Danes Happiness a Distant Beacon?

Utopia is a loaded concept and likely unattainable much like perfect knowledge or enlightenment, but an ideal concept does have the power to potentially move people in a more promising direction.  Of course, that ideal needs to be based on some logic and realistic expectations, otherwise naïve faith could lead people to a very disappointing outcome.  Imagine living your one life as a saint for the primary purpose of receiving  access to the pearly gates only to find no such gates exist.  Or, imagine deciding to blow yourself and hundreds of innocent people to bits in exchange for twenty beautiful virgins only to discover all that you achieved was a heinous act and eternal darkness.  If the saint performed saintly acts without expecting access to the pearly gates then there would be no sense of disappointment when time expires – the saintly acts in and of themselves contain both the gift and the reward, nothing more, nothing less.

Denmark, a nation of 5.5 million people, has consistently ranked number one on the “happiness” or contentment index from various surveys Happiness Survey Example.  The people who are born and raised in this culture and society appear to be more content than citizens of any other nation on the planet.  Why?  Before I go into some broad strokes that make Denmark unique, I wanted to post these YouTube videos from two young Danes who casually try to answer the question for us.  Why go into a bunch of facts and broad statements when two young people from the country can attempt to explain this mystery in their own words and mannerisms.

Aren’t those two videos interesting?  I hope you took the time to watch at least one of them.  One tends to focus on the peace of mind that comes with a socialistic welfare state and the other narrows in on setting lower expectations that mitigate anxiety and enable one to be more content with their lot in life.  Of course these are just two points of view from over 5 million people who live in Denmark day in and day out.  It is impossible to do this subject justice on a blog post or two.  My real purpose is to do some high level comparisons between the top five “happiest” nations and perhaps juxtapose these high-level findings relative to the United States (what many often call “the greatest country on earth”).  But I think Denmark deserves a post all to itself since it consistently claims the top spot on the “happiness” index.

I am going to use this paragraph to simply outline with broad short strokes what is unique about Denmark.  Denmark has the highest level of income equality in the developed world and the highest minimum wage – a dishwasher can make $25 dollars per hour.  The tax rates are the highest of any developed country and that includes a Value Added Tax (on most goods purchased including food) at 25%.  The progressive effective tax rate can start at 40+ percent and reach 70 percent, depending on your income level.  But, these high taxes enable free tuition through college and the government actually pays college students a small amount of money to go to school – they enjoy a 98% literacy rate.  Healthcare is covered by the state.  If you lose your job the government will pay you 90% of your past salary for up to four years.  Maternity leave is paid for from six months to a year.  Child care is partly paid for by the government.  If you have worked in Denmark for 40 years you will get a pension upon retirement.  The state helps with elder care.  Some other interesting facts are that Denmark is environmentally progressive and one-third of the citizens use a bicycle as the primary mode of transportation.  Tax on an automobile purchase is almost 200%!  Now you know why bicycles are popular.   The country ranks number two on the corruption index and people therefore trust each other and their government.  Violent crime is very rare.  Unemployment is very low.

Although Denmark is socialist, that doesn’t mean they are communists.  In fact, Denmark is considered one of the most competitive economies in the world (according to World Economic Forum, IMF, and the Economist) and enjoys the 7th highest income per capita.  Denmark has one of the freest financial and product markets in Europe.  So what we have here is a very competitive, productive, and free market economy that is capitalistic, but a socialist model that tends to eliminate wide variances in citizen income and uses this re-distribution to educate the young, care for the sick, and enable the elderly to enjoy a relatively secure retirement.

The word socialists, as the young lady in the YouTube video alluded to, conjures up images of drab communists walking around like zombies in rags.  Apparently, that doesn’t seem to be the case when that socialistic model is funded willingly (I am sure many Danes may find another word to replace “willingly”) through high taxes from citizens that are highly educated, literate, competitive, and relatively happy with less stress and anxiety.  In fact, they must be very productive if they come in third in terms of the least amount of hours worked!   It seems that Denmark might counter the often pure capitalistic argument that higher taxes on the wealthy will lower innovation, productivity, and motivation.  It also helps that the government appears to be somewhat competent with the tax revenues (I am sure some Danes would disagree) as the country’s debt to GDP is just 39.5%.

