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.