians, so I’m not sure it’s necessarily a Scandinavian thing but yeah, there’s not, I mean there’s a big music culture of course we think of a Scandinavian, so yeah, perhaps it’s more of that. But actually the Danish sense of humour is quite like the British in many ways. Although they do love Mr. Bean. I think it’s slightly broader, the Danish sense of humour. They love Mr. Bean and others.

Paul Boross (36:38):

You talked about music and I believe that you use music as what I would call an anchor as a short sort of shortcut to an emotional state. Do you think people should be more conscious of building in time for humour and happiness, using things like music to get there,

Helen Russell (37:00):

Music for humour? That’s an interesting one. I haven’t given that so much thought. Although when we spoke about speaking today, and you, and perhaps I’m jumping ahead here, but you asked about is there a film that makes me laugh? And the film that makes me laugh just so much, even just thinking about it is, is most of Will Ferrell’s work, but Eurovision, the film I just adore because I love Eurovision. Anyway, I went to Eurovision when it was in Serbia, uh, to report on it generally a huge fan. And the idea of doing something with love and passion, but also making it funny, I love, and the songs from that are guaranteed to make me smile, even if I’m just walking the dog and picking up whatever presrnts he’s decided to leave somewhere <laugh>. I dunno. I feel like music to get to emotion is a more conventional and easier shortcut. Um, how about you? Do you, is there a song that makes you, that takes you to humour?

Paul Boross (37:53):

Unfortunately, they’re all rude. I mean,  I love Monty Python when they go, they sing, Sit on my face and tell me that You love me, uh, <laugh>. But those kind of things which are, are blatantly inappropriate. I love when it’s done with such sincerity, which meant it makes me laugh, uproar asleep, that when something is like that. ButI just think it’s a shortcut. You, you use it as a shortcut to emotional states, and I just wondered is it, too much of a leap to go to, you know, to to laughing with music as well?

Helen Russell (38:35):

I do love that when you are walking along the street with headphones on in your own private world and something makes you laugh, whether it’s a podcast or a piece of music, and it just feels like such a sort of, uh, a free gift almost from the universe. It’s just such a lovely moment. I recommend, if you haven’t yet listened to it, is The Lion of Love from the Eurovision soundtrack, um, performed by Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey. Very good. But that’s a good point. I will try that. Thank you. Good advice for future.

Paul Boross (39:01):

Do you think it’s important to be able to laugh at yourself, Helen?

Helen Russell (39:06):

I think it’s essential. I mean, who wants to spend time with someone who can’t? How tedious? I just haven’t got the, I just, no. Yeah, I think, um, I have now reached an age where I feel as I’ve earned the right to leave parties that I don’t want to be at and not keep up friendships that aren’t working anymore. And I don’t, yeah, I don’t want to really be around people who can’t love themselves.

Paul Boross (39:33):

Do you think that’s good for mental health ultimately to realise that we are all ridiculous on some level? And you talk about Denmark with this even society. Do you think that’s, I mean, I know how that Britain does it in the sense of, well we call it taking the piss basically, so nobody becomes the tall poppy in those things. Do, do, do, is it the same in Denmark or do you recognise that as a a, as a British thing?

Helen Russell (40:04):

It’s even more pronounced in Denmark. They have because they have this thing called Ante’s Law, which is from, uh, it’s from a, a fiction book from the, I think 1930s where it’s all these rules for living, these 10 rules for living that are basically to, to crystallise is the idea that you’re not think you’re better than anyone else. And showing off, showing off is frowned on. So perhaps that’s why you haven’t had so many comedians exported, but um, it’s this idea that really you’re not supposed to show off. So yes, they wouldn’t like, just like, you’re not supposed to have the number plate on your car that’s saying, Ooh, look at me, I’ve got a new car. Um, you are not supposed to show, show off your wealth. That is, you don’t see lots of blingy Rolexes on arms in Denmark. but they do, they don’t sort of call it taking the piss. But the, I did get reviewed once when I did a talk for a big corporation and, the CEO said, well, that was great, Helen, that was great. Um, you were, um, piss scarp. And I was like, I’m sorry, what was I? And and they mean piss sharp. Scarp is sharp. So piss scarp is a great compliment. <laugh> <laugh>, that’s what they like here.

