The 2-Minute Thought: The Danes Are a Happy People

Source: Citi IO

Source: Citi IO

Earlier this year, Denmark once again was declared the world’s happiest country in the World Happiness Report Update 2016 released by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network for the United Nations.  Although Denmark lost the number one spot once in 2015, it otherwise has been ranked the world’s happiest country three out of the four times the study has been done.

Where does this happiness come from?  After being in Copenhagen last week, I quickly concluded it must be the utter lack of traffic -- which, if you come from Silicon Valley, is stunning. 

There is virtually no congestion, since bicycle riding is the normal mode of transport, and there’s also a good public transport system.  About 50% of commutes to work and school are by bicycle, and the bike lanes are beautifully done.  A Forbes article in 2012 suggested that Copenhagen cyclists saved the city $34 million a year in “avoided air pollution, accidents, congestion, noise and wear and tear on infrastructure” as well as $380 million a year in reduced sick days and medical expenses.  Plus, it’s got to be easier to arrive at work in a good mood if you’ve just been on a bicycle.

But there are other things that also suggest contentment.  There is work-life balance: Danes work an average of 37 hours a week.  There is universal access to education and health care.  Danes are in touch with a primary care physician who knows them well an average of seven times a year.   Americans, in contrast, seek out health care about half as often and not from a primary care practitioner, but a patchwork of providers, including the emergency room.  Families in Denmark get a total of 52 weeks of parental leave.  Income inequality is among the lowest in the world.  There is a sense of social responsibility.  The voter participation rate is about 80%, versus 53% in the U.S. -- and 40% of Danes volunteer regularly.

Then there are the concepts of hygge and janteloven.  Hygge is, as far I understand, a feeling of coziness, contentment, and appreciation of the pleasures of everyday life: You light candles, enjoy coffee in a beautiful cup, and savor your surroundings as you read a good book. 

Janteloven is the idea that you shouldn’t stick out too much, think you’re special, or strive to be more successful than others.  Humility is good; ambition a bit embarrassing.  That may shock Americans who train their kids to compete from birth, but journalist Kay Xander Mellish, a long-time expat in Denmark, found it was very much part of Danish education when she sent her own child to school: “There’s no elite education here,” she wrote, “no advanced, or gifted or talented programs.  If your child is better than the others at a certain subject, his job is to help the students who are not as good. . . There are no competitive schools you have to fight to get into . . . there’s almost no standardized testing until the kids are 15 or 16.”  And yet, she adds, Denmark has one of the highest educational levels in the world.

Denmark is expensive.  Taxes are high.  And it’s not as if Danes do not complain or make fun of themselves.  Still, Denmark scores highly on the six factors identified by The World Happiness Report Update 2016 that matter: 1) wealth, as measured by high GDP per capita; 2) healthy years of life expectancy; 3) social support (as in having someone to turn to in times of trouble); 4) high levels of trust and an absence of corruption; 5) the perception of being in control of one’s life decisions; and 6) generosity (as measured by donations).

Perhaps most interesting of all, this year’s World Happiness Report focused on inequality and found that “people do care about the happiness of others, and how it is distributed.  Beyond the six factors already discussed, new research suggests that people are significantly happier living in societies where there is less inequality of happiness.”