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.
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.