Paul Boross (41:09):

Well, well you, you regularly give, uh, talks and lectures internationally on happiness change, worse workplace culture and that kind of thing and what you go into what we can learn from other cultures about how to handle our emotions. Have you found that humour helps people better handle their emotions?

Helen Russell (41:30):

I think so. I think it, it helps, you know, as you we were talking about it, how it’s contagious, how it can be infectious. I think it helps with collaboration. I see. When I work more closely with teams, I think there’s the statistic from I think Warwick University that said happier, happier workers are 12% more productive. And I think being funny in the workplace and humour definitely helps with being happier and productivity. I think. I’m sure if you looked at maybe, um, the number of days taken off sick or, um, just how teams work together, I’m sure you’d see that it’s a very good thing to invest in in the workplace.

Paul Boross (42:09):

So if you were to write a business case for humour in the workplace, what would you include in it?

Helen Russell (42:16):

Obviously all of our books, um, <laugh>, I think, you know, you could do trips to comedy clubs. I think, I think that you could definitely see whether all of the health benefits, for example, for humour, I think short-term it’s reducing your stress. It’s soothing tension long term. It can even boost your immune system. Um, it’s been proven to relieve pain, hasn’t it? So I think there’s definitely something in improving your mood, improving your relationships with the people around you. It attracts others to us, doesn’t it? I mean, if you, somebody’s funny, you want to be around them and they want to be around you. So I think for that kind of, that bonding and that bringing the people together and even diffusing conflict, it’s really important.

Paul Boross (42:59):

So I mean, it sounds like there is a real return on investment there that if, if you encourage humour in the workplace. I I was just thinking when you said that, you know, in sales how humour can immediately bond people and so therefore, I have a theory that everybody’s in sales on some level. So any company that encourages humour or lets humour thrive will presumably have more sales as well. I

Helen Russell (43:31):

Think it, it’s almost like a crossroads as well, when if you are at a conflict or a potential conflict situation, and especially if you’re doing something over email where it’s hard to read somebody and read the tone, it can very easily go one of two ways. It can very easily go into all out conflict and or misunderstanding and, and things go steadily downhill. Or you can either kill it with kindness or just turn on the funny and things will go better and you will bring people together. So I think it’s hugely important for that.

Paul Boross (44:00):

I like turn on the funny, but you are a creative, you know, you, you’ve, you’ve been an editor of, uh, You’ve written all the books, you do all the things. Do you think creativity generally is enhanced by laughter?

Helen Russell (44:20):

I suppose if you need a sort of levity to create, then you have to be playful. So in that respect, that would make sense. Um do I think the Sure. There’s some sort of formula we could work out there. Yes, I’m sure it plays into it in, in some way, but then you do get amazing TV drama writers, for example, who don’t do the funny and they are still creative in there. So I, I don’t think it’s, it’s exclusive, but I think for me it’s very helpful to have a levity and have a playfulness.

Paul Boross (44:52):

I love the, the, the term playfulness because I think that is what enhances it because uh, you know, I think as we get older, maybe playfulness is knocked outta people because they go, you have to be serious. It’s a serious job and we need to get on with it. Whereas children, you have three young children are incredibly playful in order to get to the creative state. And I think we, I always encourage companies that I work with to, to find playfulness and, and levity can actually lead to that creative space, which you wouldn’t normally take. If you force people into going, okay, now come up with 10 good ideas about how we can increase the, uh, turnover of the company.

Helen Russell (45:46):

You look really scary there. Listeners who, anyone who’s not watching <laugh>? I, I’m absolutely terrified. I don’t think I would be very creative at all after being told off like that <laugh>,

Paul Boross (45:54):

But you see what I mean, there is what I would call it state management, where you manage your state and you allow that to happen. I just wondered with all your experience with, you know, the Atlas of Happiness, which is a brilliant book by the way. You need to have at that in order to get the best outta people, don’t

Helen Russell (46:16):

You? Yeah, I agree. I think pets are very good as well. If you haven’t got any children nearby to wrangle, get a dog or cats – cat, people always say that cats are good at playing as well. But I think I am currently looking at a dog who looks very teased off. He’s not on a walk, but there’s something about the darkness of, you know, they say never work with children or animals, always work with children or animals. There’s something about the Daphne that that is a really good shortcut to playfulness, I think.

