Editorial | Probably the happiest in the world?

January 11th, 2013

This article is more than 10 years old.

Given the conflicting information, characterising Denmark as the world’s happiest place may be just as misguided as labelling it as the worst place to live

If you were to dream up the perfect country, you’d probably start with someplace warm. Then you might add a nation of colourful, ebullient people. And finally, depending on your economic philosophy, you might throw in a low tax rate.

And regardless of what your country looked like, you probably wouldn’t put it at the far northern edge of Europe. But despite what Denmark’s geographic location and national character would lead you to believe, the country consistently ranks as not just one of the best places in the world to live, its people are also among the planet’s happiest.

That’s something that often perplexes not just foreigners living here, but many Danes as well.  

Although it’s a good bet that those most baffled by the results were here in the winter, the question may be a lot more complicated than just the bipolar nature of the Danish seasons. Take for example the 2012 New Economics Foundation study showing that Denmark, in fact, ranks 116th globally when you take into account not just people’s sense of well-being, but also lifespan and impact on the planet. 

Denmark’s ranking in traditional happiness and quality of life polls is often accredited to its safe, egalitarian society, “where few have too much, and fewer have too little”, as the popular description goes. (No-one says it publicly, but we also suspect that a surplus of attractive people may also play a role.) Yet, it is worth questioning whether this type of ‘happiness’ comes at a cost. Other statistics show Denmark also tops some less flattering lists such as suicide rates, anti-depressant use and alcohol consumption. That’s hardly the behaviour you’d expect from people filled with joie de vivre.

How does it add up? Scholars don’t know for sure, but there is some evidence to indicate that people’s perceptions of how happy they are has to do with their expectations. One review of survey results found that Danes just didn’t expect as much out of life as others; it took less to make them happy. 

And, in addition to seasonal fluctuations in moods, the way people are asked may make a difference. Those who know Danish will be aware that if Danes are ‘happy’ they can be glad (cheerful) or lykkelig (fortunate). They can also be tilfreds (satisfied) with their lives.

While it’s worth trying to understand the reason for country’s consistently high rankings – be it hygge or singing or social welfare – we suspect that the real reason might be that they are simply happy that they aren’t overly happy.


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