Say ‘Hej’ to the Happiest Country in the World

The UN has released their 2013 Happiness Report, the second of its kind, surveying 156 nations. And the world’s happiest country is…

…Denmark! The tiny country of 5.6 million people (less than three quarters the size of New York CIty) snagged the top title for the second year in a row. And as 60 Minutes‘ Morley Safer reported several years ago, the nation has for the past three decades "in survey after survey…consistently beat the rest of the world in the happiness stakes."

Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden round out the Top 5. The United States comes in at 17, behind Mexico and Panama, but beating the United Kingdom by five spots. And coming in last place is Togo.

According to the "Official Website of Denmark": "Back in 1973, the European Commission decided to set up a ‘Eurobarometer’ to find out about issues affecting its citizens. Since then member states have been surveyed about well-being and happiness. Amazingly Denmark has topped the table every year since 1973."

How do they do it? Why are the Danes so darn happy? Is it because they grow up on a steady diet of herring and Hans Christian Andersen? It’s not constantly making whoopie—they’re not in the Top 10 Sexually Satisfied Countries in the World.

Maybe there’s a clue in the welcome message on Denmark’s official site: "Explore the universe of Denmark.dk. The fast track to facts, articles and news about the Danish society." One of the main images in rotation on the site is a picture of people partying in the streets of Copenhagen. One crazy Dane is even bodysurfing.

The description for USA.gov, the official site of the United States, is downright depressing in comparison:

"Official web portal contains comprehensive information on government resources, services and forms for citizens, businesses and government." And it looks like an out-of-the-box site created in 1992.

Could the difference boil down to how elected officials perceive their own country? Or maybe Danes elect happy people and Americans elect…government agents. The Danish site zeroes in on "exploration" and "society," while the American site focuses on "forms" and "government." One is social and exploratory, offering a "universe." The other invites you to wait in line at the DMV.

But making it a beauty contest of websites is exactly something a dumb American like me would do. From Miss America to American Idol to Judge Judy, we are a society that puts an undo emphasis on evaluating others, while rarely taking a long hard look in the mirror. It’s a supremely anti-social and anti-exploratory attitude—the exact opposite of the one our exploratory and socially-inclined Danish friends have. Perhaps that’s where a lot of American discontent is brewed: the grass is always greener, keeping up with the Joneses and all that concern with everyone else’s reality. Not so in Denmark.

“The great thing about Danish society is that it doesn’t judge other people’s lives," says Christian Bjørnskov, an economic professor at Aarhus Business School and expert on the topic of happiness. "It allows them to choose the kind of life they want to live, which is sometimes not always possible in other countries, so this helps add to the overall satisfaction of people living here."

What he neglected to mention was that it’s also about choosing the kind of beer they want to drink. And the primary social lubricant is the perfectly balanced and complex pale gold lager, Carlsberg, which has been the nation’s most popular beer since it was first brewed in 1847. Germany, Belgium and England may be known for their world-class brews, but it was Danish mycologist Emil Christian Hansen who originally described the yeast that is used to produce lagers. And since he was working for the Carlsberg brewery at the time, the yeast was named Saccharomyces carlsbergensis. I experienced first Carlsberg in Copenhagen, and it immediately became one of my favorite beers. It’s also a common sight in bars and cafes across France, where it first arrived in 1945.

But before you book a ticket to the fabled City of Spires so you can wash down some fresh herring with a cold one (sitting by the statue of the Little Mermaid, of course), keep in mind that while you will likely get a dopamine boost as a traveler to Denmark, a good part of Danish happiness comes from the fact that Danes enjoy free college education, free emergency hospitalization and free basic healthcare. It’s the kind of satisfying policy that makes some Americans green with envy.

Sure, Denmark may be pretty swell these days. But it wasn’t always so. After all, Hamlet was a Dane.

Watch a TED Talk in which sociologist Emilia van Hauen asks and answers these questions: Why are Danes the happiest people in the world? What could other countries teach us about happiness? And why is the happy life not the same as the perfect life?

image: Denmark.dk