Why is Denmark so happy? And most importantly: which of Denmark’s lessons can we replicate in other countries?
These were my main questions during a short study visit to Copenhagen that I undertook last week. Denmark routinely tops the rankings of happiest countries. In the 2015 World Happiness Report, it lost two places (going from 3 to 1), but it still the happiest country of the EU. And it is home to a dedicated think-tank on the issue: the Happiness Research Institute!
Let’s first share a couple of my findings and observations from three days in Copenhagen. And then, next week, I’ll provide my answer to the question whether Denmark’s secrets are unique to the land of the Dannebrog (the omnipresent flag) and Smorrebrod (Danish sandwiches served with fish, meat or potatoes), or whether they can be implemented elsewhere.
These findings are based on impressions and conversations with people over a couple of days. If you allow me, I’ll be a bit anecdotal today; I’ve discussed a more evidence-based list of factors identified in the Institute’s report on the Happy Danes before.
Opportunities to live the good life…
Our host Kristian identified two possible theories behind Denmark’s high happiness levels: firstly, Denmark offers plenty of opportunities to live a good life. At the cost of high taxes, the state takes many reasons to worry (and unhappiness) away: healthcare is free, and students cannot only attend university without any tuition fee, but also receive an allowance to do so.
At the same time, there does not seem to be a dominant path set out for you. It seems individuals have the possibility to choose their lifestyle quite freely. In Danish, there is no formal version of ‘you’, even the Prime Minister is a ‘you’. Compare this to the difference between informal and formal in many languages, such as du and Sie in German, or titles like ‘Sir’ and ‘Dame’ in the UK social class system. Even the Danish royals seem to be down-to-earth: our tour guide’s repertoire includes an anecdote about petting the royal dog and entering a conversation with Crown Prince Frederik and princess Mary on the street.
… but low expectations?
The second theory Kristian cites is that low expectations about life can be a factor. As the expression has it, low expectations are key to a happy life. According to Danish-Dutch philosopher Stine Jensen’s, the so-called Law of Jante can explain the unpretentious mentality of the Danes. Half-ironic, half-serious the law of Jante drawn up by writer Aksel Sandemose formulates ten rules Danes (and other Scandinavians) are required to live by. These include:
- You’re not to think you are anything special.
- You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.
- You’re not to think you can teach us anything.
Happiness is within easy reach
This attitude and the small scale of the Danish society, at some 5 million people, could possibly explain why Danes live well together in their community. In a sunny May weekend in Copenhagen I observed a vibrant social life. With many Danes, I spent my Saturday night on the Tivoli Lunapark, and on Sunday in amongst hipsters in the Papiroen Street food Mekka and amongst hippies in Christiania. At the same time, the sun didn’t only colour my face but also bias my view. On a grey and cold March days, when winter is in its seventh month, there’s little to be ecstatic about.
That’s it for today. Next week, I’ll get to two other questions: what do Danes think themselves about their high levels of happiness, and can their lessons be replicated their elsewhere?