It is a thin line indeed between relaxed and smug. The Danes do have a remarkably relaxed approach to life, which, I admit, I have sometimes interpreted as immense self-satisfaction, but they do have a great deal to teach us about not taking life too seriously. The Danish language is rich with phrases to encourage the elimination of stress: Slap af (“Relax”), they will say, rolig nu (“Easy now”), det er lige meget (“It doesn’t matter”), glem det (“Forget about it”). It’s not a bad way to approach life, I think.
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According to much of the prevailing anthropological, political, social, and economic thought, the Gini Coefficient—a statistical method for analyzing the distribution of wealth in a nation—is the silver bullet that goes directly to the heart of not just how equal a society is, but how happy and healthy its people are likely to be. It is, if you like, the very sum of human happiness.
I asked epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson, the author of The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, if he thought there might perhaps be any downsides to the low Gini countries. Didn’t the most equal societies also tend to be, you know, a little boring? All those lists of the best cities to live in are always made up of places with clean streets, cycle paths, and touring productions of Phantom of the Opera, like Bern or Toronto; it is never the really scintillating, stimulating places like New York or Barcelona. As soon as I asked the question, though, I realized that, compared with the social ills examined in The Spirit Level— crime, teenage pregnancy, obesity, cancer, and suicide—a lack of decent street food and interesting graffiti were hardly serious complaints.
“People do say that,” the professor replied. “But the costs of inequality are very high indeed: the stress, the depression, the drug and drink problems, the tendency for narcissism.”
A surprising number of Danes agree with me, though: They also think their homeland is stultifyingly dull. Newspaper columnist Anne Sophia Hermansen, of the broadsheet Berlingske, caused a small kerfuffle recently when she expressed her feelings about what she saw as Denmark’s suffocating monoculture: “It is so boring in Denmark. We wear the same clothes, shop in the same places, see the same TV, and struggle to know who to vote for because the parties are so alike. We are so alike it makes me weep.”
Another prominent newspaper commentator, Jyllands-Posten’s Niels Lillelund, pinpointed a more serious side effect of the Danes’ Jante Law mentality: “In Denmark we do not raise the inventive, the hardworking, the ones with initiative, the successful or the outstanding; we create hopelessness, helplessness, and the sacred, ordinary mediocrity.”
Even the usually ebullient Ove Kaj Perdsen, an economist at the Copenhagen Business School, was open to this line of criticism: “I like Denmark, but I like to work abroad. I pay my taxes with great honor because I know for a fact that whenever I need something it will be there … Every day I conclude the best place to live is Denmark, but for me this kind of social cohesion, these middle-class-oriented societies, do not present the kind of challenges I am looking for. I want to be in the best places, and you don’t find the best places in Denmark when it comes to elite research and education. And why the hell can’t you go down to the bookstore in the morning and buy The New York Times for five dollars? Or get a good cup of coffee for a cheap price?”