Wednesday, June 17, 2009

the danes are a happy people


in a hyperlink world, your progression of thoughts goes something like this...starlene sends you an email citing this quote which came from here:

"Despite not having money, do you still love your life?:  That’s such an American question. Somewhere behind those 10 words is the reason the US continues to linger in the mid-30s of the world happiness index. You know, we get crushed by the Danes in that index every year? -Fucking Danes are so happy! 

The answer is a resounding “sure”. Like most people, I get bummed out a lot, but not about money. I just try to remind myself of my friends, the cool town I live in, and that once in a while I’ll make someone laugh who kinda needed a chuckle. Hell, it’s not Denmark-Euphoria, but most of the time it’s enough.

starlene's path to the quote had started at tangobaby, gone to tangobaby's i live here: SF project blog, then to broke-ass stuart's blog, which led to the link above featuring broke-ass of the week: jeff cleary. and then, all of these links made me go in search of that world happiness index report thingie that the danes come out on top of year after year, so i googled and i found this analysis and this one (featuring a clip on the happiness of danes which was done by 60 minutes) and this one. and naturally, it got me thinking...

actually, every time i see this report of the world happiness index, which the danes have come out on top of for like twenty years, it makes me think. because frankly, i don't think you can tell it by looking at them. you'd expect more overt smuggery (thank you for that word spudballoo) from them, walking around all satisfied and happy like that. but honestly, you don't see it. in fact, if you looked around at the lack of interaction between people (best observed when someone has just run over your foot with their big-ass baby carriage and not apologized) and the no smiling as they walk down the street (especially not at a stranger, ew, shudder at the thought of strangers), you'd actually get the impression that they were quite an unhappy little nation.

starlene asked if it was true that the danes were so happy and i dashed off an answer on my iPhone...one that strangely, in all of my thinking about it over the years, i hadn't actually articulated before. previously, i'd flippantly suggested that it was about low expectations...if you don't expect much, you're pretty satisfied with what you get, right? but there is something more to it than that.

i think it has to do with people feeling generally valued. minimum wage is 120 kroner/hour, which at today's exact exchange rate, which i just ran on XE is $22.41, so even if you're working for minimum wage, you might not go to mallorca for two weeks every summer, but you can live an ok life. (i also think this high minimum wage has to do with why the service culture sucks, but that's the stuff of another post.)

people also feel that their things are valuable. just as an example, our house, which is an ordinary four-bedroom 200m2 house in an ordinary neighborhood and might cost $200,000 in a decent suburb in an american city of similar size, would list for an asking price of $672,000 if we were to put it on the market. this is after the market adjustment that's happened in the past six months. not that i'm saying that people feel happy sitting around converting their real estate to dollars in their heads..it's more a content knowledge that your assets are worth something.

people also feel safe and they trust the people around them. i have to admit that we rarely lock our house and we never lock our car. half the time, i leave the key in the car and our bikes stand out in the bike shed with the keys in their locks (granted i wouldn't do this in the center of copenhagen, but where we live, no problem).

then, there's also that it's a more egalitarian place. there's less hierarchy between jobs. when i first came to denmark more than a decade ago, i remember being struck by the fact that if someone worked in a factory or as a clerk in a store, they didn't seem to have any desire to downplay that. they would openly talk about standing on an assembly line, doing monotonous repetitive work in a positive way that wasn't familiar to me from the US (ok, since i came to denmark straight from the U of C, i might have had a skewed world view, i'll admit). but the fact is that it's a shorter distance from richest to poorest in denmark and there are a whole lotta people in the middle, so people feel equal and worthy of their fellow man.

the danes don't have the baggage of having to live "the american dream," that we as americans are both blessed and cursed with. that's actually one of the things that i was worried about with sabin growing up here...that she wouldn't grow up with the expectation that she could become anything she wanted to be. i no longer feel that way and think she's growing up with a different view on being whatever she wants to be--one that's less competitive and healthier and far more relaxed.

because if anything, i think the danes are quite relaxed. i know that when i go to the US, i feel far more stressed and pushed--to be faster, to do more. here, people work hard, but they leave at 3 p.m. to pick up their kids, spend a few good hours with them between picking them up, dinner and getting them to bed and then get back online and attend to work again after the kids go to bed. they're accustomed to dealing with other time zones and know that it's sometimes necessary to join a conference call across the world at 9 p.m. and they do so without thinking much about it--it's just normal.

