I’ve come to an unhappy conclusion about the lessons we can learn from Denmark, the world’s empirically happiest country. In short, America just can’t do it.
I shouldn’t put that so pessimistically. Americans could definitely do what the Danes do that makes them so happy if they just changed their attitude toward life and work. And their size and demographic makeup. And their historical and current relationship with the government. Simple.
There are several explanations I’ve heard thrown around about why the Danes are so happy, and most, if not all of them, would be extremely hard, if not impossible, to put into practice in the United States.
The most obvious thing people point to when explaining the phenomenon of the happy Danes is the welfare state. People here get free (and generally good) health care, free university education, 5 paid vacation weeks a year with an extra 11 paid holidays, a 20-dollar-an-hour effective minimum wage, and generous unemployment policies. It’s said that if you were born an average citizen, the best place to be would be the Nordic region.
But as the heated debate over Obamacare shows, people in America aren’t willing to go in that direction. Yes, the taxes here are high, but the citizens don’t mind because they are so well provided for. In the United States, people fight over proposed small tax increases, so the fact that members of the top tax bracket in Denmark pay 60.2 percent of their income in taxes (as of 2012) would blow many Americans’ minds.
As I take my clean bus to school or walk on litter-free and well-salted roads here, it does seem like you get what you pay for. With the security that the welfare state provides to people who actually live and work and get sick here, I’d be pretty happy, too.
Another part of the reason the welfare state could never work in America is the fact that people in the United States often distrust and resent our government. In Denmark, by contrast, people pay their taxes and follow the rules. They love their figurehead queen and wait until the walk light turns green at the crosswalk, even if it’s the middle of the night and there are no cars to be seen. More than 50 percent of Danes reported that they “tend to trust” public institutions, according to a 2012 poll.
This trust can be seen on a much smaller level as well. The other day, while walking around, my friends and I saw a baby left alone in a stroller outside a store. A baby. We’d never seen anything like that. Aside from the media hullabaloo and the allegations of child abuse that would arise if anything like this happened in the United States, it just seems unthinkable that a parent would be able to leave a kid unattended without a babynapper coming along, but I guess that’s my American suspicion talking.
The Danes also manage to keep their society running smoothly because they’re culturally homogenous. A country with a population smaller than that of Massachusetts, Denmark is sometimes described as a tribe rather than a country. This is very apparent when I walk down the street and look at the people who surround me. Of course, everyone is different, and Denmark has experienced an influx of immigrants, but generally people here come from the same cultural background and share the same values. In a melting pot like America, it’s a lot harder to reach a consensus.
I’ve heard that Danish happiness stems from low expectations, which seems very antithetical to American views. In America, people seem more driven and work-oriented than people here seem. Danes consider family to be very important, and their policies governing parental leave and vacation reflect this. In the United States, the frenetic, materialistic culture makes it easy to feel like work and money are the be-all and end-all. I can understand that these differences in values could account for the difference in happiness levels, but I see no easy way America could fix this.
Even if we can’t adopt the ways of the Danes, however, it has been fascinating to see how a whole new set of values and laws can shape a society. For the next few months, I can just slow down, immerse myself in people who understand the important things in life, and marvel at the un-kidnapped babies.