Why are the Danes so happy

by Andrew Stein

Since 2012, the UN has been publishing a World Happiness Report.  In the first couple years of its existence, Denmark has claimed the top spot, usually followed closely by other Scandinavian countries.  In 2015, the Danes are still near the top, but they are preceded by Switzerland and Iceland.

As I am with most things as subjective as a happiness rating, I was skeptical (even of the UN’s process) of how this was determined at a country by country level.  When I dig a little deeper, I at least understand what they are trying to get at, but I am still not convinced that something like a country’s happiness can really be measured.  The UN’s World Happiness Report used Subjective Well-Being (which they like to abbreviate as SWB), which accounts for 3 different aspects: cognitive evaluations of one’s life, positive emotions, and negative ones.  According to the World Happiness Report, Denmark’s happiness can be explained by it’s high GDP per capita, its social support, its healthy life expectancy, the people’s freedom to make life choices, overall generosity, and low perceptions of corruption.  But enough about the details here — if you’re actually interested, there is an annual 100-page document called the World Happiness Report.

Okay, so back to why we heard the Danes are so happy.  We almost feel that happiness is the wrong word, and satisfied would be more appropriate.  They are very satisfied.  They think that their government treats its people well, and that the population treats each other well. Taxes are extremely high (among the highest in the world), but people recognize that “free” healthcare, “free” college education, and other social services are not cheap, and they appreciate that their tax dollars are being well spent.  Folks also just seem comfortable in their own shoes.  Around the holidays this year, the biggest term that we kept hearing was Hygge, which is a Danish term for cozy.  I think Danes enjoy just being surrounded by family and friends and enjoying a glass a wine or a cup of tea.  It doesn’t need to be more fancy or more complicated than that.  

But does this actually make them happier than other citizens of other countries?  Neither we nor the Danes are completely convinced of this.  We surveyed many a Dane.  We talked to couples sitting next to us at meals, we talked to bar tenders, we talked to tour guides, and we talked to coffee shop baristas.  The Danes, being satisfied with who and what they are, don’t really need the label that the UN wants to put on them that they are among the happiest people.  On the other hand, I could almost imagine the U.S. making a national holiday if we were ever #1 on that list.  Ironically, this is probably why the Danes are the “happiest” and the Americans are not.

An important lesson here is that happiness is gratefulness for what you have.  It is being satisfied that you are relatively worry free and not in a huge amount of debt because of school or a medical bill.  It is being able to trust each other and trust the government.  Happiness might be simpler than I had originally imagined.