because although danes like to come back home and think denmark is the greatest, they are outward-looking and travel a lot. they are informed about what's going on in the world and interested in it. as VEG wrote recently, there are lots of americans who don't even really know where canada is and it's sitting right there on top of them. danes have a remarkable awareness of and interest in the world. and this may make them happy to be back at home in their little country where although there are problems, there's a secure social welfare system and free medical care as well as a good public transport net and safe roads.

just an example of the social welfare system: i keep reading about people in the US who are laid off from one day to the next. that can't happen here. you can be laid off, of course, but the company must continue to pay you for three months if you've been in the job for less than three years. if it's more than three years, they have to pay you another month for every year, so 4 years = 4 months, and so on. this gives you time and breathing room to recover from the shock and find another job before you run completely out of money. and even if you don't find something, there's social welfare to keep you from having to sell off your firstborn child on ebay (tho' you may want to do that some days anyway, depending on the behavior of said child and your level of patience).

while i believe that all of these factors contribute to the danes' general level of happiness (and frankly, i'm  a pretty happy and content person myself, so it does rub off), there are flip sides to it. like a general level of impoliteness and a lack of service culture that i also believe are results of all of this equality.

but for the most part, it's true, denmark is a pretty happy place. just look at that cheerful red and white flag? how could that not make you happy?

32 comments:

Elizabeth said...

You couldn't have stereotyped them better than you did in in paragraph 5. Couldn't stop laughing, each example so true. Thanks Julie.

Janni said...

I love your posts about us (the danes) You are usually always right. Especially the part about us not looking very happy :-) I can't help think that if we are the happiest, the rest of the world must be really (really) sad...

On one point i do not agree with you, a house with a size of 200m2, is actually considered a very large house, i would say that a "normal" house is about 130m2 (do you feel my jealousy... my house is only 90m2)

...a bigger house would make me a HAPPY dane!!

richard said...

Well, be aware that some people could read Your posts about NOT securing houses and cars. It is a half joke, of course. I do know many Norwegians, and I tried my best to keep them safe here, during first years after 1990. Thats why my avatar is a Viking :).

The Fragrant Muse said...

The italians are also a happy and secure lot, but maybe too much. I couldn't get past the poor organization of things there.

I imagine the Danes are well-organized and the country runs at a pretty high level of efficiency?

Optimistic Pessimist said...

Damn. What am I doing here in the US. I think I'm going to relocate to Denmark.

Great post.

I_am_Tulsa said...

The system of having companies pay the people they have laid off sounds mighty good. Here in Japan there is a "deformed" version of that which is nice but these days it doesn't seem to be "enough".

I have been wondering why Americans don't feel "happy" when so many countries (like Japan) often look at America as a kind of goal.

Thank you for this post! I love your writing style and photos A LOT!

Fidgeting Gidget said...

I agree about how Americans are always so absorbed and rushed. One of my favorite parts about being in Europe last year was how everyone was so laid back and there was not the tense sense of urgency I find in the US or Canada. I'm also a firm believer in the expect less and get more that you hinted towards. Great post yet again!

heidikins said...

This is just lovely--and has made me research Danish real estate for the last 40 minutes. :o)

xox

Tara said...

I totally agree about how americans(me) are rushed. I always feel like I need more and can never feel contient with what I have. Wether it be a better car or bigger house. Its like we are competing with ourselves!LOL Have to get more!! I visited europe in 2002 with my sister and mother, I feel in love. The beauty of the landscape and the old buildings. You can actually breath and enjoy the environment. Someday when I leave my husband(he dosen't share my love of europe) I will move there. Great post and thanks for the comment on my blog!
Namaste
Tara

B said...

I'm seriously thinking about where to live next (bored of Spain and England!) and have just put Denmark in my list. Just need to prepare myself to being ignored! Will see how I feel there IN TWO DAYS!

An Open Heart said...

Okay, so, I'm packing my things and moving to Denmark. I agree with the US being stressed and tense all the time - it's like a race to see who can achieve the American Dream before his neighbor does.

