“Over the past 30 years, in survey after survey, this nation of five and a half million people, the land that produced Hans Christian Andersen, the people who consume herring by the ton, consistently beat the rest of the world in the happiness stakes.” Morley Safer in a Feb. 17 CBS News 60 Minutes story highlighting Denmark.
When I first heard that Danes were considered the happiest people in the world, I admit I was somewhat skeptical. That’s not the first word I, or most Danes, would think to use to describe themselves (in fact, I know far more grumpy Danes than Pollyanna ones!).
However, during the 60 Minutes interview, one of the Danes cleared up my confusion by saying that it’s not that they are the happiest, but they are, perhaps, the most content. All Danes have all their basic needs covered from birth to death (good wages, health care provided, free education including university, one year government paid maternity leave and some of the best elder-care in the world to name a few). A word that describes how Danes feel with this life is tryghed which simply means “tucked in” – like a snug child looked after.
With basic needs met one doesn’t have to struggle for the day to day things so much (how will I get into school, how do I pay for the doctor, where do I go when I’m old), so one’s energy can go into family, friends and job pursuits. This sets up Danes for that feeling of being content. Feeling content then frees them feed other desires/pursuits which fuels a lot of young people’s ambitions.
But what also needs to be added to this equation is that Danes generally have very low expectations of life. This is not to say they are pessimists or Eeyore about everything, it’s just that they don’t expect that they will all grow up rich and famous, have a big mansion, drive the BMW, and wear more bling than their next-door’s mama and all by age 25.
If that or something else fabulous happens – great! Wonderful! Celebrate! But they just don’t go around with the expectation of extraordinary events occurring all the time; they are content with where they are and might stay at that place without a feeling of missing something. If they’re in a small home, they don’t feel shamed by this because that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not ambitious or successful or happy – it simply means they want a small home.
In Denmark, one can enjoy being a homemaker, working in a grocery store, growing old with wrinkles, sitting for hours drinking coffee instead of jet-setting, because they’re not stressing out about providing the basics that aren’t really basics or about becoming rich/famous/skinny just because they could be (or as we sometimes tell each other in America, should be). Danish society supports everyone in making sure they live well yet, aside from the basics mentioned earlier, doesn’t dictate what that is. Each Dane gets to decide what it is that makes them content.
And thus, we call them happy because, well, doesn’t that sound happy? It certainly does to me.