You can be as happy as a Dane

By Philip Brewer on 19 February 2008 (Updated 14 April 2008) 18 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

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.

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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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Guest's picture

I wish I could move to Dane and build a family there. Not everyone has it easy. In my country, corruption is all over the place. I envy the free college education and the free health care. Where I come from, there is one university where anybody of any economic status can attend. It's not free but it's relatively inexpensive. It's also one of the most prestigious and one that houses the brightest minds as well. If only all schools can have pretty much the same quality.

Guest's picture
CHB

I lived with a Danish family near Cophenhagen while studying abroad a few years ago. I wouldn't say Danes had "low" expectations as much as they had "realistic" expectations. For example, my 20-year old host sister and her family knew that she was highly intelligent and motivated from an early age, so she was put on the highest track of education in her early teens. My 16-year old host brother, however, knew he did not enjoy academics and planned on following a more vocational track in his early teens. Kids are not told they can "be anything they want," they're taught to learn their own interests and skills from an early age and how to use them to the best of their ability, therefore making them more likely to find fulfilling work.
Another huge factor I noticed in Denmark is the lack of the "Jones'" problem. It was the social norm to be very humble and not "show off", or brag about yourself in public. This was considered highly rude and kind of silly. Almost all houses I saw were small, most Danish families owned one car, if that, and of course they have a wonderful public transportation system. Not everyone I met fit this description, but it seemed to be built into their culture.
Of course Danes still have their problems, the biggest ones that I noticed being immigration issues & racism (party having to do with their high levels of national pride and "smugness" imho), and a high cost of living. But they certainly could teach others, especially Americans, a few things about living higher quality lives overall.

Linsey Knerl's picture

as a special on Tv last month.  My grandmother is a Danish immigrant, born and raised almost all her life here. I would say that my relatives that still live there are quite content, but also very hard-working. 

How I wish to visit there before I die and forget how to speak Danish at all! Thanks for writing about this, Philip!  (Tak!)

Guest's picture
Lucille

I think the two keys to Danish satisfaction with life is the lack of the Joneses or the American Dream trappings combined with a full social safety net.

They don't have to worry about health care or retirement. School is not only paid for but your paid while you go to school, maternity leave and unemployment assure you can get by during those times.

Here we spend so much of our time and motivation toward covering for these issues or recovering from these issues. People frequently make their life choices based on overcoming these high costs or losses they incur.

So many times in the states living on less can mean you have to live in a bad neighborhood with crime and poor schools. I can't begin to tell you how many people live at the edge of their means in order to have somewhere safe for their kids with a functional school system.

I think the big question is still, would you give up the potential to have a yacht, a new benz and a mansion as a trade off for doing what you love and having all the uncertainty in life covered? I think many people would say yes.

The high tax rate there is frequently used to say their system is wrong and ours is better. But if you look financially as all the money you spend out of pocket on health care, health insurance, student loans, and over time losses you incur catching up from lost jobs, maternity leave and all those other negative financial events it could easily add up to the difference between our tax rate and theirs.

Another frequently used comment about Danish styles of socialism is that if we did that here people would take advantage of the system. I think a large part of the reason it work there is mentality of the people. We have created the system cheater as a byproduct of our culture. If someone that was the stereotype of a lazy system cheater in the U.S. were to be transplanted into Danish culture I think it would be such a drastic issue the person might end up in jail. The level of crime and "I got mine" mentality that the worst examples of our society carry simply would not be tolerated there.

I would be really interested to see what the crime rate and corruption incidents are like in Denmark.

Guest's picture
Looby

Oliver James' book- Affluenza, has a large focus on the Danish, investigating why they are happy. He notes a real lack of consumerism amongst the people he talks to.

Guest's picture
John Krumm

Probably the single biggest killer of happiness is income inequality in society. Happiness is very closely tied to your sense of status among those around you, and in modern societies status mostly comes from income (though partly from education, but try being a homeless phd for a while and see how much status society allots you). Societies like the U.S. are increasingly high stress/low happiness places, while the Danish and their like and also some very isolated tribal peoples are often much happier.

Guest's picture

I, too, studied abroad for a year in Denmark, and found the Danes to be remarkably free of most stress. Of course, there are always interpersonal conflicts, medical issues, and difficult life choices to be made, but the Danes seemed free of the stress of figuring out their daily survival.

There was definitely a difference between the 'wealthy' Danes and the lower income Danes---but it's true, the "need" to keep up with the Joneses (Jansens?) was must less prevalent. Everyone had access to the same health care, the same education, even the same goods and services! There was a much, much smaller gap between the wealthy and the 'poor'.

