Arguably, Denmark’s most outstanding feature is not anything about its history, a great landmark or famous person – it is the remarkable fact that Denmark is officially the happiest country in the world. As a point of comparison, the USA is 13th and the UK 23rd in the 2016 survey. I suppose someone has to be top, but for a small, cold and dark country, seemingly of little consequence to achieve this distinction is remarkable. Add in the fact that they pay one of the highest rates of tax in Europe and the statistic becomes all the more startling, so what is going on, and what can the rest of the world learn from Denmark?
All sorts of theories have been put forward to explain why Danes are so happy, including some that won’t help anyone else like the premise that Danish people are genetically pre-disposed to be happier. A study by the University of Warwick found that “the greater a nation’s genetic distance from Denmark, the lower the reported wellbeing of that nation.” Suddenly as a native Brit I’m really grateful to that marauding Viking that impregnated by Great, Great [insert many more of these] Great Grandmother. Maybe there’s hope yet!
A lot of other theories why Denmark is so happy can be of help to us lesser mortals however. A good starting point is the enviable welfare state in Denmark. In Britain at least, the welfare state has received a bad press in recent decades, its failures and its abuses highlighted over the many positives of the system. There doesn’t appear to be any of that in Denmark however. Danish people pay over a high proportion of their income in taxation, but they get a lot for it in return.
From age 18 people in Denmark start getting paid decent grants to study at university, and can carry on as long as they want, taking Masters degrees and Doctorate’s, even taking a different degree entirely. If they want to go back to studying later in life they can do. Combine this lifelong free education with extremely generous unemployment benefits and you get something quite remarkable. If you lose your job in Denmark, you get unemployment benefit of up to 90% of your previous pay for two years. If you decided you didn’t like your job anymore, you could quit and – after a few weeks cooling off period – still get the same unemployment benefits. In Denmark workers don’t tend to stay in jobs they don’t like – they just quit, claim their benefits and perhaps re-train with free training courses. What’s more, this is quite normal, there’s no stigma attached to being unemployed.
It’s not just the generous benefits though, it is the relaxed approach to work and work-life balance. Danes on average work less hours per week than any other country in the OECD, and on average take more annual leave than in almost any other developed countries. Danish workers tend to start early and finish early, finishing at lunchtime on a Friday afternoon is quite common and what’s more it is unusual for workers to work late. In countries like the UK and the USA, it is considered a badge of honour staying working late in the office – it shows you are dedicated to getting your job done. In Denmark, you are considered inefficient if you are having to stay late to get the job done.
In Denmark, in the majority of families with young children, both parents work. Childcare is heavily subsidised by the state. Because of very generous paternity leave and a culture of leaving early (maternity leave is pretty good too by the way), young dads spend more time with their children, and do a lot more of the chores that in other countries mostly get done by the mother. This contributes to a fairer, more equal society.
It is possible that what makes Denmark such a happy country is not what it does better than other countries, but what makes it unique. It may be that what makes Danes have the greatest wellbeing in the world is… Hygge. Huh, what? Hygge – pronounced something like Hooga – is one of those wonderful terms that has no direct translation in English, making it hard to define. The website visitdenmark.co.uk offers the following description.
“In essence, hygge means creating a nice, warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with good people around you. The warm glow of candlelight is hygge. Friends and family – that’s hygge too. And let’s not forget the eating and drinking – preferably sitting around the table for hours on end discussing the big and small things in life.”
This sounds rather awesome to me and Danes take this very seriously, not least in the candle department. Denmark goes through more candles per person than any other country in the world – 6 kilos each. Britain, by comparison, goes through a measly 0.6 kilos per person. As I said, the Danes are serious.
Denmark – Happy but not Perfect
In discussing why Denmark is the happiest country in the world, I may have given the impression that Denmark is an all but perfect country to live in, a shining example to the rest of the world of the sort of model they should adopt. In truth though it isn’t perfect, and Denmark has it’s fair share of problems.
The first of these is the myth of an equal society. It is true, as I mentioned in my earlier article, that the vast majority of Danes have a broadly equal standard of living, however there is a growing gulf between people at the bottom and the top of the income scales. The people in the top 10% of the income range earn about five times those in the bottom 10%. This is nothing compared with the gulf between the richest and the poorest in many other countries – in the UK the multiple is 10, in the USA it is 18 – but it is increasingly a problem.
It is true that Denmark has an almost unparalleled level of benefits, particularly unemployment benefits and re-training funding, however there is increasing pressure from the political right for benefit changes particularly as more immigrants are coming into the country. The health service doesn’t perform as well as many other countries, and Denmark has one of the highest rates of anti-depressant use of any country in the OECD.
One final statistic, I don’t know if this is a good or a bad thing, but Denmark has one of the highest divorce rates in the world. That may be more because the Danish welfare model makes it easy to separate and set up on your own than couples being less happy together, but it is food for thought.