Want to Be Happy? Go Dutch.

denmark picture

Madeline R

You find twenty dollars lying in the street and pick it up.  Maybe you go and buy a burger or buy a new scarf.  In that moment you are happy.  These small moments are how we, as Americans, define happiness: so often caused by materialistic items.  One of the many problems with this version of happiness is the infinite desires we have, constantly changing and adapting with society, never fully satisfied with what we already possess.  Our desires are unlimited, so if we rely on material items to achieve happiness, it is technically unachievable, right?  Interestingly enough, not all countries set their minds and goals on attaining money and wealth or see wealth as the way to attain happiness.

Denmark was named the happiest nation in the world in 2013, and has been since 1973.  Citizens in Denmark received an average life evaluation score of 7.48 on a survey as compared to an average score of 2.94 in Central Africa on a scale from zero to ten.[3]  What makes Denmark the happiest nation in the world?  Good question.  The scores from the survey were based on healthy life expectancy, freedom, income, social support.[1]  Many different, unique characteristics of Denmark differ from other nations: maybe because of their high level of trust for each other, maybe because of their nonjudgmental and accepting society, maybe because of their lack of reliance on material possessions to make them happy.  As previously mentioned, some countries become consumed with the idea of being rich and make that their goal in life; however, Denmark is one of the exceptions.  Denmark’s primary focus revolves around social relations; instead of spending money on fancy cars and all these new inventions, they use their money to socialize with other people![1] 

Imagine your house is on fire.  The fire is spreading quickly, and you only have twenty seconds to grab anything, anything at all.  What would you grab?  Maybe you grab your expensive laptop, nice sneakers, or great grandmother’s ring.  Or would your first instinct be to ensure everyone got out of the house safely?  I honestly can say my first instinct would be to take my grandmother’s ring that she gave me or take some clothes from my closet.  The materialistic pressures so highly emphasized in other countries, like the United States, holds less importance in Denmark.  Rather than spending their money on fancy clothes and cars and investing their lives in impressing others with their wealth, people in Denmark value their social relations more than riches.  They treasure the things that cannot be bought.  Sadly, our country has become so obsessed with material possessions, mass production, and wealth that we are losing our identity and virtue as well. 

What exactly is happiness?  In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says, “happiness is an exercise of the vital faculties in accordance with perfect virtue or excellence.”  Denmark fulfills this definition of happiness because they excel in virtue and practice excellence more so than any other country.  The lack in materialistic desire diverts their primary focus to building relationships with others.  Denmark exceeds other nations in social relationships, which improves their level of happiness.  Remember how the elderly always talk about the new “gadgets” that have been invented when they were only in college and how the new technology diminishes our conversational abilities with others?  Well, they are right.  I cannot remember the last family dinner I had where someone was not on their phone, or iPad, or pulled out their phone to show something funny: we cannot last more than five minutes without technology anymore.  Michael Booth, author of The Almost Nearly Perfect People says, “They haven’t won anything for the last 200 years, they’ve only lost, and that’s created a mentality in Denmark of looking inward and of valuing what you have left.”[3]  This must sound strange considering Americans strive to win anything and everything, driven by the competitive nature; however, since Denmark does not have a competitive streak and disregards winning as an ambition, they look beyond the trophies and prizes to see what actually obtains value of achieving the “good life” and not just “life,” as Aristotle would say.

Many Americans hold the government responsible for their happiness and for maintaining the good of the people.  After all, do we not have the right to the pursuit of happiness written in the Declaration of Independence? Denmark does not rely on the government to provide opportunities to achieve happiness; however, they do trust the government, unlike the United States.  Aristotle states in The Politics, “a state exists for the sake of a good life, and not for the sake of life only.” Now, what is the good life compared to life?  Well, Aristotle continues by saying, “if life only were the object, slaves and brute animals might form a state, but they cannot, for they have no share in happiness or in a life of free choice.”  The good life is happiness! 

Many Americans struggle to believe that our President and other leaders of our country have the intention of protecting the citizens’ welfare, also negatively influencing our trust in the government.  Some blame Nixon for America’s trust issues because of the Watergate Scandal; ever since, citizens hesitate to trust the government and even other citizens.  Even when in Church going up to receive communion, people take their purses with them for those few seconds out of fear that someone might steal their belongings.  In Denmark, that constant fear is nonexistent; they trust everyone, even strangers!  They greatly trust the government too because their government has always seemed to have the best interest for the people and maintains very minimal level of corruption!  That is refreshing: whenever the season for reelecting a new president comes around, hardly anyone believes any of the promises the candidates make, and we sadly adapted to failing to trust most of our leaders of the government.  Professor of Economics Christian Bjørnskov claims that trust increases a person’s happiness, so in order for Americans to increase our happiness, we should begin to trust each other.[1]

Many internal conflicts in various countries today are due to differences in religion, race, ethnicity, or simply the way someone looks or acts.  These divisions and persecutions hinder our societies from being happy and who we are, or fulfilling our function.  Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations acknowledges the different skill and expertise in different fields; he further discusses that we should focus on our specific talents and skills to help benefit society, but how are we supposed to use our talents when people downgrade our self-esteem and skill?  A rare quality about Denmark that increases the happiness level is the nation’s accepting society that allows each person to live their life the way they choose without interference or hostility.  Now, Denmark is not a perfect society; these are just a few characteristics that Denmark excels in that plays a role in their high rate of happiness.  Although the United States treasures equality, trust, and virtue as well, sometimes we fail to fully live up to these ideals. 

As an American citizen, I first looked at the United States and thought, “we have better values and more opportunities than any other country!  Everyone wants to come to America because America is the best, happiest place to live!”  That opinion is just a little biased and fairly incorrect to say the least.  We are still in the process of working towards fully achieving our ideals and are still working to achieve happiness.  We strive to attain the unattainable, similar to when Aristotle mentioned Solon’s thoughts about happiness in The Nicomachean Ethics:  we only achieve happiness after we are dead.  Although I disagree with Aristotle and Solon, I do believe some people define happiness by the amount of wealth they have.  We can all agree that whenever we buy something, whether it be a new phone or a new shirt, we all become slightly happier, although that happiness is only temporary, and brag to our friends about our new purchase, showing off our wealth.  Our greed will be the downfall of man unless we acknowledge Denmark’s virtues and values and strive to live them out.

An infinite number of factors influence a person’s happiness, but the factors that influence a country’s overall happiness differ from an individual’s happiness.  Although a new car makes one person happy, that new car fails to influence another’s happiness and may even create jealousy!  As a whole, a country should value the same admirable characteristics of Denmark that makes Denmark the happiest nation: trusting, accepting, selflessness, and happy. 

Let us look into next year: will we begin to see the importance in each other rather than material items and grow together, increasing our happiness?


[1] Denmark. “Happiest in the World.” Why the Danes are the happiest people in the world -The official website of Denmark. Accessed June 26, 2014.

[2] Eurocamp. “Holidays in Denmark.” Accessed June 26, 2014.

[3] Copenhagen. “What makes Denmark the happiest nation on earth.” The News International, Pakistan. Accessed June 26, 2014

[4] Gates, Sara. “World Happiness Report 2013 Ranks Happiest Countries Around Globe.” The Huffington Post. Accessed June 26, 2014.

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