You can be as happy as a Dane
Studies regularly find that Danish people are the happiest people in the world. At first glance, it looks like the conditions that make them that way aren't really available to people elsewhere, but that's not really true. You too can be one of the happiest people on earth.
Sunday night, the TV show 60 Minutes did a story on why Danes are so happy. They interviewed several people, including a researcher involved in writing the paper "Why Danes are smug: comparative study of life satisfaction in the European Union" (which is much funnier than your average scientific paper). The paper looks at a number of possible reasons (genetics, diet, alcohol consumption, etc.), and ends up concluding that low expectations (meaning that they're often pleasantly surprised with how things turn out) are one key.
Among the people interviewed during the 60 Minutes show, though, there was a group of students, who, I think, got to the nub of the matter.
The biggest single factor in being happy is the work that you do. To make you happy, your work needs to be a) important and b) optimally challenging (hard enough to be interesting, but not so hard as to make you feel like a failure).
The Danish system of welfare, unemployment, and government supported education, and free health care makes it much easier for people to chose such work.
In the United States, our economic system sets a whole series of roadblocks in the path of choosing the right work, beginning with an education system the loads college graduates up with debts so large that they're forced to take the best-paying job they can find, simply to pay off their student loans.
So, how can you be as happy as a Dane?
If you're not already in college, pick the cheapest one you can find. The quality of your education will scarcely be different at all--what you give up by going to a cheap school are contacts. At an expensive school you'll be hanging out with fellow students who will go on to be movers and shakers in business, politics, science, the arts, and so on. You'll also get to take classes taught by top people in their field. (Well, mostly taught by their TAs, but you'll be able to say you were a student of so-and-so.) If your goals in life depend on those contacts, then by all means go to an expensive school--but you won't be on the path to being as happy as a Dane.
Figure out what your true work in life is. If you're in a position where you don't have to work for a living (if you're a student, say, or living with your parents, or your spouse makes good money and is willing to support you), then seize the opportunity to discover the work that you'll find important and challenging. It's harder if you do have to support yourself, because you have less time and less energy to devote to the search, and because each new experiment entails some risk. It's very easy to end up settling for something that's merely okay--or worse yet, something that's crappy but pays well. But your true work will make you happy as a Dane, if you can find it.
Live frugally, especially until you find your true work. The less you can live on, the more freedom you have to take risks, to experiment--and the more flexibility you have to take work that's meaningful, even if it's not the highest paying. Avoid debt. As long as you're debt-free, all you need to do is make enough money to support your family. Once you find your true work, you can scale your standard of living to match what you can afford.
It's easier in Denmark. College is free, and students who pass their classes are paid a stipend large enough to support them. Health care is free. The price they pay for those things (tax rates that hit 63% once incomes reach $70,000 a year) is not so bad for an ordinary person who just wants to be happy, but crushing for someone who wants to have it all.
If you want to have it all, you're not going to be happy like a Dane. You might, nevertheless be happy, especially if you expect that you will have it all in the future. The Danes don't expect it, which perhaps makes it easier to be happy when the future comes and most of them don't.
If you're already out of college with debts and perhaps a family to support, everything is harder. It is not, however, impossible. You have to start where you are, and you can only go as fast as circumstances allow, but you can still make progress. Find your true work, and find a standard of living that your true work will support. Then you too can be happy as a Dane.
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