Danish Life

Danes are the Happiest

24 Jul ’08

“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.

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22 Comments

  • Reply vie chaotiqueNo Gravatar 25 Jul ’08 at 8:19 am

    Having lived in Denmark I loved this post. I actually blogged about this article earlier this week. http://viechaotique.blogspot.com/

    MVH,

    Anita

  • Reply Esther RasmussenNo Gravatar 25 Jul ’08 at 8:38 am

    What an inspirational blog. Your words totally sum up what we found when we visited Denmark. The taxi driver who took us to the airport said to us, how in London he had seen all these department stores. He couldn’t understand why anyone would need all that stuff. Being content with what I have is something I really aspire to.

  • Reply alisonNo Gravatar 25 Jul ’08 at 11:36 am

    I wish America could be more this way. Of course you get called a socialist if you say this out loud. We sure do have a crazy culture here. You are right, it seems the American way to aspire for usually impossible things. It is so exhausting! We are an overworked, overstressed, exhausted nation that constantly feels like what we have isn’t good enough. If someone would publish it, I’d write a whole book on this mess! Ha–I’m sure plenty of people have already. Good post.

  • Reply MeganNo Gravatar 25 Jul ’08 at 11:36 am

    I think the pursuit of happiness can be more of a burden than people realize. The very notion seems to say that happiness is something to be obtained, rather than happiness being what one already has. I’m not saying that dreams aren’t important, because they are, but constant striving for happiness (in the form of possessions) can be exhausting. Interestingly enough, John Adams originally wanted the Declaration of Independence to be “life, liberty, and the preservation of property”, but got voted down. I sometimes wish they had stuck with property instead, especially when one things of eminent domain abuse in the US.

  • Reply robertasNo Gravatar 26 Jul ’08 at 1:13 am

    I lived in socialism, well communism :) and we had the basic needs met – free health care, good salaries, free education, 3 weeks off for holidays and the workers were very protected… but still people complained.

    Then we have embraced capitalism and although stuff like free health care and free education still remains, people now complain how much better it was before. So my nation is just a complaining bunch of codgers :)

    But I also think where I live it is a generation thing, to my parents (post WWII generation) it is all about security, acquiring as much as you can… my dad suffers from a hamster effect as I like to call it, accumulating stuff because you never know when you might need it.

    They would be happiest if I worked in civil service because it means security. Well I tried that and I was bloody miserable.

    I did find what I love to do, but for me the challenge is to balance work, fun times, friends, traveling and just breathing.

  • Reply MiggieNo Gravatar 26 Jul ’08 at 12:26 pm

    Have you ever even lived in Denmark??? Nobody in America is telling you you need to accumulate more stuff or be skinny or whatever. I am a fat, poor, happy American and there are many just like me. This pressure, it is all in your head!! Just chill and enjoy being a homemaker for your sugar daddy (or whatevs, man).

  • Reply Hygge HouseNo Gravatar 26 Jul ’08 at 5:22 pm

    Esther: I have a hard time understanding why people need so much stuff and how more often than not, I meet or see people who don’t have much money but have way more than I do. But by the same token, I have 3 wishlists going on full of things I’d like and those lists never get smaller! So I think it’s trying understand the difference between need and want. Can I be content with all that I have right now? Yes. Does that stop me from really wanting that skirt from Anthropologie? No. For me, I like to live simply and be content yet I strive to do more, be more, and have more – just as it naturally progresses. And in the 60 Minutes interview, the Danes said the same thing that being content did not stop them from being ambitious (and for awhile I thought that being content meant you stopped wanting more in any area). It’s just being OK with where you are and knowing more will come as you earn it or need it instead of over-consuming just to keep up or because one feels they “deserve it” or because it makes some kind of statement.

    Alison: having really studied American history/culture and living all over it, I totally understand why the culture here is set up to go go go and get get get. That’s what America was founded on – to have a “better life” than what came before because you had the freedom to be better than before. So your neighbours, the government, business, it all reinforced this idea (where European history people might be born into a certain economic or social area and that was that). And selling that idea (and having lots of “success stories) is confusing when you start bringing media into the game and people in your same country, or state or even block, seemingly have more than you. And with the idea of “easy success” it seems like everyone ought to have it even though most of the time, “success” isn’t self-defined and therefor almost always unobtainable. But that’s why I think it’s important to talk about all this because I think a lot of us feel this way, but we feel like we can’t talk about it for reasons you stated and so we perpetuate the situation instead of solving it.

    Megan: I TOTALLY agree. But I think if we define what happiness is on an individual basis, people would actually either be more naturally happy or would make changes to ensure their own happiness.

    Miggie: If you were really a happy (and aware) person, I don’t think you’d make that kind of comment or that kind of judgment.

