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…