Tag Archives: Society

Can we replicate Denmark’s success story?

Last week I gave an anecdotal explanation to Denmark’s happiness. To complete the story, today I would like to ask what the Danes think themselves about their high levels of happiness, and whether it’s a success can be replicated elsewhere.

What do Danes think themselves?

If I believe what Meik and Marie Louise from the Happiness Research Institute say, I get the impression that Danes find the interest in their high happiness levels amusing and comical. Danes tend to point at what is not good in Denmark: mental health issues and depression, a complex relation with immigrants, a reputation of not being too outgoing. Part of the disbelief, says Meik, may have to do with the fact that ‘lykke’, the Danish word for ‘happy’, is a term for quite an extreme term. Jante’s Law in mind, it’s probably to say that things are not bad than that they are amazing.

Can we replicate Denmark’s success?

Whether it is through well-crafted policies or a lucky coincidence of getting many things right, Denmark as a state manages to achieve one of the highest levels of happiness. Is there anything in Denmark that can be replicated elsewhere? My feeling is there are three factors that can be easier taken at heart elsewhere:

  • Urban design. Certain factors in the design of a city are related with the happiness of its citizens. A city like Copenhagen is easy to navigate, has green spaces close-by in various neighbourhoods, and can be travelled by bike. This allows people to get around easily and to be active, and the example can be followed elsewhere. The term ‘Copenhagenize‘ has already been used to drive the use of bicycles into other cultures.
  • Work participation. I believe work-life balance (also cited in the Happy Danes report) is an important factor in Danes’ levels of happiness. Acceptance of flexitime and working from home, subsidised creches and generous maternity leave, a full year to be divided by the two parents) are helpful. This allows people to pursue a career and benefit from the overall positive impetus for happiness levels of work, whilst maintaining a meaningful relation with growing children.
  • Strive to take away barriers. Kristian mentioned he does not have to worry about healthcare or education. If such services are accessible for all, this can prevent worries resulting in unhappiness. In other countries, such as the US, the belief that it’s people’s own responsibility to reach success in life is a barrier in the pursuit of happiness. Without wanting to sound like a communist – if US politicians want to increase quality of life, raising taxes to decrease the cost of health and education may provide part of the answer.
Copenhagen is full of bikes. Photo by Kasper Thyge/Visit Copenhagen

The size and design of Copenhagen help people to get around by bikes, spending little time on work-home commutes and being active on the go. Such a policy can be replicated elsewhere. Photo by Kasper Thyge/Visit Copenhagen

Russell Brand is still farting – for revolution

Tonight I went to see Russell Brand’s new show, Messiah Complex. Whether he has a true messiah complex, or just a strong opinion about everything, I’m not sure.

On stage, he is flanked by portraits of four great men: Mahatma Gandhi, Che Guevara, Malcolm X and Jesus Christ. And during the show, we find out what he  has in common with his personal heroes.

Brand’s texts are very sharp. He packages his criticism of society in extremely elaborate and fancy phrases that I can hardly reproduce here. Take a look at his famous interview with Jeremy Paxman of the BBC to get an idea of his ideas of revolution.

Brand believes in socialism and communism. He believes in revolution, though a revolution without a programme. He denounces politicians serving themselves and advertising creating false desires in us, but does not propose a way to an alternative.

That’s of course fine: diagnosing a problem does not mean you’re responsible to find the cure. And as a comedian, he fulfills the role of the fool or the clown that makes us question the world we live in, the planet we destroy, the lack of social justice worldwide.

The dark side of heroes

Admirably, he also discuss some of the things that Gandhi, Guevara and Malcolm X did not get right. He tells how Gandhi refused to give his wife an English medicine, preferring Indian ayurvedic medicins required by the Hindu tradition. She tragically died. When he fell ill himself some weeks later, he did accept the medicine.- In Brand’s interpretation, Gandhi had a mission on earth and more to live for.

But some of Brand’s social critic is a bit too simple. It is true that large global companies and some political systems concentrate power and money in the hands of the few. That is part of the system we live. But is it the systematic intention of people that go to work every day to exploit others or to accumulate wealth and power to the detriment of others? I don’t believe so. Large organisation also provide jobs, a livelihood and meaning to so many people that just want to live their lives. Many of us are better off than all generations before us.

Fart for revolution

Some of the elements are shallow. Call me conservative: some jokes about sex with cats are funny, but if it goes on and on it doesn’t contribute to the story. Denouncing all evils is worthwhile. But parts of his remarks, packed in fancy sentences, are mere provocation, the equivalent of farting for revolution. Brand’s attracting the attention by saying “look, I just farted, now listen to me”, as if he never grew older than four.