  • Reply ellenNo Gravatar 26 Jul ’08 at 6:10 pm

    In this country we are free to determine our own unique paths and select what social trends we choose to follow or eschew. If we aren’t living by our beliefs/ideals, but follow the herd into materialism and vanity,… we have *ourselves* to blame. Thank God, we have the ability to strive for better, even when it’s hard and going “against the grain,” socially-speaking.

    I am so thankful not to be living in a Socialist country (yet). Good grief! What would the Founding Fathers think of all the government intervention (and taxation) that goes on…even now…in this country? We need to buck up and revive the notion of “personal responsibility” on so many fronts. America was NOT built on the backs of men and women who wanted a parental government. This nation’s greatness was not forged through the tears, sweat, and blood of men and women who *desired their needs be taken care of from cradle to grave*. How quickly we are forgetting.

  • Reply ErinNo Gravatar 27 Jul ’08 at 9:48 am

    I met a young couple traveling CA from Denmark. We had a long conversation with them over a campfire. When reading your article, you hit the nail on the head. The way you describe them is exactly how they live. Happy, content, realistic in their expectations on life. Big houses are just not an option. They said that small places are still so expensive, so if you EVER own anything you are very proud of yourself. They were also so aware of our politics. When elections are, whose running, etc. It made my husband and I feel very low. WE knew nothing about them and they know EVERYTHING about our country. Once again, us Americans come off looking so selfish. All in all we were very impressed with the Dames we met!

  • Reply JasminNo Gravatar 27 Jul ’08 at 10:40 am

    Sweden is also a lot like that, and they’re one of the richest, most progressive nations in the world, so something has to be working—if I were still single, I’d move there in a heartbeat. America has all its priorities mixed up, and this once-great country is suffering now because of that.

  • Reply rowenaNo Gravatar 27 Jul ’08 at 10:46 am

    What an interesting conversation. I actually agree with you, Alex. I believe contentment with what he have is a lot healthier than desiring stuff to fulfill us. Wanting stuff doesn’t make us happier for more than a moment, it only makes us want more stuff. Maybe part of the problem with America is that we are always being told that there is something wrong with us that must be fixed, usually by spending money on it, sometimes through education or religion. How can be satisfied with what we have if we are bombarded by how we are simply not enough.

    ps I used to read you back when I first started blogging, many years ago, then you went away, and then I went away, and now I am back and just found this and like it a lot. :)

  • Reply ellenNo Gravatar 27 Jul ’08 at 12:59 pm

    I agree with Rowena’s statement that “wanting stuff” (and getting it, too) “only makes us want more stuff.” We spend our energies coveting and scraping toward what we *don’t have* instead on placing our emphasis on a deeper appreciation and realization of what we DO have. I think that we (me, for sure) could use a big dose of Reality, at times, …seeing what people in other parts of the world make do with (and not only “make do with,” but, actually, feel priviledged to be with..). We’ve got to get past the materialism. It’s all too much. This is something I certainly struggle with. I recently canceled my DirectTV subscription and am trying to be very selective with the kind of popular culture I allow into my life and let pass into my pointy little head. :) So, I’ve cut way back and, truly, view it as no big loss considering what is being offered, in large part, “out there.”

  • Reply Hygge HouseNo Gravatar 27 Jul ’08 at 2:19 pm

    I actually don’t think wanting stuff is bad – everyone in the world at every level and socio-economic status wants more no matter what they do or do not have. I live simply, I’m a minimalist yet I have 3 wishlists full of stuff I want! I think the question is WHY do we want it, do we NEED it, and can we afford to buy it.

    I don’t have TV because I can’t handle all that stuff coming into my head. I’ve been on Twitter and Facebook and just had to cancel using those because I couldn’t take all the updates and knowing all that about my friends. My bloglist is small. It’s not that I don’t want to know about these things but they’re not helping me. Choices – that’s what it’s all about and sometimes that’s the hardest thing to accept because sometimes we feel pressure in our choices.

  • Reply CassNo Gravatar 30 Jul ’08 at 3:44 am

    This is a really interesting topic. I think it is always very easy to blame the way we were brought up or the country we were brought up in for the materialistic people (some) of us are. I am no exception. But, reading this post actually made me think, who do I REALLY blame for constantly wanting new things or “keeping up with the Jones'”? And the truth I came to after a bit of thought….Um…Me. At the end of the day, do I have to watch all the adverts, read all the mags and believe my friends when they say “I need this or I need that”. I don’t have to believe any of this. I have moaned about how stuffed full of stuff my house is, how I can’t find anything when I need it, how short of cash I am….Maybe I should do something about it. Live more simply and enjoy what I have and who I am (because you become lost in what you should have and who you should be). Now the difficult part for me, put the effort into changing!