In essence, the capitalistic socialistic model in Denmark is built for the young, the sick (even if sickness temporary), the elderly, and the middle class.  In general, the majority of the young have equal opportunity to pursue higher education and their future occupation regardless of what family they are born into.  Of course, equal opportunity doesn’t mean everyone’s outcome should be equal.  A very talented individual can still make relatively good money.  A citizen that earns $1 million in a year may have a 70% tax burden, but he/she would still net $300,000 in a year.  In contrast, a citizen that earns just $50,000 in a year and faces a 43% tax burden only brings home $28,500 bucks.  There still exists salary or wage inequality, but the variances between those that have much and those that have less aren’t as extreme as in pure capitalistic societies with lower tax rates and loop holes.  And, I am sure the middle class in Denmark have learned to make their disposable income go a long way through self-control by limiting their needs and wants for nice cars, big houses, and lots of things.  Although they hit the high rank on the happiness or contentment index, that doesn’t mean they have easy lives filled with anything their hearts desire.  They must simply have the discipline needed to enjoy what they have.  Many of these people bike miles in the rain and snow to get to work as opposed to driving in a warm Mercedes-Benz with heated seats that they are leasing through debt or credit.

But Denmark isn’t immune from current or future cracks in the socialistic capitalistic framework.  For example, the country is currently experiencing a skilled labor shortage High income tax worsens a labor shortage .  Why?  Apparently many of the young are jumping ship to work abroad to avoid the high tax burden.  In short, they get all the benefits of growing up and getting educated “for free” and then take advantage of the system by working abroad.  I have a solution to this “free-rider” problem, but I doubt the Danish people would agree with me as they appear to be a very free-spirited people.  My solution would be that those working abroad would get slapped with a nice bill for all the tax revenue used to raise and educate them in the country before they jumped shipped to earn their windfall gains.  Other potential problems are that Denmark relies on exporting services and products to the global economy.  The current problems in the global economy adversely impact their export income which puts strain on their ability to keep funding their expensive citizen care.  They have, however, fared pretty well during the current meltdowns in the United States and Europe, but who is to say the global economy isn’t going to head further south?

There is much more to discuss about Danish culture and there are many more sources to explore.  In fact there is a blog that I am trying to get access to in order to learn more.  Truth be told, one really needs to live in Denmark for an extended period of time to really gain some insight.  I would love to observe the Danes in public going about their business, watch their news and favorite TV shows, hang out in cafes and bars and talk to the people including students, observe the landscapes and the architecture, and visit other locations besides just Copenhagen.  For now, all I can offer is this short post and some articles below that were sources for some of this content.  Regardless of this short post and material, I feel like they are on to something important in their mix of capitalism and socialism.  But, applying such a system to other large countries that don’t have the culture or momentum of this hybrid model would be like trying to reverse the course of a tsunami.  The potential learning points, however, can be viewed as beacons to a long-term course or strategy.  Could the Danes socialistic capitalistic model be a distant beacon to humanity?  Could such a system, if rolled out carefully over time, in fact become even more sustainable and practical if the world at large adopted the philosophy?

Some source articles: 

Why danes happier than americans

Why danes so happy

Happiest place on Earth

10 thoughts on “Danes Happiness a Distant Beacon?

  1. Good summing up of Denmark and thank you for such an insightful article.
    If there are countries that point to doing things better, one would be hard pushed to find them away from the Scandinavian countries.
    The temptation to lower taxes has always been resisted in countries where, by and large, the population is highly educated and well aware that if the country is to enjoy a level of equality in health care, education, standard of living, good public transport and so many other public infrastructures, a high enough level of income through taxation needs to be earned by those whose job it is to govern a country.
    Here in Australia, like in America, socialism is often confused with communism, often deliberately so by those that seek to impose a ‘free for all’ slather on society that seeks to make winners of the most cunning, the most unscrupulous. The result is inevitably a society whereby trailer parks, high crime rates, extremely high incarceration rates, ( In America the highest) the dismal treatment of mentally ill and the home-less become a feature of capitalism and the top 5 % own the 95%. I can’t see how anyone could argue against higher taxes when it brings those things that the girl talks about in the above video.

