by Patrick Appel
A reader writes:
It seems to me like a lot of the debate about happiness as a product of either secularism or religion might miss a crucial point if it fails to consider the social context. Much of the happiness dividends provided by religion seem likely to come from having a sense of belonging, community, and tradition. If you live in a religious country, you're probably going to have a greater sense of belonging if you too are religious. If you live in a place like Denmark, you probably fit in better if you're not religious. Also, it should probably be remembered that while Danes are thoroughly secular in their beliefs, the country has an established state church with widespread membership, and most Danes would consider theirs a "culturally Christian" country, so it's entirely possible that Danes are getting many of the socio-cultural benefits that come from religion (ceremonies and celebrations, continuity with inherited traditions, etc.) despite not being believers.
There's a book about the particular brand of secularism found in Scandinavia called "Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment ". I haven't read it, but it sounds like a book that would appeal to anyone interested in the intersection between happiness, religion, and secularism.
Personally, I'm glad there's an "I'm an atheist, but..." crowd out there. I'm not a believer myself, and I have a lot of respect for Dennett as a philosopher, but the new atheist movement turns me off with rhetoric that can be disturbingly reminiscent of that used by religious fundamentalists. I wish they would focus more on forging a society more accepting of believers and non-believers alike, rather than wasting time on the age old campaign of conversion for either side. Free choice and tolerance should be the imperative.
I have Danish relatives and have had a strong connection to the place my whole life. I have trouble taking any survey of global happiness, especially self-reported happiness, as anything more serious than an amusing topic for cocktail party conversation (or blog chatter). It's certainly not hard science, so I take it all with a grain of salt. But the more one knows about Denmark, the more one suspects there really might be something to these surveys. The country just seems to function far better than most.
I don't think religion - or lack of religious piety - plays a significant role at all. They're near the bottom of church-going statistics (and somewhat proud of it), but I wouldn't exactly call them atheists either. At a a minimum, one would have to admit they are overwhelmingly culturally Christian, probably more observant of several Christian holidays than Americans. Confirmation remains a big right of passage for many young people, perhaps even as big a deal as it is for many American Christians, perhaps even bigger. And of course there's the state church, embedded into the constitution and financially supported by the government, alongside guarantees of freedom of religion. As a tolerant people, they are not as a rule anti-religious, in a way many atheists are. Christianity is too much a part of their proud national tradition to evoke outright hostility, even if they are generally not devout.
The idea that low expectations plays a role is intriguing, but I think it misses the mark a bit. I think what may be being observed is a sense of humility, that may in turn have something to do with being a part of a small society. The world is not a place over which they can expect to exert much control, so when things go their way, they are as likely to chalk it up to luck as anything else - in public, at least. Privately, I think they actually have quite high expectations for themselves, and a deep sense of personal responsibility and self-discipline. It's one of the reasons why a welfare state can work much better in a society like theirs. When I've discussed the American tradition of distrust for central authority with Danes, they often remark that it is sad that we should feel that way. They view their government not as something other, but as an embodiment of their nation as a whole, and a nation that distrusts itself is to be pitied. So they accept high taxes.
One factor that I haven't seen discussed is the (somewhat obvious) potential for self-reporting error in these happiness surveys. A very central part of the Danish tradition is the notion of hygge, which is probably best (but still poorly) translated as cozy. Ideally, one's home, one's visits with others, one's dinner parties, even one's whole life, should be hygge, above all else. To be properly Danish, a thing must be hygge. In other words, to admit to unhappiness, would be to admit failure, or un-Danishness. Thus, the risk of self-reporting error.
Also, I believe (reluctantly) that another possible reason for why their society functions so well (and therefore could partly explain their happiness) is the high degree of homogeneity, at least until the last twenty years or so. One religion, one language, one race, one history and one sense of cultural identity leads to a higher degree to mutual trust. Higher levels of immigration in recent years have challenged their common traditions, and the very definition of Danishness. I think it's a tribute to a small but great nation that they've managed to adapt as well as they have.
Finally, in all honesty, I think a sense of humor has a lot to do with it as well. Danes place a very high value on humor. So maybe this survey is their little joke on the rest of us.