David Young is happier even than Sue Bradford and Deborah Coddington were to leave parliament. More satisfied than Nicky Hager was when Don Brash stepped down. He is chirpier even than… Tim Watkin.

I left my job at TVNZ eighteen months ago to move to Denmark. It was not such a culture shock: just like New Zealand’s state broadcaster these days, Denmark is mainly occupied by beautiful blondes.

A few weeks ago, Denmark topped yet another international survey and kept its place as the most relentlessly happy nation in the world.

While I’m obviously deliriously cheerful just to live here, I’ve always been skeptical of surveys like this one. They are often touted by those who argue that ‘economic development is not everything’, while ignoring the fact that GDP is the best indicator we have for societal wellbeing. It’s certainly far from perfect, but no better measure has been identified.

Especially silly are the surveys that conclude that the downtrodden, impoverished people of some under-developed country are the ‘happiest’ people in the world. To me, this is idealistic, ludicrous nonsense.

But the happiness surveys get a lot of press. Few bureau chiefs or editors anywhere can resist a story that says, ‘Our Country Ranks X in International Survey’. (Especially cute is when a nation's president weighs in).

While there are limitations to the usefulness of happiness surveys, quite a few large-scale reports have now reached some similar conclusions. First: overall, people seem to be getting happier. Yay. And second: a cluster of Scandinavian countries tend to do very well, with Denmark more often than not leading the world. Which makes you wonder: what exactly is it that makes the quiet, reserved Danes so satisfied with life?

The surveys show that national size and international importance don’t necessarily buy a 'happy' populace, but money does. Denmark’s golden age of influence arguably peaked somewhere around the 1600s, and it is smaller than New Zealand. But its per-capita GDP is US$36,000, putting it ahead of about 90% of the world (and nearly US$10,000 ahead of New Zealand).

Obviously, though, money isn’t everything in the pollsters’ eyes, otherwise happiness surveys would just be GDP surveys.

The Gallup survey was based on interviews with more than 136,000 people from 132 countries. (They skipped North Korea and a few others that we can reasonably assume wouldn't have been in the running for top slots). Gallup asked subjects to reflect on two things: their ‘overall satisfaction’ with their lives, and how they had felt the previous day. The second set of answers supposedly allowed researchers to score their "daily experiences" -- whether they felt rested, respected, and intellectually engaged.

People who reported high scores were considered ‘thriving’: 82% of Danes were in this category, 17% were deemed ‘struggling’ and 1% ‘suffering’, while the country’s ‘daily experience’ score was 7.9 out-of-ten. By contrast, 63% of New Zealanders were ‘thriving’, 35% ‘struggling’ and 2% ‘suffering’. New Zealand’s ‘daily experience’ score was 7.6.

Danes (and this ex-pat) pay about two-thirds of their income in taxes and get free education, healthcare, and a generous welfare net. As a result of government largesse, Danes can reasonably expect that they will never need to go without. A Danish friend who recently switched jobs thought nothing of claiming generous unemployment insurance for the two-week break she took between roles.

The combination of high taxes and government generosity means that Denmark has the highest income parity of any country. Equality is a striking and lovely feature of Danish life.

It’s worth noting, if only to stop Pundit editor Tim Watkin from worrying that one of his few 'non-lefty pundits' has gone soft, that surveys tend to show that the United States has a wider spread of happiness than Denmark: much happier people and somewhat sadder people. Fundamentally, you can decide based on your own world-view whether the mean or the standard deviation is more important.

Cultural differences must also play a large role in happiness surveys. What is really being measured is self-satisfaction. Are some countries’ populations more predisposed to feeling this way than others?

Danes are basically one large tribe of people with huge levels of social trust. They are raised to feel that being Danish is something special. They are incredibly proud of their country. There is no overt cultural cringe or NZ-style ‘we’re just a wee nation’ mentality.

This pride doesn’t often tip over into blind patriotism as it does elsewhere – but there are certainly those who fear that immigrants wish to take away Denmark’s uniqueness.

The happiness of the Danes has vexed some of the world’s sharpest minds. When Oprah Winfrey visited Denmark last year to push for the Chicago Olympic Games bid (Denmark’s Prince Frederik, the one married to the Tasmanian, is on the Olympic committee), Oprah created a show that asked: ‘what makes the Danes so happy?’

She concluded that it had something to do with generous paid parental leave, women not feeling pressured to get married, and mothers feeling safe enough to leave their babies in prams outside stores while they shop.

Of course, there is one other relevant factor. I suspect that many happiness surveys are carried out in Denmark’s summer.

Danes have mastered the art of staying cozy in winter. I think it is far preferable to live in a toasty Copenhagen apartment than a typically poorly insulated New Zealand house when it is chilly outside. But that said, the Scandinavian winter does last an epoch. And it is enough to make even the happy, beautiful blondes glum.

Comments (4)

by stuart munro on July 27, 2010
stuart munro

Mmm... of course GDP is farce both for productivity and happiness - it counts such things as accidents and legal actions positively.

You'd do better with the UN's HDI- http://hdr.undp.org/en/humandev/- NZ used to be number 8, until neo-liberalism pushed our suicide rate out to double the road toll.

by Mr Magoo on July 27, 2010
Mr Magoo

I totally agree with you.

Your personal interviews and the conclusion of Oprah's show are more than a match for any study.

I have to ask: Are you just high or taking the piss??

There is a third option, but suggesting you are just ignorant can be taken as an insult sometimes instead of a point of fact. Still no point losing an opportunity to educate someone I guess!

A good summary of the limitations of GDP measures are on the wiki page:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Measuring_GDP

And an alternative that is very similar to what you are talking about:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gross_Happiness_Index

And guess what? They don't ask how happy you are...

 

by Carl Firmin on July 31, 2010
Carl Firmin

David, as a fellow Kiwi in Copenhagen, I agree with a lot of your conclusions about Danes 'happiness'. But my perception is that what is being measured is contentment and not happiness. Danes are contented with their lot but it's a long way from there to joyous conga lines snaking through Nørreport train station.

Another big factor in their contentment I suspect is that the many people here don't instinctively have a 'bigger/more is better' culture. Once they have their cozy 150-200 sq.m. home they can't imagine what they would do with a bigger house, and hence they are less likely to be over burdened with a mortgage or envious of others. No Kiwi attitude that.

Whether thats a good sustainable zen attitude or a recipe for unambitious mediocrity depends on your philosophy I guess.

by on March 07, 2012
Anonymous

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