Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Happiest Place on Earth

As every good story should have a happy ending, this blog is going to end with a post on happiness.

When Denmark was named the 'happiest nation' almost exactly a year ago, I was intrigued, but almost immediately dismissed it as some kind of publicity ploy.  After all, that happiness title resulted from a study that purported to measure that elusive emotion, quantify the collective happiness of entire nations, and rank those nations by their happiness levels.  I'm no expert in psychology, but it seemed a laughable task.

Then Suresh got the invitation to spend his sabbatical in Denmark, and the happiness ratings rattled around in my mind again.  What would Denmark be like?  Was it really full of friendly, smiley, eternally jolly people who had unlocked the secret to everlasting happiness? Would I be able to share in this happiness? Would I feel waves of it wash over me as soon as I stepped off the plane?

I've become more of a cynic than to believe that would be possible, but I was intrigued nonetheless. I wanted to see, if I lived in this country for a significant period of time and gave learning all I could about life there a good shot, whether I would be able to see the workings and underpinnings of this study's results:  Would I actually understand how and why Denmark is the happiest -- or would it all evaporate into the ether as much of hokey science does?  So as to not bias myself, I didn't read the documentation for the 156-nation study upon which Denmark's happiness rating was based. I didn't want to be constantly comparing my on-the-ground experiences in Denmark against benchmarks of what I had read.  I know the feeling of happiness. I wanted to feel it reverbrating throughout the country, and I wanted to see if I saw it in Danes.

In preparation for the move, I did read Patrick Kingley's excellent attempt to capture current Danish culture,  How to Be Danish.  This book provided an excellent historical framework for what I was about to experience:  from the lack of imaginative Danish cuisine which the New Nordic cooking style is attempting to change, to the nation's pride in the Arne Jacobsen chair, to an entire nation on bikes, to the country's thrust for green energy and windmill power. It even alluded several times to the culture's inherent affection for the taciturn:  in Denmark, you don't chit-chat at bus stops, in grocery stores, or in other public places, and certainly not with complete strangers. Danes believe in their God-given right to silence. (Incidentally, this suited me just fine, as I am not really that naturally talkative myself.).

What's more, the book outlined the history of two key cultural themes I was going to experience over and over again in various ways: Grundtvig and the philosophical beginnings of Danish social welfare, and Jante Law.

Nikolai Grundtvig (1783 - 1872) is a revered figure in Danish history.  As a pastor, poet, and philosopher, he deeply influenced Danish culture and thinking in ways that still reverberate today. He believed in forming an articulate, educated population fully ready to participate in democracy. He believed that teaching community-mindedness and cooperation were key to the country's success, at a time when the country had just suffered the loss of a good portion of land (Schleswig and Holstein) to Prussia, and was in deep identity crisis.

One of the most tangible examples of how his philosophy survives today is the folk high school, which is a partially state-subsidized school for adults of any age to attend, to live and learn and work together. Back in Grundtvig's day, they were an important step in unification. They, in turn, spawned the country's first co-ops, in which groups of local farmers banded together to purchase expensive farming equipment so that it could be used and shared. Today in the same way, many windmills are co-op-owned by local citizens, who power their homes with them, then sell excess electricity back to the power companies at a small profit.

Grundtvig's philosophy laid the groundwork for the society I experienced:  one in which all citizens pay up to 50% of their salaries in taxes that go toward a number of social programs, including health care, retirement benefits, unemployment benefits, college education, and the like.  It also paved the way for the country's receptivity of Jante Law.

Jante Law actually arose from a work of fiction published in 1933, but when you ask Danes about it, they speak of it as a philosophy embraced by Danish society.  It is usually explained thus: "We are all the same. [As in, we should all be treated the same by the governement, and by each other.] We are all equal. No one is better than anyone else." In practice, in means that salaries are not widely disparate: a doctor, a school teacher, a bus driver, a plumber all make close to the same amount of money. They receive the same healthcare (which is free to all citizens), and their children are be able to go to any Danish college or university for free (in fact, college student are given a stipend to go to school).

All of these social programs, combined with this underlying philosophy that begins with education in community spirit from a young age, lead to several things:  First and foremost, they lead to a stable society.  People from all walks of life live in the same communities, shop at the same stores. There is little opportunity to covet thy neighbor's belongings, because whatever they have, you can have too. There is no feeling, as I went from neighborhood to neighborhood, of disparity, of a class of haves and have-nots.  I never once encountered a person on the streets begging for food or money. And the nation enjoys low crime rates, low theft. It is a society built on trust, and true egalitarian practices.

The programs lead to the relief of life-stressors:  Imagine what our lives in the US would be like if we knew that the cost of our healthcare would be taken care of, or that our income would be covered for two years if we lost our jobs, or that our kids could go to college for free. Perhaps we'd breathe every day a bit easier. Perhaps as a nation, we'd commit fewer acts of violence against ourselves and others, or do drugs less, or require fewer sessions with our therapists. Perhaps a lift from all those stressors would open a window to a national happiness.

Of course, Denmark is no utopia. Many people, not just Americans, would balk at giving up such a huge chunk of their salaries to social programs. And Denmark has its own problems with its treatment of immigrant populations, and rising costs that threaten to cripple much of the government's infrastructure.  And its people don't go around slapping each other on the back in euphoria as the happiest nation.  I would call it, instead, a contentment.

