Move over Magic Kingdom, there’s a new happiest place on Earth.
According to surveys and rubrics and a convoluted, weighted point system that makes the U.S. Electoral College look like kindergarten math, Denmark has ranked number one in the UN World Happiness Report for the last two years. And while the Danes are understandably proud of the accolade, if you are planning a visit, or even an expat move, don’t expect a welcoming committee of strapping Viking lads and blonde giantesses clapping along to Pharrell’s Happy.
Despite living in the happiest nation on Earth, the Danes are not exactly clapping along feeling like a room without a roof.
The running joke is that Danes score so high on satisfaction surveys because their expectations of happiness are low to begin with. If all you need is a pølser and a Tuborg to tick off the satisfied box, think how satisfied you would be with a $20 USD an hour minimum wage and free health care. If you are expecting eight months of craptastic weather and you only get seven and a half, your scores are going to go through the roof. But like rain on your wedding day, like a black fly in your Chardonnay, the irony is this: the Danes are not, in my experience, a happy people. Rule abiding? Most definitely. Strong supporters of social equality and gender balance? Yup. Liberal, progressive, prone to advertising breast implants on the side of city buses? Check, check and Double D check. Shiny, happy people? Eh, not so much.
Of course, ideas of happiness are relative and culturally biased. My happy may not be your happy may not be Henrik or Rikke’s happy. That said, most of us would probably agree that there are some cross-cultural signs and cues that denote happiness. Patience, graciousness, generosity. Smiling.
Amusing though it would be, I don’t expect a nation of people to spontaneously break out in song. I don’t expect flash mobs of face-painted Danes to clap along because they feel that happiness is the truth. If I had to make a sweeping generalization (and really, isn’t this whole piece a sweeping generalization?), I would say that Danes prefer to do their happy dances solo or en famille, possibly naked. On second thought, the naked part wouldn’t preclude public displays of happiness. Danes love to undress in public. Maybe their love of all things nude is why they are rate themselves so highly satisfied?
It could be the enjoyment of a shared, public experience; one where people can laugh and sing and dance and shout with glee. Except the Danes, generally speaking, do not like noise. (The exception being New Year’s Eve, when the entire city explodes with a trillion bottle rockets and looks, for all intents and purposes, like a war zone. Expect to choke your way through a sulfur haze tripping over the fallen.) Generally though, the Danes dislike noise, not only in the private sphere, but the public as well. I’ve seen guitar players on the Metro loudly shushed, heard stories of friends going to rock concerts being told to sit down and be quiet (Soundgarden for Thor’s sake!), and just today a Danish friend told me there was a letter in a local, Danish newspaper complaining about how loud children on backyard trampolines are. I once had a man with a sleep mask on shush me loudly and point to the sign designating a train car as a quiet zone. I wouldn’t have minded so much except it was clear that I was merely trying to move my very un-quiet children through in order to give him the peace and quiet he needed to catch up on his beauty sleep. On public transport. At 2pm.
Maybe it’s the high regard for personal space. Except that every time I am in the supermarket or any other place where you would expect an orderly line, the person behind me is so far up my ass that I am tempted to turn and ask them if it was good for them as well.
Perhaps it is the strict adherence to rules which allows Danish society to run like a well oiled machine; you know, like the Germans, but without the proclivity to start a land war every 50 years or so. Danes do like to follow rules, to the exclusion of safety and commons sense at times. The gag story is always about the man waiting on an empty street corner at 2 am refusing to cross until the light has changed. I am a big proponent of rule following in general, but speeding up near a pedestrian cross walk because the rule is that someone has to have a foot in it before you have to stop–well, that’s just plain silly. And somehow the rules don’t seem to apply when it comes to dog poop. I must admit, I am both surprised and disappointed that there isn’t a neighborhood watch group dedicated to tracking down the canine perps followed by displays of public shaming. Possibly shushing. In the nude.
Perhaps it’s the Dane’s love of children that makes it such a happy place to live. After all, Denmark is routinely cited as one of the most child friendly places. Children are welcome in restaurants, they ride free on public transport until age 12, there are reduced fares for most things. But just because kids pay half price doesn’t mean people actually like children. Despite the heartbreaking cuteness of those little babies in their little gnome hats, it seems to end there. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have been assured by friends who have done an expat round in Switzerland, that in terms of attitude toward children, the Swiss make the Danes look like a nation of Mary Poppinses).
Maybe it’s the bicycle culture? If you can survive the Charge of the Lycra Brigade during rush hours, it is great.
Maybe it’s the weather?