Paul Boross (46:42):

Yeah. Oh, Daphne. Yeah, we’re, well we’re putting that right up there. Um, before we get to quickfire questions, can you be a great communicator? I’m mean a truly great communicator without understanding humour?

Helen Russell (46:58):

Oh, great communicator. I was thought you were going to say great leader and I think you can be a great leader without understanding humour, and maybe that’s okay. I mean, I feel as though we have had a lot of kind of showbiz and polish on leaders that hasn’t been hugely helpful, let me say diplomatically <laugh>. And for all of the criticism that was levelled at someone like Gordon Brown, he was smart and he knew his stuff and just because he wasn’t slick and because he perhaps didn’t, um, communicate in that sort of shiny, shiny suit, uh, showbiz way meant that he was perhaps underestimated. And so, I don’t know, I don’t know that that has to be the case. I’d be a bit suspicious of saying that I don’t mind the people who are the big thinkers in charge of the country being… having a little more gravitas than me.

Paul Boross (47:47):

So do you, do you think we’ve reached a stage whereby having to have charisma or perceived humour has overtaken the need for, for competence?

Helen Russell (48:01):

I think there’s something very British about that actually. Thinking about the UK for example, compared to Scandinavia or the rest of Europe, even when we were going through in the UK, the, the Boris Times, the Liz Truss times the rest of the world – in a way that isn’t reported in UK newspapers or certainly not enough. The rest of the world is sort of thinking, well this is outrageous. Why are you putting up with this? This is madness. Whereas in the UK we just laugh about it on, Have I Got News For You? There is a sense that we will satirise it and we do satire like no one else. We do satire brilliantly, but sometimes you have to get your placards and get out there and, and protest and fight. And I don’t think we are very good at that. I think for all, I love the British fear of earnestness. Sometimes you have to be earnest and you have to stand up and, and be an ally or, or, or be an activist. And I think perhaps sometimes we, um, we avoid that and, and lean on satire a little too much.

Paul Boross (48:57):

Well, that’s really interesting because, uh, we had John O’Farrell on the show. Do you know the writer, John O’Farrell who originally was head writer at Spitting Image, and then Have I Got News For You? And he said his worry was that in Britain, it is now we feel like we’ve done the job by poking fun at it rather than getting out with a placard and marching on the streets. We’ve gone look, we’ve we’ve taken the mickey out of it, therefore our job is done. Tick it’s done. And it’s, it’s kind of blunted the actual steel of changing things, you know, just by having a laugh about it or sending a meme about it.

Helen Russell (49:44):

How fascinating. Yeah, and you think about Alastair Campbell always says, we should never call Boris Johnson, just Boris. And the whole idea of laughing at Trump’s hair or laughing at Boris Johnson’s hair just, it’s not the point. And it, and it’s sort of, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be treated in this way. And so I think yes, there’s, we have to be aware of that, don’t we? So that’s great that people like John O’Farrell are speaking out about it. How do we, how do we get more people talking about that? I’m gonna put you, we’ve gotta do it Paul

Paul Boross (50:11):

<laugh>. But we’ve had Alastsair Campbell on the show and we’ve had William Hague on the show and they’re all sure that humour is needed to prick the bubble of pomposity, but do we need more? Do we need to get back on the streets and, and start fight the power as they said in the Bronx.

Helen Russell (50:36):

You’ve had Justin Trudeau on as well, haven’t you?

Paul Boross (50:39):

Uh, no, he’s just a fan.

Helen Russell (50:41):

Oh, he’s a fan. How lovely. Well, I’m just, I’m curious. Well now he’ll hear this and then he’ll come on your show. But that’s an interesting one because obviously political family, but also that he has got the full package, so to speak, <laugh>. And he’s a very handsome man and he’s very showbiz easy, but he can also do the job. So that’s an interesting, maybe we shouldn’t be all aiming for that. Maybe we should just be happy with someone who can just

Paul Boross (51:07):

Okay, I completely agree. I completely agree. Helen, we’ve reached a point in the show which we like to call Quickfire Questions.

Helen Russell (51:15):

Quick fire, fire questions.

Paul Boross (51:19):

Who’s the funniest business person that you’ve met?

