Friday, July 31, 2009

Nothing Is Rotten in Denmark

A recent post in the New York Times' on-going column, "Happy Days: the Pursuit of What Matters in Troubled Times," writer Eric Weiner confirmed and reported on the fact that in many polls the country of Denmark is considered "the happiest place on Earth." Weiner's observations center around his theory that the Danes are such happy people because they have lower expectations of happiness. If you read the story, you'll find that's not nearly as depressing as it sounds. There is, quite simply, a real sense of pragmatism about what life should be and how they define happiness in Denmark.

The story generated quite a bit of reader response, which became its own follow-up column. The general consensus from many who had, at one time or another, lived in Denmark, was that the people truly are among the happiest, and they don't work that hard to make it so. It's simply the way they live their lives. The "lower expectations" seems to be part of it, only in that they are not generally motivated by the "keeping-up-with-the-Joneses" mentality, and rather than dreaming of the happiness they'll have when they get the house they want, they quite simply make the house they have as enjoyable as it can be. And for all the rabid capitalists out there, I don't think this means they don't aspire to greater success. They simply enjoy all the levels along the way.

A bit of research on Denmark turned up information like this:

Denmark, with a free market capitalist economy and a large welfare state ranks according to one measure, as having the world's highest level of income equality. From 2006 to 2008, surveys ranked Denmark as "the happiest place in the world," based on standards of health, welfare, and education. One survey ranks Denmark as the second most peaceful country in the world. Denmark was also ranked as the least corrupt country in the world in the 2008.

One writer to the Times thoughtfully said, "The Danes work very hard at living well, rather than pretentiously. They aren’t interested in displays of ostentation or status. But they are masters of genuine good living, and work very hard to achieve it."

Another posited, "The society and government there actually work for most of the people. In my first visit, I learned that “poor” and “welfare” were not economic terms used to demean people, and that teachers and physicians actually have the same incomes and respect. Those things sound “simple” perhaps, but they create a world of difference."

And another offered, "The Scandinavian countries have high taxation but can actually see their tax dollars working in better infrastructure, education, health care, etc. As a Norwegian American I can say that I find a level of happiness (or I should say contentment) in Norway that translates to every day life. They are healthy outdoors people who also revel in nature. And of course oil revenues help, but they are smart enough to keep many of the proceeds from revenues for a rainy day."

That is some pretty lofty praise, and worth considering whenever we feel compelled to spend some time in national self examination.


Anonymous said...

It seems like a silly kind of article to me.
At first, it seems very hard to really qualify how happiness can be reduced to mere data.
Aside from that, It's hard to really get a bearing on what this study means, because statistically, it's not obstinately accurate. It's based off conjecture, and though believeable, we can't exactly rank countries from least to most happy.
But either way, I think America's real charm comes from our sense of purpose. We were the ones who were always willing to compete, we were always on the cutting edge and made other countries look, frankly, lazy. Our best election advisors end up getting sent across the globe because we are the ones that have redefined elections into a cut-throat engagement instead of a relaxed sharing of points.
It seems a little more nonadjacent to American ideals to give up our dreams and just do a single job in our lives instead of harnessing the opportunities living here affords us.

mmazenko said...

It's certainly non-scientific.

Some people just express greater contentment - and there are reasons for it. I think it's worth looking at the lack of certain societal pressures.

For example, one of the primary causes of divorce is financial issues. Two of the the biggest stress factors for parents are health care costs and college education. If those are eliminated in places in Europe, there could easily be a higher level of happiness, or at least contentment.

I am with you on America's sense of purpose and innovation. It has always been our greatest strength, and really always will be. That's why I'm less worried about the future than many commentators.

Of course, Americans are also most likely to say they are too busy - when actually Americans enjoy more leisure time than any people at any time in history.

Anonymous said...

I think It's fun that you bring up reasons for divorce as part of your evidence there, because I've always heard that another primary reason for divorce was boredom. Just the opposite way, If people do stick with the same routines day in and day out to make sure they have enough money at the end of a day, then they're more likely to be miserable over a lot of money they most likely do not need.
As for Americans having more leisure time, It's true that we have a lot of it. Unfortunately, I also think we all waste the free time we have over practically nothing. The unfortunate part of being in a mover-and-shaker kind of society is that we constantly have to deal with ideas pushed into our heads, through whatever means we have.Even more unfortunate is that it works. We end up spending our time on things that we think we need to do or things we think relax us, when they may in fact stress us out more. That just adds another confusing layer onto our lives that we're forced to chip away at.