There is a lot to love about Denmark. There is a lot I love about Denmark. The beach, the parks, the museums, Tivoli, the green space, the superb public transport. It is safe. You get cell phone service on the Metro. Cradle to grave social services in return for your taxes, including free university education and a livable retirement pension. Work life balance, phenomenal maternity and paternity packages, socialized day care. The list goes on. There is plenty to be happy about. And yet….
Maybe I’m missing something. Perhaps as the outsider looking in, my face pressed against the glass taking in all the displays of hygge I simply have a different idea of happy. Maybe when you don’t have to sweat the big stuff (insurance premiums, retirement plans, day care, college), the small stuff starts to make you perspire buckets. Or perhaps the Danes are silently clapping along, feeling like a room without a roof in a way I just don’t get and never will.
A smile wouldn’t kill you though.
**Thanks to my husband for Charge of the Lycra Brigade, a title in and of itself.
9 Comments Add yours
I will confirm that the Swiss don’t like kids all that much, although we were allowed to bring our son to restaurants and theaters. They did take much better care of the dog, though. Always.
As for your feelings about Denmark, they are similar to mine about Switzerland. It was wonderful — tons of things to love, things that I will miss for the rest of my life. But what I missed most when I was there was home. I think that’s true for just about every ex-Pat.
I think you are 100% right, Elyse. Even though, frankly, the idea of moving home, back to the US, scares the pants off of me for a myriad of reasons. I think no matter how long you live somewhere, unless you have a real ‘in’ to the culture–perhaps a spouse or partner–that can guide you through the intricacies, then it almost never feels truly like home. There is always some niggling fear that you are doing something just a tiny bit off. And those tiny things add up over time, until one day you write a blog post and….
Oh, and I’ve found that several cultures care more for animals than children, at least outwardly so.
Great post. I’m a bit fascinated with the way we define happiness in different cultures. It’s a bit amusing, but some people just can’t be happy if they don’t have something to complain about. For those people, observing that they sit around with nothing to complain about is a testimony to their misery index, not their happiness scale!
I suppose I never trust these kinds of reports. There is tremendous diversity in the US and I think I’ve come to realize that people have different needs, different cultural expectations and if we really want people happy, we have to honor that and stop trying to come up with a one size fits all recipe for contentment.
Maybe the whole ‘not happy unless they are complaining’ is why the Danes score so high? ;-). I think that happiness comes from a lot of different things. Belief in yourself, your society, your surroundings. Looking toward the future, a desire to better yourself and your world (that one comes with a caveat regarding balance). Feeling equal, feeling appreciated, feeling like a positive contribution and not a burden. All those things. One of the best things about living abroad for the past nearly six years is that it has given me the opportunity to take a much closer look at myself, my roots, my own culture from a vantage point that makes it easier to look at both the good and the bad. Sometimes when you are too close, you get blinded by one or the other. But being away has made me appreciated so many more things about the US as well as question many others.
I wonder if for many people, content=happy. Maybe it doesn’t have to have an external display and can be far more low-key. After almost seven years in Germany, it certainly seems to be the case here.
Another friend pointed out that if the survey had read ‘satisfied’ instead of ‘happy’, it would be easier to understand–outwardly, so I think you are right. The Danes, on the whole, in my experience (how many caveats!) are a satisfied lot. And rightly so. There is another level of the Danish psyche that I didn’t want to delve into here because I don’t completely understand it, but it’s Janteloven (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_Jante) which sort of states that it’s not good to strive for individual achievement, which is pretty much exactly the opposite of the American psyche, which is strive for individual achievement at all costs. It’s an interesting theory, and may explain whey the Danes are so satisfied.
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Thanks for your post. I wonder if social trust is at the heart of the Danish ‘happiness’ (which seems more like contentment and a journey, not a destination). Gert Tinggaard Svendsen wrote a great little book Tillid – you can download as an ebook – if you understand spoken Danish – http://viden.jp.dk/undervisning/sites/taenkepauser/temaer/default.asp?cid=153419. It explains the willingness to leave children in their prams unattended without worrying about their kidnapping – something that would result in a report to the child protection agency here in Australia. And the importance of transparent and incorruptible public institutions. I hope you are enjoying Copenhagen.
I think that is a perfectly reasonable explanation for contentment level of the Danish people. Add to that not having to worry excessively about paying for health care or university or a living pension after retirement, that is, being able to trust that the money you are paying in taxes is paying for worthwhile things and what is left is to be enjoyed—all those things certainly play into what my idea of a content society would be. We have been here for nearly 3 years (and have enjoyed every minute) and I find the Danes a curious breed. My current fascination is with Janteloven and how it, as I only peripherally understand it, seems to be the opposite of how we, as Americans are raised. It definitely makes for some interesting interactions!
Haha – love charge of the lycra brigade! We like to say that in Copenhagen – “On Sundays, we wear lycra. And ride our other bike.”