The Atlantic: The Danish Don't Have the Secret to Happiness
A common meme in economic discussions is that we need to make America more like Scandinavian countries where things are more equal and people are happier. Denmark, land of my ancestors, is often the poster child.
There is much to debate about economic policy but few seem to question what is meant by "happy." "Happy" is one of those words of which everyone knows the meaning until you try to define it. Happiness is shaded different ways in different cultures.
Michael Booth writes:
These rules set out the Law of Jante, a kind of Danish Ten Commandments, the social norms one should be aware of if one is planning a move to the north:
- You shall not believe that you are someone.
- You shall not believe that you are as good as we are.
- You shall not believe that you are any wiser than we are.
- You shall never indulge in the conceit of imagining that you are better than we are.
- You shall not believe that you know more than we do.
- You shall not believe that you are more important than we are.
- You shall not believe that you are going to amount to anything.
- You shall not laugh at us.
- You shall not believe that anyone cares about you.
- You shall not believe that you can teach us anything.
The truth is, Sandemose really nailed the Danes. My experience has been that Jante Law, which has become a national social manifesto of sorts, operates everywhere in Denmark on some level or another.
On the face of it, the Danes have considerably less to be happy about than most of us. Yet, when asked, they still insist that they are the happiest of us all.
What is one to make of this?
The obvious response is, “Define happiness.” If we are talking heel-kicking, cocktail-umbrella joie de vivre, then the Danes do not score highly, and I suspect not even they would take their claims that far. But if we are talking about being contented with one’s lot, then the Danes do have a more convincing case to present.
Over the years I have asked many Danes about these happiness surveys—whether they really believe that they are the global happiness champions—and I have yet to meet a single one of them who seriously believes it’s true. They appreciate the safety net of their welfare state, the way most things function well in their country, and all the free time they have, but they tend to approach the subject of their much-vaunted happiness like the victims of a practical joke waiting to discover who the perpetrator is.
On the other hand, these same Danes are often just as quick to counter any criticism of their country—of their schools, hospitals, transport, weather, taxes, politicians, uneventful landscape, and so on—with the simple and, in a sense-argument-proof riposte: “Well, if that’s true, how come we are the happiest people in the world?” (This usually accompanied by upturned palms and a tight, smug smile.) The happiness argument does come in handy sometimes, I guess.
Newspaper editor Anne Knudsen had an interesting theory relating to why the Danes continue to respond positively to happiness surveys: “In Denmark it is shameful to be unhappy,” she told me. “If you ask me how I am and I start telling you how bad I feel, then it might force you to do something about it. It might put a burden on you to help me. So, that’s one of the main reasons people say things are all right, or even ‘super.’”
Here’s another convincing theory, posited by a Danish friend of mine: “We always come top of those surveys because they ask us at the beginning of the year what our expectations are,” he said. “Then they ask us at the end of the year whether those expectations were met. And because our expectations are so extremely low at the beginning of the year, they tend to get met more easily.”
Later he writes:
With that in mind, I had a standard question that I asked most of my interviewees: “What are your fears for the future of Denmark?” One word cropped up more than any other in their responses: complacency. Many of my interviewees were worried that the Danes had it too good for too long, that they were now content to sit back in their Arne Jacobsen San armchairs and watch the plates wobble and fall. Worryingly for the Danes, the latest OECD Better Life Index of life satisfaction saw them plummet to seventh place, behind Norway and Sweden, among others. ...
... Danish society appears to have reached maturity, some would argue to a state of perfection, others to a perilous halt. The fear is that the next stage will be stagnation and decline. What happens when you develop a genuinely almost nearly perfect society in which there is nothing left to achieve, nothing to kick against, or work for?
But I had one other question I always asked, which, in its way, was even more revealing. Whenever I asked my Danish interviewees whether they could think of a better country to live in, the answer was invariably a thoughtful silence.
My point is not so much about which society is better, America or Denmark. The point is that I think "happiness," and how we report it, is different. It strikes me that Denmark is more about keeping expectations low and being content with things staying mostly as they are. That is what will make you happy. While in America, I am not "happy" with my life as it is but I am "happy" that I have an unalienable right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and that I will one day have a "happier" life. Happiness is found in the striving and achievement. I'm painting with broad brushes but hopefully you see my point. Consequently, comparing survey's about how "happy" people say they are is not as clarifying as advocates of the Scandinavian economics would make it seem.