  2. Judging from the stats and especially from The Anmish’s video, “happiness” (putting aside the subjectivity of the term for the moment) does seem to be predicated on Denmark’s socialist government. It is reasonable to me that if people feel cared for, then they will care for themselves and each other better. Also, it strikes me that high taxes plays a significant role–not just because it means that citizens’ health, education, and economic security is covered, but also because it gives each person responsibility for the group. I believe experiencing personal responsibility cultivates an attitude of strength, confidence, and benevolence. Share the wealth!

  3. Interesting post. I am not sure you could graft this onto America where “individualism” is so strong politically. These people are happy according to the index, but I have to admit the “dependency” on government so completely gives me the jitters.

    I am admittedly American-centric never having left the USA, except to Canada and Mexico. But some family relatives tell me of high mental depression due to the long winters and low levels of sunlight in Sweden. Also, is the happiness related to less or more diverse populace? Here in the states, Minnesota used to get very high marks, despite winters, but part of that was the state’s homogeneity, making it easier for folks to get along.

    All this said, a system completely based on materialism or $$$$$ be it worthily gained or tragically acquired through shyster corruption of Wall Street or DC is absolutely horrific. America’s biggest sin seems to come from the desire to be “rich” and easily accept the earthly temptations ordinarily condemned in spiritual texts. But, we are all humans made of the same stuff, so why it manifests itself so differently is a great subject you are on, and I eagerly look forward to your further comparisons.

  4. Thanks, this is pretty much the Denmark that I know too. Danes, hard working when at work, multi-lingual and yet very laid back, open friendly, always wiling to help. What I have noticed with the Danes I know is a deep caring about others, considering their whole country a community and understanding the cost of that.
    There is discourse in Denmark too, strikes and lets’ not forget the uproar for the climate conference in Copenhagen a few years back. Yet in all the factor that drives it is what is best for us all, instead of what is in it for me.
    As for the bikes, well they don’t have many mountains – it helps that the best they do is a gently rolling hill landscape. It certainly helps 🙂

  5. This is an intelligent little dip into the ponderings than for too few people permit. After reading a bit of your thoughts, I recalled an interesting discussion by Barry Schwartz in a TED talk called “The Paradox of Choice”:

    He makes a statement there which I think is perhaps not the end all for happiness, but an important key in understanding discontentment with life in general. “The key to happiness is low expectations”. Having worked with religious organizations all my life, I am fully aware of the affect beliefs can have on a persons outlook and overall contentment in life. I feel I have discovered an interesting balance. There are many “faithful” people who are content and happy as they live, thinking they will ascend to perfection eventually so they are nearing the ultimate experience as they grow old and die. On the other hand there are many who are never content with anything in life because they compare it to a blueprint of divinity which may not even apply to their world. In the end, I always find myself asking “do I want to be happy?” and perhaps even “how often should I expect to feel happy, realistically?”

    Your information about Denmark is quite interesting. It contrasts for me the desire of humans to be comfortable and secure with the desire to progress and become enlightened. Sometimes those two paths cross. Sometimes they are very different directions. I have always been of the opinion that there are multiple governmental models which could work in practice depending on the expectations of the people and the oversight of the government. I believe it is a common mistake in my country to assume capitalism is the God’s gift to civilization. In fact, I find it ironic that so many Christians in a predominately Christian country tend to promote capitalism. It might be one of the least presented governmental models in the Bible. There is a topic which has gotten me into trouble before…


  6. Gerard, Owl, Randel, Gilraen, and V.W., those were all great comments and much appreciated. They offer more and additional insight from different perspectives. Thank you.

  7. Yes, while happiness might be over-rated. Security of income, roof above one’s head and health and education are social needs that are more likely provided by democracy based on socialism than by the pure capitalist form of democracy. I am not sure that idividualism in America is any more pertinent in the US than in Denmark. Here in Australia the famous Opera House was designed by a Dane. Individualism seems to be so much better expressed in design, architecture, good planning in Denmark than here in Aussiland.
    Of course, we have plenty of space and sun… for many that is important, for others the need for spiritual nourishment is important. Different strokes for different folks!

