I’ve been thinking about happiness a lot lately. Denmark does that to you. First, it serenades you with its impressive happiness rankings and its near-perfect Scandinavian lifestyle. And then, when you live here, it compels you to think about the hows and whys.
With research indicating that genetics plays a major role in determining how happy we are, does Denmark’s consistently high rankings in the happiness ratings mean Danes are naturally blessed with happy genes? And what about the stellar supporting cast in the form of a welfare state that says: “I got your back” and the controversial but inescapable Jante Law? What exactly makes the Danes among the happiest people on earth?
I put my question to Sharmi Albrechtsen, an American living in Denmark for the past 12 years, who is working on a book entitled ‘Happy Danes: Investigating Danish Happiness’.
She says the answer is yes to all of the above.
“I believe there is a winning combination of circumstances that makes Denmark the happiest country in the world,” Albrechtsen said. “The generous welfare system here allows society to have a certain level of comfort. And though most Danes have an aversion to the Jante Law – a norm in Denmark that negatively portrays individual success while criticising ambition and excessive materialism – I believe Jante Law is the reason they are satisfied with their lives, as it helps them manage their expectations. This in turn affords Danes a sense of peace with themselves and their place in society. It allows them to focus on other attributes like family, work-life balance, sports, nature and community – which every Dane, rich or not, values.”
While Denmark may have its winning combination, surely we non-Danes also have a shot at happiness? Not all of us are blessed with happy genes or live in an environment that is conducive to being content and at peace with ourselves. What about individual effort and action?
Tapping right into our eternal quest for happiness is Happify, a web-based app. Yes, you read that right: an app. It works on the assumption that happiness is a skill one can hone through a set of activities. If happiness is a skill, then one can be born with it or acquire it through effort. I got an opportunity to beta test the app and be a ‘Happify Pioneer’. Intrigued, but armed with a heavy dose of scepticism, I decided to give it a try. This was my chance to test the role of individual effort in happiness. And, for once, I wasn’t going to be merely following a new tech movement that was being used by everybody I knew and everybody they knew. So, I tried this app from the virtual world and applied it in the real world, doing activities aimed at working on five essential happiness elements: savour, thank, aspire, give and empathise.
In theory, it made sense. But, did it work for me? Not really. It meant having a weekly ‘to-do’ list and that made it seem like a chore that, ironically, took all the fun out of being happy. I also remain a sceptic because it is so easy to fake or artificially create positive experiences online. Facebook is a case in point. Many share pictures and posts of every moment and event in their lives – of anything even remotely remarkable, putting on a show and keeping up with the Joneses – in the hope that there will be someone who will ‘like’ it.
I have to admit, there is one thing Happify seems to be right about – you have to work at being happy. More importantly, what my little experiment confirmed is something I’ve suspected all along: there are so many different ways to happify ourselves.
What makes me happy can make another miserable. Some places, like Denmark, make it easier for you to pursue your happiness, while others make it tough, challenging you at every step. Still others do everything possible to make sure you flounder in misery. But, because where we live isn’t the only thing that dictates how happy we are, we continue to pursue happiness, acknowledging the one pervasive truth that applies to everyone: happiness is hard work. You just need to figure out the formula that works best for you. For Albert Einstein it was a table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin. What’s yours?