Translated article – from Spanish to English – about why Denmark is considered the happiest country in the world (published in EnExclusiva Magazine).
Denmark: The Happiest Country in the World?
In 2012 and 2013, the World Happiness Report classified Denmark as the happiest country in the world. This Nordic country – known for its excessively cold winters, the best restaurant in the world, Noma, and the popular Danish pastries – has a very particular social model that is worth analyzing.
In spite of the rainy weather, the highest income tax in the world, and an added tax over cars of 180%, how is it possible that Danes are the happiest citizens in the world?
During my time in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, I kept looking for an answer to this paradoxical question. The answer that I found was based on three interconnected factors: the social trust between Danes, the benefits of the social welfare state in Denmark, and the sense of equality between all citizens. Due to these three factors, Danish people score really high on their happiness levels.
Social Trust as a Part of Their DNA
Danes are known for their high level of social trust, a characteristic that is often attributed to their Viking ancestry. Because the Vikings were constantly navigating in order to trade, they had to cooperate and trust one another in order to survive in open seas. The social trust that was so essential for the Vikings slowly started becoming a part of what became the Danish DNA.
I want to recount a story of something that happened to me a few days ago. I was sitting on a corner of a coffee place, when a young woman approached me to ask if I could look after her two-year-old baby for a couple of minutes. Surprised, I just nodded in acceptance of her request; I couldn’t believe how a mom was leaving her baby with a total stranger. It was after something like twenty minutes that she came back to pick up the child she had left stranded in a random café in the middle of Copenhagen.
In this city, it is also common for mothers to leave their babies outside of restaurants or supermarkets, while they go inside to buy whatever they need. They do this without any fear whatsoever of finding an empty stroller once they’re done with their shopping. This sense of social trust is also perceived in how Denmark’s public transportation works: there’s no one really checking if you have a ticket to get on the metros or buses.
Utopia? Benefits of the Social Welfare State
Another important aspect to take into account when talking about happiness levels in Denmark is the number of benefits provided by the welfare state, which are mostly financed by income taxes. The Danish Government classified as the country with the least corruption in the world, according to The Corruption Perceptions Index of the 2014, measured by Transparency International (TI); because there is almost no corruption in the country, taxation revenues are transparently distributed to the corresponding needs of the Danes.
There are multiple benefits provided by the welfare system in Denmark: free access to healthcare, social security and education are some of them. Not only is education completely free from Pre-K to College, but the government also gives students a generous stipend during their studies to pay for different academic necessities.
When it comes to labor and unemployment, the government covers around 90% of an unemployed person’s previous salary for a period of up to two years. Thus, because Danish citizens have no fear of finding themselves unemployed, they are not too attached with the jobs that they have at one specific moment in time. It is very common for Danes to move from one job to another, which often allows them to climb up the economic ladder. This kind of liberty when it comes to employment makes Danes have a healthier relationship with their professional life.
Moreover, one of the most sought-after goals of the welfare state is to support women by providing services of free childcare. The maternity and paternity leaves – eighteen months for women and two weeks for men – sometimes include up to a 90% pay of their salary. Due to these childcare services and the paid maternity leave, around 79% of Danish women return to a job similar to the one they used to have before their pregnancy, an occurrence that is not that common in other countries without an effective welfare state.
This solid support system provided by the Danish Government reduces the anxiety and depression levels of Danes, anxiety and depression being two of the principal causes for unhappiness in the world. Aurvig-Huggenberger of the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions mentionedL:
“The big difference between the United States and Denmark is [the United States] puts an emphasis on individualism vs. the collective…we have no working poor. There are no kids living in cars with no childcare. We pay high taxes for it. But in the end, how much money do you need?”
This train of thought goes back to the culture of social trust between Danes, where there is an underlying feeling of solidarity and support for one another. This feeling of solidarity is connected, in many ways, to what is known as the Jante Law.
Janteloven: The Law of Equality
“You’re not to think you are anything special.”
“You’re not to think you are good at anything.”
“You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than we are”
These are three of the Ten Commandments that make up the Jante Law, a social and cultural law in Denmark that is taken very seriously by most Danes. These Ten Commandments could be summarized into one: everyone is equal.
The English reporter and author Michael Booth defines this law as one of the facets “of what makes living in Scandinavia so great: the comparative lack of flashiness, and a disapproval of ostentation, snobbery or showoffiness.” As a consequence of the Jante Law, it is common to call professors by their first name in Denmark, and many even refer to the queen by their first name, Magrethe II, without adding any titles.
More than the Jante Law, the social welfare state also facilitates the development of equality in this country that has a population of only 5.5 million people. The maternity leave, along with the childcare services provided by the state are instrumental in the development of gender equality, as pregnancy stops being a limitation for women in their professional lives. Moreover, the fact that everyone has free access to a good education puts every citizen on the same intellectual plane, or at least provides all of them the same opportunities.
Happiness or Satisfaction? What Are Some Drawbacks of the Danish System?
Since 2012, the UN publishes the annual World Happiness Report. As I’ve mentioned, Denmark has repeatedly classified as the happiest country in the world. This report is based upon the average score of the level of happiness that each individual attributes to their own life. The score goes from 0 to 10, where 0 represent the worst imaginable life, and 10 represents the highest level of happiness possible.
The extensive analysis behind this report indicates that there are six factors that contribute to high happiness levels in countries around the world: 1) real GDP per-capita, 2) a healthy life expectancy, 3) having someone to count on, 4) perceived freedom to make life choices, 5) freedom from corruption, and 6) generosity. No wonder that Denmark – with its high levels of social trust, the benefits provided by the state, and the sense of equality – has classified as the happiest country of all.
However, even though Danes seem to have a quasi-perfect society, and they count with those six elements that contribute to people’s levels of happiness, I don’t think Denmark is necessarily the happiest country of all. Rather than being the happiest country, I would argue that it is the country with the most satisfied people of all. The reliable governmental support, along with a community grounded on honesty, equality and trust, provide a feeling of wellness in every citizen.
There is one possible risk to this feeling of wellness: it can often lead people to conform in life. In April 2015, the recently appointed Minister of Employment, Jørn Larsen, proposed to cut some of the social benefits provided by the state in order to encourage more people to become part of the labor market. Larsen called Denmark a “loser country,” in view that it was falling behind in comparison to its neighboring countries, Sweden and Germany.
Even though the classification of ‘loser country’ is a bit too far-fetched for such a highly functioning country as Denmark, the possible risk of people becoming conformists and lazy is an important component to consider when analyzing Denmark’s happiness levels. Aren’t life challenges what often add value and meaning to our lives? Isn’t our arduous effort what adds most meaning to our achievements in life? Because of the highly functioning social welfare system, many Danish citizens often just idly sit down and wait for the Danish government to solve all of their problems. Such a system does not really motivate people to work harder towards achieving their goals.
At the end of the day, though, happiness is a relative concept that is almost impossible to define, especially because its meaning varies from one person to another, depending on differing cultural values and parameters. In any case, be it the happiest country or the country with the most satisfied citizens, Denmark has reached an impressively advanced level of development that other countries should try to emulate.
After all, an ideal country should be one that lets its citizens pursue their own happiness, under the premise that if their basic necessities and fundamental liberties are met, they will have the freedom to dedicate time to that which they really value. The country has to provide its citizens with the best life conditions possible; it then depends on the individual to look for his or her personal happiness.