Helen Russell (51:23):

I think I tend to come into organisations and be met by the events team or the, or I meet the CEO just to shake their hand. And so I don’t have the biggest breadth of experience here. But I would say that someone who I have, uh, had more dealings with and more encounters with is the, uh, the former CEO of Lego. Now the chairman of the board is Jorgen Vig Knudstorp and he was excellent at something that we talked about of having a kind of levity and he was business focused when it was demanded, but he was also really fun and had a twinkle in his eye. And I just think that’s really special, a really special quality to be able to have that gravitas when it was needed, but also to be a very friendly, personable, interesting, and interested human being.

Paul Boross (52:07):

Do you know what, sometimes just having that twinkle in your eye makes all the difference, doesn’t it?

Helen Russell (52:12):

All about a twinkle. Yep.

Paul Boross (52:14):

Yeah. What book makes you laugh?

Helen Russell (52:17):

Do you know what James Acaster’s Guide to Quitting Social Media and being the best you that you can be? I believe it’s a very long title, which I think many people have misunderstood and thought, well, this is terrible, this is long, this is strange. But actually I think it’s a work of genius. And if he hadn’t, if he hadn’t been a comedian to start with, I think it would be on the Booker prize list. It’s profound and exquisite and funny and really makes you think, and it’s, everybody should read it immediately.

Paul Boross (52:46):

Oh, James Acaster will, will have a look at that one. Now you talked about, oh, one of the films that make you laugh. Any other films that make you laugh?

Helen Russell (52:54):

In the Loop? I just think room meet is just a phrase that will now go down in history as being utterly brilliant. So I think we do films like that really well in the uk. I’m always very proud of our comedy.

Paul Boross (53:06):

We’re gonna take a shift to the other side, Helen, to look at things from a different angle. What’s not funny,

Helen Russell (53:15):

Punching down we know now is not funny and really, really basic stuff. I think the blindingly obvious is not funny and I feel like we can all do better and we should try. And that’s not to be ungenerous to people who don’t perhaps feel that they are naturally covered with Mirth the whole time. But I think we should all be striving to be, um, at the, at the highest level of our intelligence or our capabilities. And so we should be just trying to make things better. And, um, and yeah, just not going for the most basic, the most obvious, the lowest common denominator

Paul Boross (53:55):

Punching down. I agree. What word makes you laugh? Helen?

Helen Russell (54:02):

Trombone. Trombone. Brilliant word. And then you, then you imagine it, and then that makes you laugh. So, and then you imagine the sound and that makes you laugh as well. So it just, the gift that keeps on giving,

Paul Boross (54:13):

I’d love. There was, uh, somebody followed a dictator and I can’t remember which country, down the street and just played the trombone behind him as, as kind of the underscor and it just made this dictator look ridiculous. And I just thought, that’s genius.

Helen Russell (54:33):

That’s, that’s like a sort of Dario Fo performance thing going on. I love it.

Paul Boross (54:37):

You went to Exeter University. You then went on to study journalism. Would you rather be considered clever or funny?

Helen Russell (54:48):

Funny. I feel like you can always work on clever. You can always work on funny too, but you can always work on clever. So, I feel like life would be a bit dull without funny. Um, and then if you didn’t feel so clever, you could just study a bit more, maybe, I don’t know.

Paul Boross (55:07):

I think you’ve chosen the right one to be honest, especially on the Humourology podcast. <laugh> big tick for that one. And finally, Helen Desert Island Gags. You can only take one joke with you to a desert island. What is it,

Helen Russell (55:27):

What did the zero say to the eight?

Paul Boross (55:29):

I dunno, what did the zero say to the eight

Helen Russell (55:32):

Nice belt

Speaker 3 (55:34):


Helen Russell (55:36):

It’s only one I remember, and also from my kind of fashion days, it, it felt sort of strangely apt and when you would be on the front row of a, you know, a catwalk show, it would kind of translate. Doesn’t matter what language or, you know where someone’s from. We all understand that one. Perfect, lovely.

Paul Boross (55:51):

<laugh>. It was brilliant. It was perfect. You’ve been lovely. And I thank you so much for being a wonderful guest on the Humourology Podcast.

Helen Russell (55:59):

Lovely to be here. Thanks so much.

Paul Boross (56:01):

Thank you, Helen. The Humourology podcast was hosted by Paul Boross, produced by David Rose. Music, by Steve Haworth, creative direction by Les Hughes, and additional research by Helen Sykes. Please remember to subscribe, like, and leave a review wherever you get your podcasts. This has been a big sky production.

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