- Some countries rank consistently among the world's happiest. Consider the case of Denmark.
- Danes endorse a societal support system funded by high taxes.
- That security gives them freedom to be creative in their various life ventures.
- Social support assists happiness in life's fundamental pathways: work, play, ritual, and communion.
Ten years ago, my wife and I were traveling in Europe. Our first stop was Denmark where a young hotel clerk in Copenhagen informed us — apropos of nothing, or so I thought — that “we Danes are the highest taxed people in the world, and we’re proud of it.”
As most people do when they hear something a bit incongruous — after all, high taxes commonly breed resentment — I filed the comment away. And I pondered its deeper meaning: Is it possible for a society to be that public-spirited?
That concern reawakened recently upon my reading Helen Russell’s book, The Year of Living Danishly. Russell, a British journalist, relocated to Denmark with her husband, who had taken a job at Legoland on the country’s western edge. The couple knew they would have trouble learning the Danish language. What they weren’t prepared for were many of the customs of their new homeland. And most curious of all was the fact that the Danes they met seemed so happy about the quality of their lives, in a place that is cold and gloomy several months of the year.
At the time of Russell’s move, Denmark was officially the world’s happiest country and had been for several years, according to the United Nation’s “World Happiness Report.” For the last five years, the country has fallen to second place, after Finland. Both countries — along with Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Switzerland, and the Netherlands — have placed each year in the world’s happiest countries since the report’s inception in 2012. What are these countries doing compared to the U.S. (ranked 16th in the 2022 report)?
A key element of American “exceptionalism” is the belief that our country is different from all others and thus cannot draw lessons from them. Besides, or so Americans might claim, a country like Denmark is small (currently, 5.8 million) and relatively homogeneous. Danes don’t spend a large percentage of their GDP on the military and thus can spend more on social welfare. Moreover, the Happiness Report emphasizes general life satisfaction, or contentment. We Americans prefer the prospects of earning a large income, expanding our living quarters, and taking an expensive vacation. Who wants to live someplace where you don’t fantasize about being the wealthiest or most important person in the room?
Nevertheless, I maintain there are lessons to be drawn from the Danish example. After all, happiness is not some mysterious experience, bequeathed to some populations and not others. Rather, there are structural conditions that make for a more (or less) satisfying existence.
Readers of my blog know that many of my posts discuss four fundamental “pathways of experience,” understood as challenges for living. Those four are work, play, ritual, and communion. Consider how the Danes address those themes.
Work: The pathway of pride. Humans work to make things of consequence and, by that process, to support the people they love. Creating something gives us feelings of satisfaction and, in a longer view, pride in our capabilities and steadfastness of purpose.
Although some Americans pursue the career of their dreams, most work to support a certain standard of living. For that reason, they put up with bad bosses, long workweeks, difficult commutes, and unpleasant assignments. They deal with the challenges of balancing work and family. They do this in part because they know that losing one’s job — perhaps suddenly and without a clear transition plan — is extremely problematic. Housing, healthcare, and education costs would be overwhelming.
In Denmark, healthcare and education are publicly funded. People can pursue jobs, knowing that if they quit or get fired, they will receive 80-90 percent of their salary for two years. During that time, they can seek work or undertake training (again, at government expense) for something else. Family leave policies are generous; most people get five weeks of vacation a year; the official work week is 37 hours.
Beyond that, about two-thirds of Danes belong to unions, which fight for worker rights. Pay differences between the various occupational categories are much more compressed than in the U.S., and income taxes on the highest earners (over 50 percent) further diminish inequality. For that reason, neighborhoods mix people with jobs in professions, businesses, and trades.
“Bah!” some Americans would say. “I want the satisfaction of earning a high income and keeping what is mine.” But others would acknowledge the work-family tension. Note also that Danes still take pride in their jobs. Indeed, Russell reports a survey finding that 57% of Danes would continue working even if they won the lottery and no longer needed the income.
Play: The pathway of gratification. People play to explore the possibilities of existence, to cultivate intriguing roles and relationships. We do this to bolster confidence in our abilities to go places and do things. Taking on self-appointed challenges is “fun.” Successful play experiences gratify us and otherwise build the self.
In a post-industrial society — which honors leisure as much as work — most of us would say that we pursue pleasure when we can. Of course, some of that is largely passive activity, going to settings where professionals entertain us, work us over, and otherwise give us a good time. Think of spas, movies, concerts, and sports events. Other activities — like shopping, gambling, and home decorating — are mostly selecting from available alternatives. Readers can decide for themselves how often they actually “get out and play” in pursuits like sports and games, exercising, artmaking, gardening, and music, all of which involve full-bodied concentration.
For their part, the Danes are a vigorous, active people who like gymnastics, hiking, and cycling. They enjoy learning foreign languages. Of particular interest is their commitment to clubs and associations centered on sports and hobbies. In that light, the government supports hobby societies by providing free premises and subsidies for younger adults wishing to engage with others. All this supports the Scandinavian philosophy that people thrive when they engage with other community members in shared enjoyments.
Ritual: The pathway of reverence. All of us conduct a wide range of rituals each day, some just personal routines and others social in character. Important too are cultural rites, public affirmations of civic responsibilities and religious commitments. Rituals anchor us in the world, so we can focus on creative endeavors. They help us communicate with others. Profoundly, they teach respect, even reverence, for society and its traditions.
Although most people in the U.S. have personal routines and observe local customs, few would argue we are a ritualistic society. Even our important life rituals — birth, puberty, marriage, retirement, and death — feature personal touches, some quite eccentric. Weddings, for example, are more like contracts between individuals than entries into societal tradition.
Although not especially religious, most Danes highly value tradition. They observe holidays in customary ways. They like scheduled activities, which follow a clear pattern. In the same spirit, they emphasize rules and regulations as essential to a smooth-running society (woe to the tourist who walks in a designated bike lane). They are patriotic and enjoy flying their country’s flag.
Orderliness of this sort may not be to everyone’s taste. But it does provide a clear template within which people can comfortably conduct the business of living.
Communion: The pathway of blessedness. Important to humans is the feeling of connection — to other people, to nature, or to another transcendent setting. To accept external conditions (including what others have to offer to your life) allows you to feel needed, completed, and validated. It makes clear you have a stable place in the world. Such is the happiness of blessedness.
Clearly, Americans have circles of family and friends. We like the familiarity of long-standing workmates and church members. Beyond those boundaries, that sense of connection lessens. Individualism (often broadened to familism) trumps public obligation.
Danes are more accepting of their society writ large and of their government as guarantor of that society’s security. As noted, most accept their taxation system as the principal support of their vast social safety net. They understand that wealth is a public as well as private concept.
They also know how to gather in families and small groups, especially during the dark winter months. Much has been written of their practice of hygge, essentially a comfortable nesting in familiar, sheltered spaces. Although individuals can do this alone, they prefer to do it with chosen others. Life, or so it seems, is happiest in close quarters with the people and things you care about.
Again, much of this contradicts our individualist ethic, which celebrates personal accomplishment and prominent social status. Like other Scandinavians, Danes eschew self-promotion. A person is measured more by their contributions to others than by their possessions.
Like every society, Denmark has its problems. But the high levels of life satisfaction among Danes suggest that they are managing effectively the tension between individual expression and collective security. The challenge for American policymakers — and the rest of us — is to determine which Danish practices might improve the quality of our own lives.
Pinker, J. (2021). We're learning the Wrong Lessons from the World's Happiest Countries." The Atlantic. June 27, 2021.
Russell, H. (2015). The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Happiest Country. London: Icon Books.
"World Happiness Report." (2022). Sustainable Development Solutions Network.