Why Are the Danish People So Happy?

The latest World Happiness report ranks Denmark as the happiest country in the world, up one spot from its ranking last year.

I’ve written about this phenomenon before, and I also wrote about a possible explanation for such a consistent ranking.

Well Bertel Haarder, the country’s culture minister, wanted to find out. In June, he asked citizens to send in what they thought were the country’s most important values. From 2,500 suggestions, the ministry pared it down to 20 and put it to an online vote. More than 300,000 people participated, resulting in this list of the top 10 national values (the quotes are definitions from the ministry, compiled by the Local):

  • Freedom: “Freedom is the fundamental value of Danish democracy. In the Western tradition the freedom of the population is tied to the freedom of the individual.”
  • Equality under the law: “Denmark is often at the top of international surveys on trust and low corruption.”
  • Gender equality: “The Danish society is based on equality between the sexes. This means that men and women should have the same rights and opportunities.”
  • Hygge: “Hygge is considered a special way of being together in a relaxed atmosphere. Hygge is its own word and many say it can not be translated.”
  • Welfare society: “In the Danish welfare society, residents enjoy a high level of protection against social and physical risks and benefit from of a range of public goods.”
  • Trust: “The Danish culture of trust is based on an expectation that one’s fellow citizens and public institutions are reliable.”
  • The Danish language: “Danish is the mother tongue of more than 90 percent of the population in Denmark. Language is not just a communication tool; it is a culture bearer.”
  • Association activities and volunteerism: “Associations constitute a basic way of organizing communities throughout Denmark.”
  • Liberal-mindedness: “Liberal-mindedness is based on the premise that all people should have the right to decide over their own lives. To demonstrate liberalism means having an open-minded and tolerant attitude and mindset.”
  • Christian heritage: “Christianity’s concept of charity and the Protestant ideas about the importance of work, personal responsibility and equality of all people before God have left their mark upon modern Denmark.”

That’s quite a list, some of the items seem like worthwhile attributes to strive for, and would likely lead to higher levels of happiness. I have marked in bold which attributes I believe are likely associated with high level of happiness.

However, I would question two of the items on the list, The Danish language and Christian heritage.

Valuing such attributes seems to go counter to some of the other positive qualities on the list, in particular trust and liberal mindedness.

Danish society seems to be fairly homogenous, as evidenced by the same language and same religion for the vast majority of its citizens. While there is nothing inherently wrong with that, it certainly loses the value of diversity that can be so beneficial. It also seems to suggest some level of intolerance, perhaps grounded in a lack of trust, for people who are different from them.

Others have suggested that the reason for the Dan’e high level of happens is having very low expectations for what they plan to accomplish in a given year.

Could it be that if the Danes do typically expect less than the rest of us, and when their low expectations are fulfilled, then so are they?

Perhaps Danish happiness is not really happiness at all, but something much more valuable and durable: contentedness, being satisfied with your lot, low-level needs being met, higher expectations being kept in check.


That’s an interesting suggestion, given that a good deal of research tends to suggest setting your expectations as high as possible. However, the book In Search of Excellence called this into question, which I wrote about before.

I think the bottom line is that the Danes are a happy people, and it’s likely a combination of all of the reasons noted above. However, I don’t think we need to emulate everything the Danes do (for example, I don’t think we should start talking Danish), but we can certainly learn a thing or two from them.

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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