Danes still world's happiest people

Security, generous welfare and a practical streak make up for debt, dark winters and dying young

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 November, 2013, 5:13am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 November, 2013, 5:13am


They are the most indebted people in the world, live through long, dark winters and have a shorter life expectancy than several Mediterranean countries.

Yet for the past four decades, the Danes have consistently rated themselves as the happiest people on earth.

Among foreigners in Denmark, theories as to why the host population is so content range from its egalitarian policies, to its history, to the observation that some people are simply easier to satisfy than others.

“You can reach a high-ranking politician or a director here even if you are an ordinary person,” said Josephine Hoegh, who moved to Denmark from the Philippines 40 years ago.

Denmark first topped the happiness table in 1973, when a European Union survey found that people there were happier than in any other member state.

This year, it held on to the top spot in the United Nations’ annual World Happiness Report, issued in September, even as it suffered its worst economic crisis since the second world war.

The top five were all wealthy northern European nations: Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden. Canada came in sixth, and Australia 10th, with Finland (seventh), Austria (eighth) and Iceland (ninth) rounding out the top 10. Hong Kong was mid-ranked in 64th place, mainland China 93rd, and Togo 156th and last.

In the study, respondents were asked to evaluate the current state of their lives using a scale of zero to 10, where a top rating signified the best possible life for them, and zero the worst. The Danish average was 7.693.

“One of the most important things making the Danes happy is the security in Danish society,” said Meik Wiking, director of the Happiness Research Institute, a Danish think tank aiming to improve the quality of life in Denmark and abroad.

“There is a high degree of financial security. If we lose our jobs we get support, when we fall ill we can go to the hospital, and so on,” he added.

Denmark has some of the highest taxes in the world but many Danes value the social security net they get in return, including subsidised childcare and unemployment insurance that guarantees 80 per cent wages for two years if they lose their jobs.

The second pillar of happiness is a high level of trust between people, even for a stranger on the street, says Wiking.

Other explanations can be found in history. Denmark was a European power between the 13th and 17th centuries. But as its official website states, today its size and influence “is the result of 400 years of forced relinquishments of land, surrenders and lost battles”.

“They haven’t won anything for the last 200 years, they’ve only lost, and that’s created a mentality in Denmark of looking inward and of valuing what you have left,” said Michael Booth, a British expatriate who has written a book on his adopted home.

Danes also have a knack for denying unpalatable truths, he said. “They have the highest level of private debt in the world ... but they’re very good at putting their hands over their ears and going ‘la-la-la’,” he said.