The message: find your heroes

In any case, the combination between high and low registers works. There’s something in the show for people who just want to have a laugh. Brand has great charisma, warmth and style. He is a personality on stage. And there’s a strong message: everybody needs to have heroes, even if they’re not perfect. Nothing is black or white. And even from those who have their dark side, there’s is a lesson to learn. Mistakes that our heroes have made don’t mean we can’t be inspired by them to change for the better. The same applies to himself – from a drug addict to comedian revolutionary.

Maybe Russell Brand is the messiah.

Russell Brand


Utopia – the reality TV edition

Big Brother is watching you.

George Orwell wrote it in 1949, Edward Snowden revealed how sharp his eyes are only last year. But in 1999 in the Netherlands, and soon everywhere around the globe, everybody was watching Big Brother. The first daily reality TV show taught us that people behave, well, quite ordinarily when you lock them up in a house full of cameras for five months.

Reality TV has come a long way since.  For the latest hit, Big Brother’s creatorDutch media mogul John de Mol, has taken Thomas More instead of George Orwell as his source of inspiration. The concept of Utopia sounds amazing: 15 people are dropped in a freezing lodge for a year. All they get is a plot of land, two cows, twenty chickens and a nice 10k in cash to get through the first months. They’re there with one aim: to build a new society. Utopia!

Petty fights

Whether the group will achieve its goal is uncertain: “Ultimate happiness or complete chaos“, says the tagline. “Will it be heaven or will it be hell“, asks the lead in the opening song. The format of the social experiment is intriguing. The show is basically 1960s/1970s commune meets 21st century reality TV. Most of the show is strikingly similar to its cousins of ordinary reality TV. A lot of the day is filled with petty fights caused by silly behaviour or miscommunication. Alfa male of the group, professional wrestler Emil, eats more than his ration; builder Paul, the self-appointed leader, loses his cool. Anybody leaves their dishes; housewife Vanessa loses her cool. Anybody says anything slightly critical; brilliantly cast ‘life artist’ Billy (a lady) loses her cool with all of them – cows included.

As a show, Utopia is a success. It has about 1 million viewers a day and the American rights have just been sold to Fox. Though the daily storyline is a bit thin, there’s enough to make a nice realistic soap. One of the problems is that some parts seem too scripted and staged. The 15 Utopians, as they’re called, are not as isolated from the outside world – or instructions from the producers – as the TV channel would like us to believe.

Human resilience

As a society, it is hard to say whether Utopia is successful. So far it’s characterised by a bit of daily progress and a dose of bigger and smaller fights that ensure that the show won’t be taken off air. But some Utopians get enough of the fights, the hunger and the cold. Two have left already.  The biggest problem is that the group lacks a common goal. Full democracy is a laudable goal, but the group is too diverse and insufficiently strategic. Some people are there with a clear intent to build a different world. Others are more down to earth and just want to have fun or be famous.

Overall, the group show an amazing resilience in front of their problems. Their lack of food, heating, loved ones and all basic amenities of daily life – worst, no wifi! But still, the negative moments are countered by others positive ones. The regular pep-talks following the crises take them to believe in their community again.

A real Utopia does not exist. But maybe Utopia only arises from a constant battle of positive and negative energy – the interaction of happiness and chaos.

Promo, in Dutch:

On the road

Source: Wikipedia

A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, the saying goes.

Today, I am quietly setting a foot outside of my door. Looking outside, into the wide world, with a curious glance of what happens around me. My first step, on a road of which I am not sure where it leads.

Sometime ago, I decided I wanted to understand better what makes people happy. Happiness is such a complex thing that we will never be able to truly grasp how it works. But still I believe it is worthwhile to get on the road and find out  what makes individuals, and societies happy.

This blog is dedicated to that journey.

I believe that intuitively human beings very well know what makes them happy: the company of other people. Cooking and enjoying a great meal with fresh ingredients. The thrill of seeing a new place. Yet, at the same time, we often act irrationally and forget to be happy. We force ourselves to work too long hours or let technology that is a weak proxy for human interaction take over our lives. Similarly, on the level of countries, we have given rise to a system where governments seem more concerned about our wealth than our well-being.

My journey (and my co-editor Wendy’s) will be leading to the place where I can discover why we are as we are. To discover how it could be different. I would like to meet people – you – who have stories about happiness. I’d like to speak to organisations who have spend their thinking power to figure out how we can apply the lessons from science happiness and well-being in our daily lives.

This blog is the travel journal of this journey. At present, I like to think of it as a beta version. But hey, I’ve just set the first steps out of my house. I haven’t crossed the corner yet. I am just stretching my legs a bit. I might have to tie my shoelaces a bit further. I might need another backpack in some weeks.

But I’m on the road.

To the discovery of happiness.

For more about the purpose of this blog see the page – guess what? – about.