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5 Lessons From the World’s Happiest People

What do Danes and Swedes have to teach the rest of us about living well?

“So, after spending some time in Denmark and Sweden, two of the world’s happiest countries, what have we learned about happiness and the “good life?"

Source: Nadino/Shutterstock

I recently posed this question to my study abroad class, “Exploring the Good Life in Scandinavia,” at our last class meeting in Copenhagen. Over the course of two weeks, we’d heard guest lectures from experts on Scandinavian culture. The students conducted informal and structured interviews with residents, read research articles, compiled out surveys on happiness, and simply observed daily life.

Here are some of our observations and conclusions about a region that consistently scores at the top of life-satisfaction surveys:

  1. There are different types of happiness.

    Americans tend to value high-intensity forms of happiness—joy, excitement, euphoria. Danes and Swedes, on the other hand, experience lower-intensity versions—contentment and relaxation. They also don’t seem to obsess as much about happiness; it is simply the byproduct of a well-lived life.

  2. Work-life balance is key.

    Scandinavians take pride in their work, certainly, but their work lives are generally well-balanced with time spent with family and friends. “So, what do you do?”, a conversation starter so common in America, is seen as strange or inappropriate in Denmark and Sweden. Sports and leisure are much more common topics, reflecting the fact that people don’t define themselves primarily though their work but more through hobbies and personal passions. A 35-to-37-hour workweek is commonplace, and working overtime is generally frowned upon. The Swedish word lagom, which roughly translates to “good enough,” is applied to many things, including work. People know when to call it a day.

  3. Modesty matters.

    The law of Jante, based on a 1933 Danish novel, refers to a mindset that has worked its way into the Scandinavian psyche. In short, it reinforces norms of humility, modesty, even conformity. Believing you are better than anyone else, bragging about your accomplishments, or displaying signifiers of success, prestige, or wealth, is highly frowned upon.

  4. Treasure nature.

    Scandinavian weather is dramatic—with 20-plus hours of daylight each summer day, and almost constant darkness in the winter—and Scandinavians have a close connection with nature. Summer is a time for celebration, with Midsummer being the biggest holiday of the year. Danish and Swedish cities are famous for being among the most bike-friendly in the world, and commuting to work is taken as a given. Any chance for a picnic, hike, or weekend in a countryside cabin is a treat. However, the cold, dark winter isn’t just seen as something to suffer through. The Danish concept of hygge, which roughly translates to "coziness," involves creating an inviting environment that promotes interpersonal closeness and connection. The winter months are a time to connect and experience hygge with friends and family.

  5. Some, but not all, of these things can be ours.

    Recurring question in our group included: What can we bring home with us? and, Can the U.S. become more like Denmark and Sweden? Some key contributors that exist in Scandinavia on a broader, societal level are unlikely to come our way across the Atlantic. Access to universal health care, day care, education, and generous parental leave policies were frequently-cited contributors to well-being, but are challenging for many Americans to attain. Other factors can be built into daily life, however, and certainly could include valuing contentment and modesty, knowing when to declare the work day done, spending time in nature, and creating a warm, intimate environment with loved ones.

More from Jaime L. Kurtz Ph.D.
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