  • Reply TinuvielNo Gravatar 15 Oct ’08 at 10:15 pm

    I just recently had this exact conversation with a client of mine. She is in her mid-70’s–a Dane that lives here in the States. She’s wonderful, all the things you describe. I think a country full of people like her sounds just wonderful! One of the things I love most about my housekeeping/organizing business is helping people to enjoy what they already have and taking joy in the ‘everyday’. Thanks for your lovely blog ;)

  • Reply LindaFNo Gravatar 21 Jan ’09 at 5:08 pm

    Good for you for being so conscious about how you live your life, part of navigating all the ‘crap’ is about how effective you can be at filtering out the stuff you don’t really want- both in your head or in your home/space!!! I think the fact that Danes have terms for such things as tryhed and hygge (or hyggelig) gives an insight into their psyche and approach to life, I love that the Danish way of living contributes to that sense of contentment, and yet, as you say, it doesn’t necessarily stop ambition, creativity or productivity.
    I too have lived in Denmark and have always been fascinated by the idiosyncracies of Danish life. I love the way you have expressed them here!

  • Reply JaneTNo Gravatar 23 Jan ’09 at 3:43 am

    You sum up so well what I love about Denmark, having spent a year there. I learnt at a young age to take pleasure in the small things of life, because the big things a) may never happen and b) may not be worth the waiting, and so when I got to Denmark at the ripe old age of 48, I felt at home there instantly. There is nothing wrong with ambition or with wanting to acquire something, but the balance is important.

  • Reply trinaNo Gravatar 17 Oct ’09 at 6:49 pm

    this is a great post. thanks for that. :)

  • Reply KristineNo Gravatar 8 Jan ’10 at 8:01 am

    I am a Dane who coincidentally stumbled upon this blog.. And how funny it is, how you picture us Danes, and Denmark :)
    I think some of the things you say are a bit too idyllic, maybe. But to those Americans who think that our country is socialist, just because we have health care, free education and care for the elderly, I say: NO! We have just realized that if every one is to have the same opportunities in life, some things have to be free, like education. Otherwise, only the rich may get to be doctors, lawyers etc, and not the ones who are smartest and best suited for the job. As for care for the elderly, we pay one of the world’s highest taxes (39% of our income, minimum), so that when we grow old, we can have a pension to live off, and so that when we get sick, we are sure to be taken care of. I myself was born with a small handicap, but one that is big enough that no insurance company will ever insure me. Therefore I am happy to live in a country such as Denmark, where I have had the operations necessary to make my life completely normal, and still not be broke. As for education, it is not only free, the government gives young people like myself money to support us in studying, because they know that living costs are high in Denmark, and if you do not have a job, very few people would have enough money to support themselves or their children while they go to university for 5 years.It also means that no one has to live in the street – ever. The ones who do have chosen to do so themselves and they can come to shelters and have free meals, a free sleeping bag and a room to sleep in, if they want. If you do not have a job for some time, the government supports you, and offices help get you in touch with companies who might want to hire you, so that they can have you on probation. That is the good side of our so-called “socialist” country (which really is ruled by a liberal government;)
    However, when it comes to being happy, I don’t really get it. A lot of Danes “brokker” = another very Danish word, as in the song “Kom, lad os brokke os” (look it up at YouTube), meaning complaining in a grumpy kind of way.. And, we do dream of big houses and big cars – the difference is, that because of the high taxes and the very high incomes we have, only a very few people can afford a big house or car. Cars are taxed 200% of their price, which is put on top of it, so that a Dane pays 3x the price of a car that a German pays. Houses are really expensive; a new, 200m2 house would cost about 2-4 million Danish kroner (384,500 to 770,000 dollars). That is why we “choose” to live in small houses..

    I guess my point is, the picture is not as black and white as you describe it – not as idyllic as the one Mrs. Beauchamp paints, and not as “socialist” as one of the other comments says.
    But come to Denmark and see for yourselves:)

    • Reply Hygge HouseNo Gravatar 8 Jan ’10 at 10:03 am

      Kristine,

      I totally see and agree with a lot of what you said and I am guilty of romanticising Danish life (and a lot of other things – I am a Pollyanna that way). Having grown up Danish I understand the challenges of living there, and, going back often and being with my family, I often think I couldn’t live there full-time again (and have shared this on here before). It’s why I’ve been living in America.

      My life and my cousins are very different – there are things they envy about me living in America and there’s things I envy about them living there. I dont’ envy the taxes, the cost, sometimes the hierarchy of doing things, the ‘the right to be different but the same’ kind of attitude.

      However, I do miss traditions, I do miss the beauty, I do miss a lot of ideas that not only I had when I was younger but that I see my family still having. There is a way that Danes do cope with the winters better than in America, and, having lived in both, prefer hygge over Walmart.

      My goal in talking about Denmark and often France (another place I’ve lived and grown up with) is to remind myself of the bits I love and have often forgotten living in America. It’s to take the good from everywhere and piece together a life for myself whether it’s on this side of the water or that.

      I know no place is paradise, but there’s nothing wrong with looking for the best and striving for something great – even if one has to romanticise it a little. The blah doesn’t get me through the day. Charm totally does.

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