So you want to know the secret to Danish happiness? Join the queue. Since the early 1970s, Denmark has topped just about every Happiness Index or Quality of Life list ever published. As a result, the whole world is fascinated by Danish society, Danish lifestyle and the myriad varieties of heirloom organic grains available here. Last month, the Danes topped the Columbia University Earth Institute’s World Happiness Report. The month before, it was Monocle magazine that put Copenhagen at the top of its Most Liveable Cities list. (Full disclosure: that was me.) These reports come along more regularly than the 5A bus, and Denmark is usually in the driving seat. As for the the Danes’ response, in my experience they tend to approach these surveys like the victim of a practical joke waiting to discover who the perpetrator is.
I have lived in Denmark on and off for ten years or so and been a regular visitor for almost 15 years. I’ll admit, I was a reluctant emigré initially – I don’t like liquorice, and I hate marzipan, so life was tough to begin with – but I grew to grudgingly appreciate and, lately, properly love my adopted homeland. For the last couple of those years I have been researching the Danish happiness phenomenon and, more broadly, the so-called Nordic Miracle. The result is a book, ‘Der er et Lykkeligt Land’, which was published last month in Danish by Lindhardt og Ringhof. (An English version is due out in February.)
I travelled throughout the region and spoke with a wide range of people: economists, politicians, writers and anthropologists. I met a Hindu priestess and Bertel Haarder (not together, you understand), Norwegian oil fund managers and Icelandic elf experts, Swedish fascists and Father Christmas. I revisited Denmark’s major sights of pilgrimage, both religious and secular: from Jelling and Roskilde Cathedral, to Legoland and Tivoli. I explored the Rotten Banana (not so rotten, as it turns out, just a little empty) and the Whisky Belt. I even went to a Grøn Koncert in Næstved, although I won’t do that again in a hurry.
I had a few theories and hypotheses that I wanted to test. Some speculate that Danish happiness is a result of the Danes’ enthusiastic consumption of anti-depressants, but I think this unlikely. The Finns are also dosed up to their eyeballs on happy candy, but a more miserable bunch of people you will be hard-pushed to find. Then there is the most un-Nordic Danish approach to alcohol. Are they happy simply because they are drunk most of the time? Booze is the key lubricant of Danish society, but then again, as far as I can make out the Icelanders are drunk most of the time, and they aren’t nearly as happy.
I had another theory: that they were lying when people asked them how happy they were because they enjoyed being written about in The New York Times and having Oprah visit. Had Danish happiness become a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy? Possibly, a bit, but it doesn’t explain their success in the earliest surveys.
Of course, I also looked at factors like the welfare state, economic equality and the role of taxation in redistributing wealth; I looked at hygge and Jante Law, summerhouse culture and the Danes’ wonderfully ‘relaxed’ approach to work, and I realised that they all play their part (“Of course they’re happy,” I tell foreigners. “So would you be if you worked as little as the Danes.”). The fact that the Danes all seem to know each other is hugely important too: that in Denmark, you join clubs, societies and unions together, across class boundaries, to a greater extent than any other people, and this binds Danish society together. You will be familiar with the concept of ‘Six Degrees of Separation’: but when two Danes meet for the first time, they usually find out that they are linked by no more than two degrees. I’ve witnessed this powerful and valuable tribal connectivity on countless occasions (mostly when it’s time to leave a party and my wife is still circulating).
But, do you know what I think is one of the most fascinating aspects of Danish happiness: something that you won’t find mentioned in any of the reports or studies? Denial.
The Danes have a magnificent capacity for denial. I don’t mean self-denial, like not eating pastries or putting the cork back in the Amarone bottle after one glass. Frankly, the Danes are rubbish at that; the Danes deny themselves few pleasures, or vices. I am talking about turning a blind eye to Danes’ faults or deficiencies, their failings and shortcomings. By learning to ignore unpalatable truths, the Danes have conquered the summit of global happiness.
Pretending that their world-record taxation levels and the horrendous cost of living are perfectly normal and acceptable, for instance, allows the Danes to face a trip to Irma or a letter from Told og Skat with relative equanimity and ignore the fact that their public services are little better, and often worse, than those of countries where the tax levels are half. Denial of their gargantuan private debt levels – also the highest in the Western world – allows them to put that winter break in Thailand on their credit card regardless of the fact that they still haven’t paid off the loan for their second car port yet. (I find it refreshing that they are showing the same degree of recklessness with the banks’ money as the banks have done with ours.) When asked about their health, they claim they are more healthy than average, but the truth is they are among the least healthy people in Europe with among the highest cancer rates and the lowest longevity in the Nordic countries. More positively, denial of Denmark’s importance on the global stage means that Helle Thorning-Schmidt can pledge military support for the bombing of Syria, or chastise China over its human rights, and everyone can just about keep a straight face.
The obvious answer to the question “Are the Danes as happy as these surveys make out”, is, “Define happiness”. If we are talking sombrero-wearing, heel-kicking, cocktail umbrella joie de vivre, then I find it hard to believe they would score highly, and I suspect not even they would take their claims that far. I suspect Danish happiness is not really happiness at all, but something much more valuable and durable: contentedness, being satisfied with their lot, low level needs being met, higher expectations being kept in check.
The Danes also have an enviable reputation for being laid-back. The Danish language is rich with chill-out imperatives: Slap af, Rolig nu, Det er lige meget, Pyt med det, and so on. But the truth is – and it is a quite striking irony – the Danes are extraordinary extremists.
The Danes might not think of themselves as extremists, but extremists they are. That they are happiness extremists is well documented, but they are also welfare-state and public-sector extremists, tax extremists, trust extremists, hygge extremists and extremists when it comes to avoiding work. They are world champions in all these fields; indeed, I would argue that extremism has made Denmark the country it is today.
The fear is that extremism could also be Denmark’s undoing in the future. Their work-life balance extremism looks problematic from an economic point of view, for instance. Public sector extremism would not appear to be sustainable either. Even hygge I would question: does everything need to be so cosy, all the time? Isn’t hygge just another way of avoiding facing difficult conversations?
Once again, the Danes are deserved happiness champions, truly the almost nearly perfect people. They are sexy, well-educated and sociable. They are rich, funny, easy-going and have great lampshades. The trick, moving forward, will be tackling their latent extremist tendencies, in all their forms.
Michael Booth is a journalist and author.