The Danes have formed the most content society I have ever had the good fortune to experience. Their democratic values have a shifted focus.  In contrast to the United States' embracing of fierce independence and limitless freedoms in hopes of achieving the American Dream, the Danes have focused instead on stability, community and coziness. There is far less emphasis here in Denmark on personal achievement to beget wealth. There is not as much focus on the accumulation of more and more material goods as a life goal. There is, instead, talk of going to the beach. Or spending a day at Tivoli with the kids. Or biking out to Silkeborg. There are, of course, complaints about the weather. There is never having to say "please" (there is no Danish word for "please"), or make smalltalk when you don't want to. There is subsidized childcare, a year of paid maternity leave, free education and healthcare for all. Every Dane I interacted with had achieved a quiet dignity, a personal knowledge that, no matter who they were, what their job title was, or how much yearly income they made, they mattered: they mattered to themselves, to their families, to society, and to their government.  Treating everyone as though they matter: maybe, just maybe, that is indeed a recipe for happiness.

This is the last post of this blog.  I'd like to take a moment to thank my friends, family, and other readers whom I have never met for coming along with us on this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Your company, your comments, your insights, and your support have all been greatly appreciated as we bumbled along, first in a new state, and then in a new country.  I thank my children, who make every day an adventure no matter what continent we find ourselves on.  And most of all, I thank my husband Suresh, who was brave enough to dream the big adventure and shepherd us into a whole new world of experiences while I was still cowering under the covers, complaining loudly, and going simply batty.


  1. Hi, Karen. I've enjoyed your blog series a lot, especially the posts on Norway and Denmark, which I've never visited. Thank you! (And congrats on how well you write - it's truly a delight to read such well-phrased and well-researched prose).

    When we were in grad school, we had an officemate from Norway, and I remember talking to him about the social issues you mention here. I have mixed feelings about the approach. There's no question that there is more social cohesion in a country with advanced social programs. The flip side is that there is much less drive to succeed, in the sense of starting a business that innovates and changes the world, a la Google or Apple. Why bother, when the government will take most of your money away, anyway? Why bother, when you are so blasted content, and you get your vacation trip paid for by the government (this was the case in Norway back then), and your every need taken care of by the government - all that, and a pat on the head. It's like Legoland. Personally, I don't think I could stand it.

    I do wish the US government would put my taxes to better use, especially to create universal health care. But I wouldn't go as far as the Scandinavians. (Incidentally, our tax rates are in fact 50%, when you add up state taxes, Medicare, social security, and the new Obama tax hikes).

    1. Hi Magda!

      Thanks so much for both your kind, and your thought-provoking comments. I think you are right in that it is extremely hard to start a start up in Denmark, at least that is the sense I got. And of course, lack of motivation is also a big problem in the Danish model. However, I also believe that having all one's basic needs taken care of has a nuanced effect: in some cases, yes, it can lead to lack of motivation, waste, and inefficiency -- the societal equivalent of an academic "dead wood" problem from the tenure system, if you will. But I think in some cases, it gives certain people (and I admit these types may be rare) the kind of freedom to pursue their interests and loves without having to worry about social status or income. The trap of thinking that everything has to be monetized, and that every effort must be motivated by the potential reward of money, is I think a dangerous one that Americans are particularly susceptible to. And, the belief that such a system as Denmark's cannot foster innovation is also not quite accurate: Danish design and architecture is admired the world over, and not only is Copenhagen home to the "world's best" restaurant (Noma), but the city is also well on its way to meeting its goal to become the first carbon neutral capital in the world in 2025. This is a feat that takes quite a bit of green engineering, combined with a culture that has embraced cycling and a geography that makes that possible. So, while I would not advocate adapting all of Denmark's social programs in the US, nor would I suggest that that is even feasible, Denmark is definitely an interesting country to watch, and perhaps trade "best" ideas with, in the coming years.

      PS You are absolutely right in not wanting to live in Legoland. Or any place like it. I'm with you there.

      PPS When will you come visit us in Salt Lake City? I'd love the chance to hang out with you more!

    2. LOL - I have geeky tunnel vision. You're right about the Danish architecture and industrial design. I just tend to equate innovation with IT innovation. :-) But we are in agreement that certain social nets free you to take risks. Tavi was reading a statistics recently that many more people are starting their own small businesses since the new health care law. As imperfect as it is, at least it makes health insurance somewhat affordable. People no longer stay in a dead-end job just for the sake of getting employer-sponsored insurance.

      Aww, thanks for the invitation to visit, but we're all traveled out for the near future. Once I start at Google, I suspect my free time will evaporate. But... never say never.

    3. Standing invitation :) Best wishes, Magda, and have fun at Google!

  2. Thank you for a chance to look at our little crooked-nosed country with a different perspective. You write really well and we learned a lot. I hope we get to see more of the states at some point.


    1. Dear Generalizing european,

      I have really enjoyed the fact that you have 'come along for the ride' on this blog, and I would love to know a little more about who you really are! If you would like to share with me a bit about your background, insights, and perspectives as a Dane (I am guessing?) I really would be delighted. You may reach me directly at or feel free to reply in a comment! Thank you for your good company on our journey.