By Linda Dyett
It has a smoothly functioning democracy, great herring, the world’s highest minimum wage, prizewinning beer, delectable pastry, hardly any crime or corruption, bike paths everywhere, a population the world agrees is fabulously good-looking, and it rates high in longevity. What’s more, Denmark was ranked “happiest country in the world” by the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network last year, as well as coming out near the top in a number of other international surveys measuring contentment.
Sure, the Danes grumble about the long, dark Nordic winters, yet they’re also proud of their country—and they make full use of their light-filled summers. But do they really think they’re happier than anyone else on earth?
“Yes, we are happy,” says Lea, who teaches investigative journalism at the University of Southern Denmark, “if happiness means social benefits, decent working hours and seven weeks’ vacation. But happiness is not black-and-white.”
“In my personal opinion, we’re contented rather than happy,” proposes Anne-Kirstine, who is completing her PhD in journalism and anthropology, also at the University of Southern Denmark. “We know we'll never be left on the street if we can't pay our bills, lose our job, or get sick. Education and health care are free, and parents get a monthly check for food and clothes for children under eighteen. I think that’s a big part of the happiness quotient: feeling secure and knowing we’ll be helped in the event of a misfortune.”
“Of course we’re happy with our lives,” shrugs Jonas, a freelance photographer. “We never aim for anything we can’t achieve.”
“A lot of Danes have an ironic attitude about our happiness ranking,” according to Charlotte, who edits and translates children’s books. “Just thinking how happy we’re supposed to be can make us unhappy and tense.”
“We’re a rich and talented nation,” proposes Kim, a design consultant for a range of international magazines, corporate brands, tourism organizations, cultural institutions and ad agencies. “Danes seem to know what really matters in life. And that isn't always about money. We have a strong sense of community and are very good at enjoying the simple things that make a difference. Just hop on a bicycle in Copenhagen and discover the easygoing urban life of its many historic neighbourhoods.”
—Linda Dyett is a freelancer who’s lived in Copenhagen. Her articles about Denmark have appeared most recently in Monocle and Afar.