    • Good points Gerard. I think in America we have been taught or raised or brainwashed to believe that “socialism” means collectivism. If I clear my mind, observe what has transpired in America during the last decade plus, objectively observe my behavior and experiences (as best I can), and then contemplate the Danish model, I have the following general sense — A construct that enables a certain level of security and basic contentment for the majority of the culture creates the opportunity for individual pursuits above and beyond many of the often mundane activities required to in fact achieve basic contentment and security. At this point in time, I would say the Danish construct could in fact create an environment where an individual may actually have a greater opportunity to enjoy more individual freedom to pursue his or her own purpose. The preliminary conclusion of course assumes the individual’s pursuit isn’t primarily the continual accumulation of more and more wealth and more and more consumption.

  8. Following this thread with much interest . . . I’ll try to keep my contribution to it as brief as possible, because obviously it is a very complicated subject.

    Unless one is basically a hunter and gatherer in the forest, or a farmer providing one’s own sustenance (or something comparable to these two examples), “independence” is essentially an illusion. Even so, such individuals very quickly become dependent when, for example, they injure themselves in the process of securing their survival. At that point, they must go to someone for “help”.

    In reality, all of us are dependent on so many other people for the things that make it possible for us to exist and that for the most part we take for granted. In the end the notion of “independence” and “individuality” as a thing in itself, as if people could just float away on a cloud feeding on ambrosia that appears out of the ether, just isn’t real.

    That doesn’t mean there isn’t a immense value attached to a realistic conception of independence and individuality–meaning one that occurs within the context of an understanding that we are all ultimately to some extent dependent upon each other to survive.

    This leads back to many other discussions that have already occurred here. It does basically come down to what is the best model that both acknowledges the inalterable fact of our (inter)dependence and yet allows for the idea of individuality and realistic independence to thrive.

    For me, it does make the most sense to put in place a system (call it what you will) in which “basic necessities” become a kind of given, in which the problems of brute survival are removed from the equation and foundational things such as a decent education and healthcare are reliable factors. I just don’t understand why certain people (mostly paranoid, conservative Americans) equate this with “loss of independence and individuality”, when in reality it should be the platform upon which a grounded individuality and independence can be solidly built.

    The most common argument made against this is the “I can’t become rich in such a system”, obviously because of the taxes that are involved. Upon closer examination this is just a bizarre position, since the overwhelming majority of those who make it never will become “rich”. What a huge sacrifice is made for everyone involved merely to preserve the abstract idea of possibly one day becoming “rich”. This is a fundamental problem at the root of everything. As long as people regard “becoming rich” as the desideratum, rather than truly developing their individuality precisely because they are not utterly consumed with the vain pursuit of “wealth” (when in reality they are utterly consumed with just procuring the necessities of brute survival), then I don’t see how the human species as a whole can make any real and lasting progress.

    Finally, I think size plays a huge role in all of this. Bigger definitely isn’t better, because it causes one to lose control of the factors. It doesn’t surprise me that most of the countries listed as the “happiest” are so small, and I have serious doubts about Canada and Australia being included for this very reason. As you know, I live in Oregon, and I think it could become one of the best places to live in the world if it would secede from the (dis)Union and model itself upon Denmark, the Netherlands, et al. As it is, we are plagued by our unfortunate association with everything “American” (such as some of the thing Gerard mentions above). As an interesting aside, as you also know I work in the performing arts, and I can vouch that some of the most cutting edge, mind-blowing performance art–in particular in the field of modern dance–comes from the Netherlands; and this is a result of their heavily subsidized arts programs. This is a great example of what I mean by that “platform of grounded individuality”, which expresses itself here in the highest forms of creativity.

    I think ultimately that is what it is really all about–not “happiness”, but human beings working together to reach greater and greater heights by collectively agreeing to remove all of the base barriers that keep us down.



    • Great contribution beloved brother. It seems the biggest challenge as we have discussed before, is on the one hand limiting the vulnerability of corruption, incompetency, and the lack of accountability of the government which would be the primary mechanism to ensure the fulfillment of those core needs, and on the other, limiting the free rider problem that could exist like a parasite on the good intentions of collective effort to provide for our core needs. One thing is for certain, such checks and balances would require a more enlightened general public that would be capable of addressing abuses on both fronts in an appropriate manner.

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