I never thought about the fact that perhaps Danes are also happier because they have the freedom to choose work that really fulfills them---they aren't driven by having to make 'this much' or 'that much' money so they can live at a certain level. I should have asked so many more questions when I lived there---over twenty years ago, now!

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Olafia Larusdottir

I'm from Iceland (Denmark little cousin) and we as well top those studies from time to time. Here as in Denmark we have a very good social system, education is almost free and unemployment rates are below 1%. I think that all those factors are very important to make it easier for people to feel safe and happy. The most important thing about happiness is to choose to be happy. We are taught to do what makes us happy. My parents always told me that if I don't like my job I should not complain I should do something about it.
Smile at the world and the world will smile at you.

Guest's picture
Lucille

This makes me wonder what makes a Dane lose sleep? What things do they worry over or don't they?

The things that always seem to come up as points of stress among my peers are wages vs. cost of living, medical (costs, access, debt) and issues about the lack of a real safety net (unemployment, retirement). Those issues seem to cause far more stress than relationship issues.

I also have to wonder how much of our stress is contagious? Crazy reckless drivers, people cutting in line or making an angry scene. Just going about your daily business can expose you to some rather insane and stress inducing behavior of others.

Guest's picture
Guest

A blogger commenting on Danish happiness

http://ming.tv/flemming2.php/__show_article/_a000010-001767.htm

mentioned another factor he thought contributed--the high level of freedom in Denmark: Free speech, free press, no censorship on TV, no heavy-handed control of behavior.

It seems possible that the Yahoo news link (Comment 10) refers to non-Vikings residing in the Copenhagen suburbs who respond to such freedom not with happiness or satisfaction but with discontent.

Guest's picture
TSO

High Danish taxes are leaving them in a labor shortage, masked partially by Muslim immigration. Be interesting to see how happy the Danes are twenty years from now.

Guest's picture
Guest2112

I'm not sure of the exact amount, but I'm pretty confident that Denmark spends next to nothing on national defense. Why? Because the United States, through NATO, is protecting Denmark's borders.

If Denmark would "man up" and defend itself, it wouldn't have the luxury of subsidizing health care, unemployment wages, free college education, etc. Or if it maintained those services and had to form a legitimate military, the tax rates would drive anyone who makes a decent living somewhere else -- like the U.S.

Denmark is like The Shire -- everyone outside the borders is doing all of the hard work so the hobbits can live a life of peace and quiet.

Guest's picture
Søren Flott

Just this to inform you that Denmark has more soldiers in Afghanistan than any other nation pr. capita.

Denmark has also had the most UN peace keepers pr. capita.

And one other thing - security isn't just about soldiers. You can promote security through other means. Denmark gives more foreign aid pr. capita than any other nation with the exeption of Norway.

Guest's picture

As one who missed the 60 Minutes piece, I really appreciate this post, Philip. And, as a half-Dane, I guess I should be at least half-happy, right? I love the comments about taxes, consumerism and social networks, too. BTW, I linked to the post on my blog. Thanks for sharing.

Guest's picture
Guest

"I'm not sure of the exact amount, but I'm pretty confident that Denmark spends next to nothing on national defense. Why? Because the United States, through NATO, is protecting Denmark's borders."

From Germany and Norway and Poland.... how have they not been overrun already? Everyone knows that all the EU nations are at each other's throats now....

Guest's picture
Troels Therkelsen

I was pointed to this article by one of my many North American online friends and I have to say, it made me feel kind of bad that many of the things that I take for granted in my daily life, are things that one really shouldn't take for granted.

I think the argument that we Danes have lower expectations and generally don't take pleasure in rubbing our success in other peoples' faces, is spot on. There's a book, ironically written by a Norwegian, which perfectly illustrates these "rules" (http://www.ling.gu.se/~hansv/berra3/janteloven.html don't worry it is translated into English).

As for my happiness, well, I certainly have nothing to be sad about... but there's always room for improvement, eh?

About the defense/NATO comment, why do you think Denmark joined NATO? If the US is the high school sports jock, then Denmark is its nerdy geek friend ;-)

Guest's picture
Guest

Actually there is an army and military spending in Denmark. They spent 1.3% of GDP on defence in 2007, which is the same as Canada and Germany. The US, of course, topped the spending league in NATO in 2007 at 4% of GDP, but I don't think a large proportion of that money was actually spent on defending Denmark. A breakdown of the figures might reveal a higher percentage spent in Iraq, Afghanistan and on bases in other countries.

Danish taxes are high compared with the US, but it doesn't drive everyone away. The Danes have a democracy and can choose to vote for a lower tax government if they would prefer to have fewer public services, just as America apparently prefers. But many Danes prefer to have the public services.