The Danish Don't Have the Secret to Happiness
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Danish author Askel Sandemose’s works are little read in his home country these days—except, that is, for a small fragment of one novel, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, published in 1933. The fragment of A Fugitive that has come both to define and to torment the Danes is a list of rules by which the residents of the fictional town of Jante were said to abide. These rules set out the Law of Jante, a kind of Danish Ten Commandments, the social norms one should be aware of if one is planning a move to the north:
- You shall not believe that you are someone.
- You shall not believe that you are as good as we are.
- You shall not believe that you are any wiser than we are.
- You shall never indulge in the conceit of imagining that you are better than we are.
- You shall not believe that you know more than we do.
- You shall not believe that you are more important than we are.
- You shall not believe that you are going to amount to anything.
- You shall not laugh at us.
- You shall not believe that anyone cares about you.
- You shall not believe that you can teach us anything.
The truth is, Sandemose really nailed the Danes. My experience has been that Jante Law, which has become a national social manifesto of sorts, operates everywhere in Denmark on some level or another.
On the face of it, the Danes have considerably less to be happy about than most of us. Yet, when asked, they still insist that they are the happiest of us all.
What is one to make of this?
The obvious response is, “Define happiness.” If we are talking heel-kicking, cocktail-umbrella joie de vivre, then the Danes do not score highly, and I suspect not even they would take their claims that far. But if we are talking about being contented with one’s lot, then the Danes do have a more convincing case to present.
Over the years I have asked many Danes about these happiness surveys—whether they really believe that they are the global happiness champions—and I have yet to meet a single one of them who seriously believes it’s true. They appreciate the safety net of their welfare state, the way most things function well in their country, and all the free time they have, but they tend to approach the subject of their much-vaunted happiness like the victims of a practical joke waiting to discover who the perpetrator is.
On the other hand, these same Danes are often just as quick to counter any criticism of their country—of their schools, hospitals, transport, weather, taxes, politicians, uneventful landscape, and so on—with the simple and, in a sense-argument-proof riposte: “Well, if that’s true, how come we are the happiest people in the world?” (This usually accompanied by upturned palms and a tight, smug smile.) The happiness argument does come in handy sometimes, I guess.
Newspaper editor Anne Knudsen had an interesting theory relating to why the Danes continue to respond positively to happiness surveys: “In Denmark it is shameful to be unhappy,” she told me. “If you ask me how I am and I start telling you how bad I feel, then it might force you to do something about it. It might put a burden on you to help me. So, that’s one of the main reasons people say things are all right, or even ‘super.’”
Here’s another convincing theory, posited by a Danish friend of mine: “We always come top of those surveys because they ask us at the beginning of the year what our expectations are,” he said. “Then they ask us at the end of the year whether those expectations were met. And because our expectations are so extremely low at the beginning of the year, they tend to get met more easily.”
Could that be the secret of the Danes’ contentedness? Low expectations? It is true that, when asked how they expect the next year to pan out, the Danes do typically expect less than the rest of us, and when their low expectations are fulfilled, so are they. Happiness has never been an “inalienable right” in Denmark, so it could be that the Danes appreciate it all the more when it manifests itself. Perhaps Danish happiness is not really happiness at all, but something much more valuable and durable: contentedness, being satisfied with your lot, low-level needs being met, higher expectations being kept in check.
A few years ago, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Southern Denmark, Kaare Christensen, published a slightly tongue-in-cheek overview of what he saw as the possible reason for the Danes’ happiness, entitled “Why Danes Are Smug: A Comparative Study of Life Satisfaction in the European Union.” His explanations ranged from the fact that the Danes might have been drunk when responding to questionnaires to their surprise 1992 European Championship in soccer victory (not only did they beat Germany in the final, but it took place in Sweden: a joyous confluence of multiple revenge fantasies). But Christensen and his team also concluded that low expectations were key: “If expectations are unrealistically high they could also be the basis of disappointment and low life satisfaction,” Christensen writes. “Year after year they are pleasantly surprised to find that not everything is getting more rotten in the state of Denmark.”
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.
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?”
Most of us would probably conclude that expensive coffee and having to put up with another touring production of Mamma Mia are reasonably prices to pay for a fair, functioning society. Denmark—and the rest of Scandinavia, for that matter—might not get your pulse racing like the Lower East Side or Copacabana, but in the long run a solid pension fund and reliable broadband will always win the day—as long as those plates keep spinning, and as long as the Danish miracle is sustained.
With that in mind, I had a standard question that I asked most of my interviewees: “What are your fears for the future of Denmark?” One word cropped up more than any other in their responses: complacency. Many of my interviewees were worried that the Danes had it too good for too long, that they were now content to sit back in their Arne Jacobsen San armchairs and watch the plates wobble and fall. Worryingly for the Danes, the latest OECD Better Life Index of life satisfaction saw them plummet to seventh place, behind Norway and Sweden, among others.
“We have a confusion in Denmark in terms of where we should go. What is the long-term sustainable version of the welfare state, version 2.0?” said Torben Tranaes, head of the Rockwool Research Foundation, a social-research organization. “All the graphs about trends in Danish society and the economy have either gone up and then plateaued, or gone down and plateaued—the only exception is our weight.”
Danish society appears to have reached maturity, some would argue to a state of perfection, others to a perilous halt. The fear is that the next stage will be stagnation and decline. What happens when you develop a genuinely almost nearly perfect society in which there is nothing left to achieve, nothing to kick against, or work for?
But I had one other question I always asked, which, in its way, was even more revealing. Whenever I asked my Danish interviewees whether they could think of a better country to live in, the answer was invariably a thoughtful silence.
This article has been adapted from Michael Booth's The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia.