The World's Happiest People Live in: Denmark

It regularly ranks among the world's happiest countries. What explains its success?

Denmark has the highest well-being of any country in the world, according to a recent Gallup Poll, with 72 percent of Danish people "thriving." (The worldwide median is just 21 percent.) In addition, during World War II, the country rescued almost all Jewish Danes from impending atrocities.

A kind of positive psychology underlies both accomplishments. People who trust their government and their neighbors, and who resist abuses in their society, are more likely to feel a sense of well-being in their own lives. Social psychology shows that countries with little trust are less likely to be happy. Networks of support between people and groups--what the political scientist Robert Putnam called social capital--promote people's well-being and their ability to react well to crises, from turmoil in North Africa to flooding in the U.S. and tsunamis in Japan.

Consider the mutual support at the root of Denmark's resistance to atrocities and what we can learn from Denmark's experience.

In 1943 the Nazi occupation met growing contempt from the Danish population. Strikes and sabotage in Denmark led to brutal reprisals. When the Danes received word of the plan to deport their Jewish citizens to concentration camps within days, the inclusive Danish community that had developed over decades or even centuries sprang into dramatic action. Danes from all walks of life helped 7,200 Jewish Danes cross the Oresund Strait to safety in neutral Sweden, allowing over 95 percent to survive the war. Nurses hid people in hospital rooms, resistance members held off armed German patrols, women followed coded messages to bring food for departing families, and refugees waded through cold water in darkness to the lights of waiting fishing boats.

Studies of personality traits may offer clues about why the rescue was so widely supported. In Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede's Power Distance Index, which measures how differently people treat others because of their social status, Danes ranked among the lowest in unequal treatment. In a 2004 Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology study, Danes were also low in experiencing negative feelings like anger and anxiety, as well as in compulsive rule-following.

How do Danes reconcile their standing up and rescuing others with their traditional reluctance to stand out? Danes are taught not to tolerate abusive behavior, and to speak their mind even if others disagree. A case in point is the boy Christian who retaliates against bullying in the 2010 Oscar-winning Danish film "In a Better World." Danish people respect authority, but only if authority is virtuous, according to Mette N. Claushoej, recent Danish Embassy adviser in Washington (who, the embassy wishes to emphasize, was expressing her personal views). And they are taught not to think of themselves as better than others. Their sense of shared responsibility for all members of the group, evidenced by their widespread support of social welfare, might help explain the Danes taking risks during the 1943 rescue.

Furthermore, the recent Gallup well-being poll, conducted this April, isn't an outlier. For decades international surveys have shown a greater percentage of Danes who describe themselves as happy compared to other national groups. An egalitarian society with widespread financial security certainly contributes to Denmark's contentment. But contrary to welfare-state stereotypes, Forbes magazine recently rated Denmark as the world's best place to do business.

What may be essential are the supporting networks between people and groups that enhance social capital. Social capital is a major predictor of national happiness, according to new research in the 2011 Journal of Happiness Studies. A 2004 Cambridge University study concluded that mutual support and trust in society leads to well-being in Denmark and elsewhere. The research finds that the citizens of countries that scored highest for happiness also scored highest for trust in their governments, their laws, and each other. Where trust was lacking, "even the well off tended to be unhappy," according to the study.

To be sure, there is neither a simple nor linear cause-and-effect relationship between social psychology and historical events. The surveys cited began years after World War II, and what holds true in Denmark might not be the case elsewhere, such as the Arab countries now undergoing upheavals. But the upshot is that successfully confronting the atrocities of a brutal regime seems to be correlated with attaining national happiness.

Just as Denmark's defiance of the Nazis can be linked to its internal values of trust and willingness to speak out against abuse, the same traits are linked to its more recent well-being. National well-being in Denmark is forged from shared experience under stress, and the country provides a positive example as places like Egypt and Japan rebuild their societies during these tumultuous times. Take it from the world's happiest country.

Image: it's a foot!/flickr