I'm all for happiness and finding a happy place, so, Denmark, here I come!
S

Ady said...

I like this post. DO you consider yourself an American or a Dane now?

Vancouver's Enviro Girl said...

I think you just described Canada too. Hence why we are often near the top of that list and the livability list too. Except for the minimum wage part. Americans: if you ever figure out where we are, we are easily accessible for the relocation.

julochka said...

Elizabeth - i'm sure getting run over by a barnevøgn resonates with you. anyone who has spent a bit of time here has had it happen. either that or a grocery cart.

Janni - i'm so glad they don't offend. as you can see, i've been here a decade, so i must like it. i'll admit i'm not sure i'll ever figure out the psyche of your people. :-) and you're right, it is a bit big, but it's not a special house--it's just a normal house.

richard - good point, but i'm not sure they could really find me--denmark is the size of wisconsin. :-)

HRH TFM - danes are pretty organized, which is why they were occupied by the germans in WWII--can you say repository of the aryan race?

OP - you're welcome anytime!

Tulsa - we've wondered at that when we travel as well--people are always amazed that i, as an american, have chosen to live outside that mystical wonderland.

FG - it is more laid back. i don't like anymore how i feel when i'm in the US. i don't want to feel that stressed all the time.

heidikins - you are also most welcome, just bring your shoes. :-)

tara - while i'm a competitive person, i definitely don't feel competitive with my neighbors or coworkers--otherwise we'd have a big sailboat. :-)

B - can't wait to show you around!!

open heart - you are also most welcome and since you have a bit of time on your hands now... ;-)

ady - i have an american passport (which i no longer feel i have to hide when i'm waiting in line, thanks to obama) and only briefly, during the bush admin. considered applying for a danish one. problem is the danes don't allow dual citizenship, so it would mean hassles when i go into my own country (not that it's not a hassle already after they lost all common sense at passport control...)

marinik said...

I have often dreamed of living in a relaxed country, where people, like you said are happy with what they have. Greece, where my parents were born is a bit like that... though... they too are a bit too relaxed and you may even say lazy (oops) but the enjoy life to the fullest...
My mom's friend came to visit some years ago and went back sooner then she had planned... she said... that people in this country work their tails off and don't even have the time or energy to enjoy that life they are working so hard for.
Sounds like I'll have to come visit the danes :)

julochka said...

VEG - we posted at the same time. and yours made me spit a lovely organic italian white all over my macbook pro. i really do love you.

julochka said...

marinik - let's go to greece together. i love it there. it is very laid back. as my friend from belgrade said, "the greeks, they really know how to live."

Vancouver's Enviro Girl said...

Aww, thanks, I love you too. And sorry for the spitting on the precious Mac. I feel bad that I caused a loss of wine and a difficulty for the Mac all at once, yet am not surprised, because I am talented like that..

julochka said...

VEG - it's ok, there are other macs in the house. ;-) it's always good to laugh. tho' it was alcohol abuse (as in the waste of good alcohol).

marinik said...

oh... what a trip that would be huh?? ouzo shots and yasoo... party all night

julochka said...

marinik - just say when!

smith kaich jones said...

" . . .that can't happen here. you can be laid off, of course, but the company must continue to pay you for three months if you've been in the job for less than three years. if it's more than three years, they have to pay you another month for every year, so 4 years = 4 months, and so on. this gives you time and breathing room to recover from the shock and find another job before you run completely out of money. "

Dear God. As a business owner over here in these awful rushed United States, remind me never to relocate to Denmark. Man.

Debi

spudballoo said...

Absolutely fascinating, really insightful. Of course us Brits are a miserable lot, never happier than when having a good moan and yet we have a lot of the same sorts of benefits and infrastructure that you talk of. Of course it rains a lot here. Don't underestimate the power of rain to really put a downer on a nation....

Fab post, thank you! I'm just packing up Camp Spud, we'll be over your way shortly. For good.

Bill Stankus said...

Søren Kierkegaard was a Dane and having read some of his works, I don't think "Happiness" was a central theme of his.

julochka said...

debi - thinking like a business owner, i guess? but as an employee, i'm really quite grateful for such an equitable system.

spudballoo - it rains an awful lot here too, which is why it's so amazing that the danes come out so content.

bill - you're definitely right there. his whole theme was denying himself happiness, wasn't it? i do wonder why they're so happy. it's a mystery.

