Friday, October 30, 2009

Surprise! The Happiest Place on Earth is not Disneyland. It's in Scandinavia!

Every year, the last three years, Time magazine releases an article citing a survey from the Univeristy of Michigan claiming that “Denmark is the happiest country in the world.”

And every year, 10 of my American friends email me the article to let me know I’ve made a good decision, moving to Denmark.

I don’t know how to respond to these emails because there’s a fiery collision of thoughts, emotions and experiential data in my brain when I hear about this.

Here’s my scientific response to it.

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Calling Denmark the happiest place on Earth would be like calling celebrities (the knicker-less Britneys, or the strung out Amy Winehouses of the world) the classiest people on Earth. Or Russia the most vodka-avoiding country in the world. Your knee-jerk reaction is whaaaaa? Howwww? Whyyy?

And there’s no greater proof of the hollowness of this study than the evidence provided by the people who sprang into action to disprove it: the Danes.

The Danes are so dour they wince at the thought of the rest of the world calling them shiny happy people laughing. Because they’re not. Period. They are kind-hearted, they are cool, they are fashionable, they are sexually-charged, smart, punctual, and world-class beer drinkers. But the happiest?! By whose definition of happy? Eeyore’s?

I believe that if you were to survey the non-native community of residents living in Denmark – those who’ve experienced living in a non-Denmark country – and asked them if the Danes are the happiest, they would tell you, without equivocation, no. The reason is, most Danes don’t exude warmth or the slightest slivver of happiness. To look another person in the eye, to smile at a stranger, to let someone go in front of you in line at the grocery market, just to be nice, would be Jack-o weird in Denmark. Because Denmark, outwardly, is a very abrupt, manner-less, smile-less, quiet, foot-tappingly impatient, chipper-free nation. Now, when you get Denmark drunk, all bets are off; then, the warmth and openness flow. But, until then, through no fault of their own – and I have no idea why – most Danes appear very closed off. But appearances are deceiving, and of course, my conclusion and perception of Danes is mired in years of living in American ebullience and pretense. In America, you can talk to anyone; we look people in the eye; we’re up for making friends on the subway. Maybe we have too many friends. And yet despite the outwardly ‘happy-come-hither’ gaze, many Americans are on Prozac.

Danes are as well, they just would never tell you. Or their mother, husband or best friend.

So here’s what the University of Southern Denmark concluded, setting-the-record- and Oprah Winfrey (who committed a whole show to the topic!) -straight.

According to Danish researchers themselves: It's not all the free things, the welfare-state safety net or the pickled herring: "it's the low expectations."

[O]n surveys, Danes continually report lower expectations for the year to come, compared with most other nations. And "year after year, they are pleasantly surprised to find that not everything is getting more rotten in the state of Denmark," the paper concludes.*

And so, beneath the façade of contentment they wear like a pashmina is a deep-rooted melancholy and pessimism that everything will turn out badly. When events don’t end up über-shitty, wow, what a surprise. You have a happy country.

And some very confused foreigners living in it.



Anonymous said...

So i usually never leave comments on random blogs, even if i'm 100% against the opinion of the blogger, cause.. you know.. he has his opinion and i have mine, but i just can not help myself this time.

I really think your opinion on Denmark and the Danes is too far from the truth, not to have a comment that tells a different story. As far as i can tell, you did not/are not having a good time in Denmark - but not because of the Danes' horrible, mean and egotistic attitudes, but because you unfortunately never got any close friends and never really adopted the Danish lifestyle or had your hopes and dreams for your stay come true. In other words, i think your opinion is completely biased because YOU did not enjoy Denmark..
Yes, i am a Danish citizen, but comming from an expat family i have lived in the US, China and Italy from i was 11 to 20, so i think i'm somewhat capable of comparing Denmark to other societies. And yes, you are right when saying that Danes aren't the most extroverted people on earth, but that doesn't make us any less happy? Whereas other nations' people act happy, open and outgoing and take prozac when safe at home, Danes probably tend to use less energy on strangers - and instead focus on quality time with their friends and family.
You really shouldn't complain about lack of facts and data when concluding that Denmark is the happiest place on earth (The fact and data used are briefly discussed in this article,1518,573447,00.html) when your own statement about Danes doing as much prozac-like drugs as American is, if any, completely non-factual. Of course i don't know for sure, but i actually read once, that Danes and other Scandinavial people use much less of that kind of medications.

An American exchange student at my sisters high school here in Denmark explained the Danish attitude this way: Danes don't neccessarily take the first step, and they can be a bit hard to get close to, but once you do they are very warm, open and outgoing. Alcohol loosens them up - but alcohol does that to EVERYONE!

I think your conclusion about Danes is wrong in oh so many ways, and i think that you have just been unfortunate during your stay in Denmark.. I think that out of all the places i have lived or visited, people in Denmark are nice and polite. Often in a hurry, yes. Don't neccessarily look strangers in the eyes, true. But these things don't make people less happy.
And low expectations.. where do you even get that?

Camryn said...


I really appreciate your comment, even if we don’t see eye to eye on this topic.

Starting with your last point first, the source for my point about generally lower expectations in Denmark was a New York Times article from 2007 (link here: ). I found it a compelling read. The Times article was expounded on in an interesting blog post in the curiouscapitalist found here ( ). I sourced that article when I pulled a quote verbatim in my entry.

I must also challenge your conclusion that I “do not enjoy Denmark” or “I have never got any close friends” or have not “adopted the Danish lifestyle.” To start with, I’ve become a superlative beer drinker since moving to Denmark. I can throw back Carlsberg with the best of them, while singing a corny Tommy Seebach birthday song. I can recite Kim Larsen’s Tik Tik by heart, and I’ve seen every episode of Matador (which I watch while chowing down on liquorice matador-mix). When I travel home to California, I come armed with rugbrød and flødeboller – and I’ve nearly mastered the art of saying ‘rødgrød med fløde’. So take that — for some Danish culture! :)

Furthermore, I consider myself very lucky to have some terrific Danish friends. They are beautiful, smart, happy people whom I love and respect, and who know me well enough to not take offense when I tell them I don’t understand a survey claiming their country is the happiest. It just doesn’t jive with my sensibilities...but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect Danes, or people who happen to think it’s a very happy country. I make no pretense of being scientific or technical or statistical in my largely tongue-in-cheek blog entries.

I also didn’t say that Danes take as much Prozac as Americans. There’s no evidence of such a claim – but I do know that anti-depressants can be found in the medicine-cabinets in some homes of some Danes. It would be naïve to think that because Denmark is awarded the Happiest Country Award that no one in its population sadly suffers from depression.

I think your sister’s American exchange-student friend has an insightful opinion on the Danish attitude, and I totally agree: “they can be a bit hard to get close to, but once you do they are very warm, open and outgoing.” That is the feeling I’ve held this whole time, since moving to Denmark three years ago. For evidence of this, you can read earlier entries like here and here:

Yours is a lovely, peaceful, confusing, hyggeligt country that I both love, admire and am mystified by, all in a day’s work. Please don’t take offense. And thank you for taking the time to comment. You should always feel free to do so.