The key to happiness: ask Danes

February 8, 2010

I follow a website called Serenity Hacker and her most recent post profiles Denmark, a nation, she says, that consistently ranks as the happiest in the world. That got my attention.

Her description of the way life works for Danes, including their tax rate, would strike fear into the hearts of many. But, she asks, what’s so wrong with this system?

It’s a good question.

Here’s the post. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

Social Serenity: What Can We Do Differently?

Posted: 07 Feb 2010 12:31 PM PST

happiestplaceonearthI thought I’d take a moment to consider social serenity, what it is, what creates it, and how that contributes to happiness. We’re at a juncture in the United States where our health care system is in need of overhaul, unemployment is at record highs, and people are walking away from their homes. It’s often challenging to find serenity in the midst of one of these situations.

I try to avoid too much television news and news-related shows, but something caught the attention of the American media about a year or two ago, and is still under debate today. In my search, I recently stumbled across it on youtube. The point of interest? In studies and surveys that compile data from research institutes and universities that rank over 140 countries, Denmark consistently ranks the happiest place in the world. (The US ranks 23rd, Italy 50, and France 62.)

Needless to say, I was pretty interested in why the Danes are so happy, and what the major differences are between Denmark and other western countries.

Most Danes reported that they feel “content” with their lives at present and in the past, ranking their current happiness on a scale of 1 through 10 most often at an 8 or higher. Also, it was reported that most feel they have very little to worry about, or complain about, that they feel secure and “taken care of”, with a high level of trust in each other and in their government. Social scientists cite that they have “modest” or “realistic” expectations (not that they lack ambition or hope), and are happy when things turn out better than expected.

So what constitutes these differences? After being fascinated by some of the clips and digging around the research, I’ve compiled a list of what I found most interesting:

Career & Work

  • 37 hour average workweek
  • 6 weeks average vacation time
  • 6 months to a year of paid maternity and paternity leave
  • Government will pay 90% of your salary for 4 years if you lose your job
  • People don’t choose careers based on status or income
  • Chosen careers are based on interests, passions, or lifestyles (you’ll see why below)

Wealth & Consumerism

  • Lowest wealth disparity in the world
  • The majority live a comfortable lifestyle
  • Garbage man, artist, and banker all make roughly the same
  • Danes interviewed generally don’t feel like having more things or more money will increase their happiness
  • Home decor and traditional style is minimalist (See inside a typical home in Copenhagen with Oprah)


  • School is free for all Danes
  • University is free as well (no student loans)
  • University students get paid while attending school, and get paid during breaks from school for maternity and paternity leaves

Healthcare, Child & Elder care

  • Health care is free for all Danes
  • Child care and elder care are highly subsidized
  • Denmark spends more per capita than any other country on children and the elderly

Social Life & Community

  • Violent crime is low, a knife stabbing general makes the front page
  • Poverty and homeless are also extremely low
  • 92% of all Danes belong to some sort of social club or activity outside the home
  • Parents commonly leave their babies outside to nap for fresh air (even in carriages outside cofee shops)
  • Government will subsidize social groups based on a common interest (swimming, model trains, etc.)
  • Most Danes are also actively involved within their nuclear families and children’s lives (they eat dinner together and partake in activities with their children)
  • 1/3 of the population rides bicycles by choice, even though they have or can afford a car
  • Copenhagen is ranked one of the “greenest” cities in the world

This system has been in place since the 1960’s. The average Dane pays 50% of their income in taxes, with tax rates going up to 63% (the more you make, the more you get taxed). And that’s where many Americans object strongly.

But no one I know thinks money is a key to happiness. Most people rank healthy and satisfying relationships (and family life), feeling safe and secure (having a stable living environment free from threat), and having meaningful work as top contributors to happiness. High on the list also are time for interests and hobbies, leisure, and time with others in one’s social circle. Most people feel having money is a means to an end for all of the above (ie: needing a sufficient amount in order to pay for things like a home, family, education, interests, etc.) And with the rise of interest in minimalism lately, it seems many westerners are finally realizing that having “more” (which often includes more debt and stress, too) is not the way to go.

I’m no economist, and no politician, either, but I can’t help but think: What’s so wrong with their system? It seems like people’s basic needs are taken care of, and without the worries of accumulating wealth to prevent things such as homelessness or sickness, people are free to construct their families, lives, and careers in ways that are most meaningful to them. Opponents say it would never work in the United States. Such a system would deter innovation. Americans would never pay that high of a tax rate. And, we’re just too big, and too diverse.

What do you think?

Would you pay such a tax rate for those benefits, if you (and everyone else) could also have a comfortable standard of living?

Which are most appealing? What would be the drawbacks? What should the United States do differently?

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