Stacey Childs said...

You're so funny! I love your style, and I now love the Danes. Who couldn't?

jane said...

great post. i always thought it was some remote island/country that was supposed to have the happiest people. can´t remember the name (it will come to me- like a t 3:00 in the morning.) just remember that i wanted to move there... sounds a lot like spain, except without all the happiness:)... love this!:)

paris parfait said...

Excellent points. I think the Europeans, in general, are happier because they don't worry about money the way Americans do. The French are more concerned about their food and family life than how much extra money they could make if they worked longer hours. They don't have the competitiveness about jobs and position (unless they're in the government). They don't race around trying to get places in a hurry. I think most Europeans I've met seem less stressed than Americans, because they don't have unrealistic expectations hanging over their heads the way we Yanks seem to...Sigh.

Cyndy said...

I recently read an article in the NY Times that echoed many of your comments and belief that life was better in Denmark. The USA does run at a such a fast pace and mainstream media seems to suggest that we should be doing more, more, more. The only good thing about our current economic crisis is that many are being forced to slow down and enjoy the simpler things (it is actually becoming chíc). I believe that some of the Danish happiness must come from the fact that many of your essentials are covered, even if they are funded through heavy taxes. Knowing that basics like your health care, education costs, even a stipend for "nappies," as the journalist reported, are covered must make things a bit easier. Money does not buy happiness, but the lack of money (or the fear of not being able to take care of the basics) sure can buy some unhappiness...

I don't think America will ever go for total coverage (conservatives label it as socialist, communist which scares every good red-blooded American away regardless of party affliliation), but I think we are due for a compromise...

Starlene said...

I love that you wrote about this! Made for quite an interesting morning...following links and then more links and then more links, going from great erections to youtube. : )

The video had a segment which struck me as rather coincidental in the state of things (for me) right now. Humility yields happiness. I've been getting that lately. REALLY getting that.

This topic was so much more interesting than it appeared to be at first. One thing that stands out to me, is that Danes seem to have much less reason to worry. It seems everyone I've ever known over here, everywhere I've ever lived, has been in a perpetual state of passive worry about one thing or another, now more than ever. I find a lot more people worrying now about things they have no control over, either. I'm sure that doesn't bode well.

I hate to say it, but I'd give away half my earnings in taxes to live a more simple life and worry less. That may go against my initial motto of 'the man who chooses security over freedom deserves neither'. I don't know. I've been humbled lately. Security sounds pretty good right about now.

trinsch said...

it's really funny to read your description of danes, as a dane living abroad. i can relate to the "seeing it from a distance".

after 7 years in a very different country (israel), i still feel denmark is my home. (israel is too. i'm always going home when traveling between those two countries, but that's another story).

but when i'm i dk i do tend to think that people have good lives and small problems. there's a lot of vacation, short work days, good social welfare, amazing education system (not only for free: you get PAID to study), and free health care (even though i do think that's not doing so well). after a vacation in denmark i'm totally jealous and all like "let's go to denmark". cause israel is stressed (please, there's a whole middle eastern crisis on top of everything else to stress about).

what sometimes really upsets me is, that the danes don't seem to appreciate it. and i guess everything is relative - like when you complain about the amount of money you GET for studying. or when you complain about not being able to get FREE help in the house from the state while on your ONE YEAR maternity leave with your twins!! (i'm a twin mother and i tell you, the complaints i have listened to from danish women - twin moms or single moms - about not getting more help, more money, more benefits, because then they actually have to spent their "own" money on a cleaner and a nanny, and then they can't go on vacation this summer etc etc... i'm like, you're all crazy! you live in a dream world!)

anyhoot, just wanted to say that i'm happy danes are at the top in terms of happiness. it shows, that despite the sometimes sour faces and complaints they actually do know that they are a lucky people and that they have so much to be happy about and appreciate. which is probably also the reason why we love denmark so much and tend to think (me included) that the way it's done in denmark, that's pretty much the only way. and definitely the right way :)

Barb said...

I can see why they're happy if they get to look at scenes like this all the time. Those flowers make me feel happy! Barb xo