Shakespeare's prince was a gloomy sort. But a trusting society makes today's Danes rather jollyby Sally Laird / September 28, 2008 / Leave a comment
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I live in Denmark, the happiest country in the world. This summer, the University of Michigan published the results of its World Values Survey, and there we were, top of the happiness league—again. Several recent studies have produced the same result: in 2006 Denmark ranked first out of 178 countries on the University of Leicester’s Map of Happiness (40 places ahead of Britain); it was first again in the Dutch World Database of Happiness in 2005, and has come top in every Eurobarometer survey for the past 30 years.
What is the secret of the Danes’ content? “Cold, dreary, unspectacular Denmark” was how two mystified Americans described the place on ABC News, adding, unappetisingly, that it was a country where “stoic locals wear sensible shoes and snack on herring sandwiches.” Danes pay the highest taxes of any nation in the world (starting at 42 per cent, rising to 68 per cent), enjoy fewer hours of sunshine than Britain, have a higher divorce rate than most Europeans, live only averagely long and smoke and drink far more than is good for them. So what’s going on?
In 2006, researchers from the Institute of Public Health at the University of Southern Denmark examined a range of possible factors, from genes to cycling habits to cuisine. In a charming report, they offered two explanations: the Danes have never got over their rapture at winning the European football championships in 1992 (their happiness rose to new peaks that year, and has stayed on a plateau since), and—the main finding—Danes, unlike the woeful Greeks and Italians, have very low expectations of the immediate future. “Year after year,” the researchers write, “they are pleasantly surprised to find that not everything is getting more rotten in the state of Denmark.”
Somewhat more solemnly, Karen Jespersen and Ralf Pittelkow (joint authors of The Happy Danes, De lykkelige danskere, 2005) identify the key to wellbeing in the egalitarianism, public-spiritedness and cohesiveness (sammenhængskraft: literally, hanging-together-power) that mark what they call the “high-trust society.” Two thirds of Danes say they can trust most of their fellow citizens—compared to 30 per cent in Britain, and just 3 per cent in Brazil. And an amazing 84 per cent say that they trust politicians, civil servants, the judiciary and police to do the right thing (public servants who don’t come up to scratch in Denmark get prompt and thorough maulings—witness the finance minister who was recently caught buying a few beers on the public purse). The resulting willingness to pay high taxes is rewarded, and reinforced, by efficient public services and generous provision for the sick and unemployed.
How does this translate into everyday experience? Good services do not, by themselves, make people happy. But knowing that there are places for your kids at kindergarten, that they will get a reasonable education somewhere nearby, that your elderly parents will be properly cared for, and that none of this will cost you a fortune does remove whole swathes of anxiety. So, to me, does the conspicuous egalitarianism of Danish society, expressed most obviously in the lack of one-upmanship, guilt and worry about one’s children’s schooling. The fact that nearly all our friends here, from unemployed single mothers to professors, have opted to send their children to local schools is not just testimony to the quality of the schools (Denmark in fact generally scores lower than Britain in international studies of educational achievement, though high on the happiness of its schoolchildren); nor can it be explained in terms of high-taxed parents’ inability to afford school fees (private schools are subsidised; parents pay only modest contributions). Rather, I would argue, their choice partly reflects the high value placed on solidarity and community, and a freedom from the compulsion to seek superiority.
Trust, too, is evident everywhere. This is a place where you can leave your baby in the front garden to air in the sunshine; where bank tellers do not shelter behind bulletproof glass; where dropped purses generally get returned; and where the assumption that most people are intelligent and considerate obviates the need for the endless signs, admonitions, pleas and penalties that seem to sprout everywhere in Britain. Add in a small population, uncongested roads, miles of sandy beaches fringed with wild roses, and conditions are clearly conducive, if not to ecstasy, then to a contentment summed up in the Danish word for satisfaction, tilfreds, meaning, literally, “at peace.”
Still, several of Denmark’s neighbours share similar blessings, yet score lower on the happiness scales. So attitude as well as circumstance is clearly a factor, and here we turn again to our researchers’ explanation: low expectations. The Danes, while willing to concede that they are “content” or “very content” right now, apparently show exceptional caution about whether this will last. Is this just a sign of unwarranted pessimism, or a sane acknowledgement that the future is unpredictable? Either way, one corollary may be that the Danes are more disposed than others to enjoy the small, tangible, present pleasures of life.
This attitude is beautifully captured in a much-loved song by the poet Benny Andersen, “Svante’s Happy Day,” which celebrates a number of unremarkable things, albeit on a lovely spring morning: Nina, Svante’s beloved, is about to emerge dewy-skinned from the shower; meanwhile he’s eating some bread and cheese, and soon the coffee will be ready. Life, he concludes, “is not the worst thing there is.” I’m always touched by this funny, tender song, which encapsulates not only the Danes’ penchant for understatement but their gift for celebration, for being properly ceremonious without being solemn. Unwilling to be hurried (stille og rolig—”calmly does it”—might be the national motto), the Danes are good at pausing to mark, by some small ritual, even the most humdrum events of the day. Danes don’t “snack” on herring sandwiches; they sit down to table, assemble the sandwiches carefully (capers, egg yolk, chopped onion, dill); take out a napkin, knife and fork; perhaps even light a candle, pour a glass of schnapps and say skål.
Nowhere is this ceremoniousness more evident than in the rite of passage celebrations that dot the Danish calendar: for, contrary to their dour image, the Danes have a great capacity for conviviality. And these celebrations recall an older pattern of life, with a focus on the cyclical and communal rather than the linear and individual. At a typical 60th birthday we attended recently, the hostess began the dinner by “stitching together” everyone in the room, introducing us all to one another and recalling shared adventures. Each of us was made to feel significant, part of a joint narrative that was also the narrative of our time, our generation.
Sometimes the celebration is explicitly designed to mark the passage of a whole cohort to a new stage of life, as when students graduate from gymnasium, or high school. Here too, the emphasis is on shared experience, not on individual achievement. Once the (mainly oral) exams are over, the grades handed out and the “student hat” (a fetching naval-style cap) awarded to every student, each class hires a festively decorated lorry and drives around town visiting each student’s home in turn. Later, the students attend a formal farewell at the school, then proceed to a series of parties at each other’s houses; gifts, poems and cards are exchanged. Two of my daughter’s friends remarked that this had been the happiest week of their lives. It seemed a far cry from that lonely opening of the brown envelope in August that I recall as the end of school.
We came to Denmark when my daughter was three, and I am happy that she has grown up in what feels to me a less stressful, less competitive society than Britain’s. It is also, of course, a much smaller, less complex and, until recently, far more homogeneous society than Britain; much of what I describe here can be attributed to what historian Uffe Østergaard refers to as the almost tribal feeling of solidarity among the Danes. Over the last decade, that has begun to change. In their book, Jespersen and Pittelkow warn of the ways in which the “high-trust society” may be undermined by growing individualism, materialism, globalisation and, of course, the immigration of people from very different cultures. Up until now, Denmark has not done especially well in integrating the “New Danes,” the Muhammad cartoons fiasco being only the most spectacular example; too many immigrants remain unemployed, ghettoised and alienated on the fringes of Danish society. If Denmark is to keep its reputation for cohesiveness, it will have to find new and imaginative ways of drawing in the strangers at its gate. But it would be a pity if, in the process, it lost track of its own values: among other things, the understanding that happiness depends partly on counting your blessings and treasuring your friends.
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