It’s always the same: Whenever I ask people which country is the happiest in the world, they say, “Mine,” then follow it up with a string of complaints and problems.
But according to surveys, one of the world’s truly happiest countries is Denmark. It ranked No. 1 in 2016, and second this year, according to a data published by the United Nations.
I visited Denmark a few months ago, and I didn’t see any Danes dancing on the streets. They don’t hug or kiss each other very often. The gray skies and cold rain don’t make you feel very festive, either. But the people of Denmark do have a high standard of living, and enjoy a great quality of life.
Let’s start with the bicycles. When a society focuses more on bike traffic than on automobile traffic — and offers perfectly protected and signaled roads like the ones I saw in Copenhagen — it means that it has both the environment and inhabitants’ health in mind when crafting policy. Being one of the top cycling countries worldwide has its advantages. There is a clear sense of equality in place, and a sort of meritocracy as well: The faster you pedal, the faster you go. And I noticed that Danes tended to leave their bikes outside, without locks.
Almost half of Denmark’s Parliament is made up of women, and there is a sort of national pride in the fact that the children of Margrethe II, the queen of Denmark, attend a public school, and get there on their bikes, without nannies or bodyguards. And being in the spotlight doesn’t seem to be very appealing to people in this country.
While Denmark has its share of anti-immigrant and ultra-right-wing politicians like anywhere else, simplicity and good judgment tend to prevail over vulgarity and raucousness. A sense of community takes precedence over blind nationalism.
Danish people take care of each other from the minute they are born until the day they die. And their social welfare system works. They are generous with their vacations, go home from work early and arrive on time to appointments. New parents enjoy one year of leave to stay home with their babies.
Of course, all this comes with a price. Danes joke that they work for themselves Monday and Tuesday, and on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to pay taxes. But everyone has signed the social contract: They pay their fair share in taxes, and in exchange they get a good education and are taken care of if they become ill.
This country is also known for its lack of corruption among public officials. People here don’t approve of a government paying for politicians’ personal expenses (hotels, restaurants, cigarettes, transportation, etc.). This I learned from Gabriel, my wonderful Argentinian walking-tour guide. (Also, if you like the service you receive in Denmark, you tip. Otherwise you just walk away.)
It seems that the Danes have mastered one of the most difficult lessons in life: Make the best of everything, right where you are. In fact, they have a word to describe this attitude: “hygge.” There is no exact translation, but it means creating an atmosphere of well being in the present moment, wherever you might be.
Danes have made their country work for its people. Nobody is in danger of being killed on the street, nobody is starving, everybody has the right to study and enjoys freedom of speech. This is a country where women have the same opportunities as men; where the government does whatever it takes to keep people satisfied so they won’t want to leave; where falling ill or retiring are not death sentences; where there is not an abyss between the rich and the poor; where leaders are elected by everyone, and you are not discriminated against for your skin color.
Unfortunately, Danish happiness is not contagious, nor is it exportable. Other countries could learn valuable lessons from Denmark.