Happiness Is a Place?

Why is Denmark consistently happier than other countries?

Posted Nov 28, 2018

Happiness is clearly an individual trait. Yet, some countries, such as Denmark, consistently score close to the top on the list of the happiest places to live. Why?

If happiness is a subjective state of mind, how can it be determined by where we live?

Subjective Well-Being

Happiness is subjective for various reasons. To begin with, we are all biologically different. Some of us have a genetic tendency to be happier than others. Genes affect happiness just as they influence most other stable individual differences. A happier temperament thus affects our experiences at all ages and in all places.

Apart from genetic tendencies, early childhood experiences can affect how happy we are as adults. This phenomenon is a basic aspect of development in all mammals. For instance, rat pups that are favored by their mothers grow up to be less nervous in novel circumstances.

For humans, withdrawal of parental affection can crimp happiness also. Abusive parenting alters the brain in ways that undermine happiness in later life such as by increasing vulnerability to stress (1).

Apart from these major sources of variability in contentment, there are critical differences in personal fortune.

Being born in wretched poverty predicts all sorts of lifetime problems, from depression to incarceration and drug addiction, none of which favors happiness.

Other personal experiences, such as being violently attacked, going to war, or losing a spouse have depressing effects on most people who experience them. These effects last for years, and in some cases for life. Conversely, winning the lottery can boost happiness for several years.

Happiness is inevitably subjective but people in some countries, like Denmark, routinely make to the top of the happiness ranks.

What the Danes Have Going for Them

Why do Danes say that they are happier than Americans year after year? Social scientists point to a number of differences between the quality of life in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries compared to the U.S.

These countries are social democracies having well-developed welfare states. This means that poorer people have a safety net that prevents them from hitting rock bottom and losing their homes. They also have better health care.

The prevailing economic system reduces inequalities both by lifting up the poor and reducing the incomes of the best-paid workers. The lack of sharp divisions in income has profound consequences for the society as a whole. These include better health and reduced levels of crime (2,3). Citizens feel that their society is fairer so that they can identify more closely with their community. Feeling integrated, they are more engaged in community events and civic activities in general.

Of course, Denmark has its social problems, just as every social democracy does. Nevertheless, the average Dane is more comfortable with their social system than the average American is.

Marked inequality in any society contributes to social malaise in a country. It is not just that the very rich are the mirror opposites of an underprivileged class. The quality of life is compromised for average citizens as reflected in a shorter life expectancy compared to more equal countries having an equivalent level of income per person (3).

Most people worry about maintaining their standard of living in the face of job loss or a health crisis, and with good reason. They do not trust others living in their community and fear violent crime. Although Denmark suffers from immigration-related ethnic tensions like other Scandinavian countries, most Danes have few worries on any of these counts. Moreover, they take advantage of benign political conditions to build robust social networks that mitigate against isolation, and loneliness.

Putting It All Together

The contributions of Danish civil responsibility to overall happiness are difficult to ignore. Their involvement in the community brings down criminal offending. They also believe in law enforcement and are willing to assist police in detecting wrongdoers.

Apart from honoring their civic responsibilities in public ways that make their communities more secure, Danes conduct their private lives in ways that are designed to build intimacy and trust.

They provide relaxing evenings for the enjoyment of friends and family members. These often involve low-key social activities such as playing board games in winter.

Friends also gather in neighborhood pubs and this facilitates an enlarged real-world social network. Of course, this custom is common in other countries and is also associated with Ireland, which long perplexed happiness researchers by being a lot happier than other countries with an equivalent standard of living.

The warmth and intimacy of such gatherings counteracts loneliness and unhappiness. Such deliberate cultivation of trust and intimacy is referred to as “hygge,” which the Danes perceive as the key to happiness. Few clinical psychologists would disagree.

The bottom line is that Danes are happy because they invest a great deal of effort in creating social situations that contribute to their own subjective well being in addition to that of their social companions.

References

1 Teicher, M. H., Andersen, S. L., Polcari, A., Anderson, C. M., & Navalta, C. P. (2002). Developmental neurobiology of childhood stress and trauma. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 25, 397-426.

2 Zuckerman, P. (2008). Society without God: What the least religious nations can tell us about contentment. New York: New York University Press.

3 Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2010). The spirit level: Why greater equality makes societies stronger. New York: Bloomsbury Press.