The Key to Danish Happiness

In my previous post I wrote about the Scandinavian success model and this time I thought of writing about Danish happiness. According to the 2013 Forbes list for the happiest countries in the world, Denmark ranks second in the world after Norway and followed by Sweden. “Well it figures” some might say after reading the last post on the Nordic success model. This list is based on the Legatum Institute’s prosperity index, which analyses 89 factors in 8 categories: economy, entrepreneurship, governance, education, personal health, safety, personal freedom and social capital. These studies follow strict methodological rules and look at factors that are mainly rigid and appear in every possible sociological survey.

Happiness chart


Last year I heard the speech of a CEO (forgot his name, but remembered the message) and he states that a truly happy person is the one who manages to balance family, friends, health, personal ambitions and the workplace. So I thought of looking at these factors in the Danish context and whether there is more to it than meets the eye.

Family – Without generalizing, the average Danish family follows the Nordic family pattern. Kids start doing side-jobs in their teenage years and the child mostly leaves home at 18, 19 years of age. Of course there are other examples as well. For certain people, coming from cultures where the family is so tight knit, that it becomes suffocating, the Nordic families might strike them as colder. It does not mean that the parents do not care about the kid, but it means that parents realize that the kid needs to become independent and learn to live by him/herself. Of course this is easier in a system with a stable economy, part-time jobs and study-financing. Quite frankly a lot of my 26, 27 year old friends from home still live in the parental home for not having to pay extra rent from the already low salaries.

Friends – As said last time, the Danes have a ‘group mentality’. If you are part of the ‘group’ you are okei, but don’t even plan on going to a party uninvited, as a lost international, because they will ask you rudely to leave (happened to me twice). So yes, they are happy with the friends from the ‘group’, but in general will not make too much effort to open up for others. “We already got our gang. Why do we need someone extra”. This holds also true with how Danes relate to people. I asked my teacher during Danish class, whether she thinks it’s normal to go to a 4 day workshop with Danish colleagues, have a good time, drink etc and the other day they pretend they don’t even know you. The answer was “Why should I care about you the next day, just because we had a good time the day before”. So, you can draw the conclusions.

Personal health – I will not be too critical about the Danes in this regard as in general they do exercise a lot, bike, jog and a lot of middle or third aged people go to the gym. Of course you have plenty of people who don’t and they are known for using too much salt and have a ‘sweet tooth’, but in general they take fairly good care of their personal health.

Personal ambitions and leisure – Now the first part might be a bit of an oxymoron in a society that teaches you not to be better than your peer. So what ‘ambitious’ means for a Dane might mean something completely else to a foreigner. Quite frankly, I find Danish people good at what they do, but not overly ambitious. As to free time, Denmark ranks the 4th in the world on the OECD list when it comes to the ratio between work time and leisure time. And it is true that the average Dane works 35-37 h/ week and has plenty of time for the family and personal hobbies. And a lot of people do have personal hobbies, whether traveling, sailing, running, cycling, sauna clubs etc.

Workplace – Whatever job you do, it will pay extremely well in Nordic countries and will allow anyone to have a decent living. You will not have your brand new Mercedes (especially due to the horrible taxes to register a car) but you will afford yourself many things. As said before, Danes don’t strike me as the most ambitious and this can have repercussions on your work life. Firstly, you should not be too ambitious at work, yet alone talk about it. You should be a bit average and attending common workplace social events are sometimes more important than your personal achievements. I am an ambitious person who needs competition, so the Danish system might be too lax for me. Secondly, Danes are not critical and I do believe that sound and good criticism leads to better work as long as it is not overdone.

But there is something still missing. If you walk down on the streets of Sicily you see smiley faces, people who are fairly warm to you and who have a natural sense of what happiness means. And I think this is where the key lies. Happiness is relative and it depends on what people are used to. The subtleties in life differ from region to region. I am ethnically Hungarian and there is a saying that when God created the Hungarian, he said go enjoy the good things in life. So we like a good wine, a good meal and a hot blooded woman (over generalizing again). But what a Dane finds happy, an Italian might not. To be frank I would call it ‘blissful ignorance’. Quite simply Danes are used to being happy in their own environment, which for others has amazingly bad weather, cold people and tasteless food. So if a Dane was born into this, of course he will be happy with what this country has to offer in terms of weather, food, people plus all the economic factors the afore-mentioned survey listed. However, this will not make an Italian or Hungarian guy happy, who is used to better weather, food and warmer people.

The interesting thing is talking to Danes who lived many years abroad in countries where these three factors are different. They don’t behave like Danes anymore 😉 Once you get the taste of ‘honey’, it stays.

Aarhus, 29 April 2013


One response to “The Key to Danish Happiness

  1. According to sections “Friends” and “Workplace” I guess Denmark is not the place for me either. And yes, happiness is a very relative state of mind and is not in direct proportion with money and other material values.

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