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Happiness Factor: Who’s Happy and Why?

Phil Johnson, Ph.D., October 3, 2014

From Copenhagen, Denmark

Global Next Research Group


Are you happy? Would you know it if you were? How would you actually define happiness? The founding fathers of America bothered to include the “pursuit of happiness” as one of the inalienable rights of all humans. Of course, the right to “pursue” happiness is not necessarily a guarantee of finding happiness.


But according to the latest World Happiness Report, a few countries seem to have managed to discover happiness - and topping that list is Denmark. According to the report, “happiness” was measured based on the level that a nation enjoyed social support, freedom to make life choices, generosity, perceptions of corruption, life expectancy and GDP per capita. On a scale from 1 to 10, Denmark scored a 7.693, followed closely by Norway (7.655), Switzerland (7.650), Netherlands (7.512) and Sweden (7.480). While happiness is something that people talk about, evaluate and chase, I was intrigued as to how people would define it and what - if anything - they would give up to achieve it.


So, I was off to Copenhagen to find out just what it was that the Danes had discovered and to see if they were as happy as the recent data suggested.




One of the first Danish concepts that I heard about was “hygge” The Danes will tell you that there is no exact English translation for the word, but generally, it means “coziness.” (By the way, when people around the world tell me that they have words, values, or concepts that cannot be translated into English, it makes me want to spout off English words that also are never “exactly” translatable into other languages, like “entrepreneur,” “stuff” or “Black-Friday Sales.”)


Hygge is that sense of closeness, warmth and belonging that helps sustain Danes through the long dark winters. And through difficult times. Add some good food and candles and it’s part of the social support that Danes enjoy that contributes to their perception of being “happy.” But when I spoke to immigrants who were trying to make a new life in Denmark, they expressed that this “Danish happiness” was a bit illusive for them. Apparently finding hygge is not so easy if Denmark is your adopted country. Sanjay, from India, has been in Denmark for more than a year. Is he happy? Not yet.


He says that it’s been hard to break in to society and that it took him a long time to make friends. The friends he has made are other immigrants.




High on the list of factors that indicate happiness and satisfaction is the freedom to make choices. So, it seemed like the place to check out “freedom of choice” was Christiania also knows as the Freetown of Christiania - a little enclave of Copenhagen that doesn’t actually believe that they are part of Denmark - or the European Union for that matter. They are a self-proclaimed autonomous neighborhood that started in 1971. As an anything-goes-community, they have been shut down, reopened, raided by police and remain a source of controversy. Cannabis is openly sold and used here and to a large degree, has been tolerated by the authorities. Sort of.


Would I find more happiness here? There seemed to be expanded “freedoms” in this neighborhood, so I assumed I might find more “happiness.”


The first person I spoke to was Trina. She is an artist. Painting puts her in a good mood. Smoking marijuana puts her in a better mood. Me and my questions definitely did not put her in a good mood. To be fair, she was busy putting together a luncheon, had paintings to attend to and her joint wasn’t going to roll itself. A nosey journalist did not add to her quality of life.


Jannik, a young shop owner told me that the government in Denmark provides well for the people - which meant that he could provide well for his “extracurricular” activities. But recently he realized that in addition to government support, he would have to get a job. That did not make him happy.


Moustafa Petersen, a 19 year-old half Moroccan - half Danish student, told me that his definition of happiness was a good party. And yes, he was happy to have free education and security from the government. But he was mostly happy for parties.


The one thing all these residents of Christiania had in common was the answer to this question: “Given the wealth of your country, your relative security, your freedom of choices and opportunities - how would you most like your life to be remembered?”


The answer was always the same from this group of people: “I don’t need to be remembered for anything.” For them, happiness was for the moment - and lasted no longer than the day, the party or the money in their pockets.




But Christiania is just a small slice of life in Denmark. I was sure there were other perspectives, so I turned to my friend Simon Christiansen, a photojournalist in Copenhagen who works for Berlingske Media. Simon and I had both done some journalistic work in Lebanon in the past, so I knew he had seen other parts of the world - less secure parts of the world. I was eager to hear what he thought about happiness.


I told Simon that the more I spoke with people in Denmark and the more I looked into the factors that determined which countries and which people were happy, I couldn’t help but see a consistent trend. People were ranked happier when their government provided more security.


Does security equal happiness? Do you think that’s accurate?


“Personally for Danish people, life is really simple. The Danish community and the welfare is such a good foundation for being happy - free education, good social support. But there is also a concept in Danish culture called “jante” which tells us to be humble, not to promote yourself, don’t try to be better than others and to keep your expectations reasonable.”


To me that sounded more like security and contentment - which are great things - but not exactly happiness. The principle of “jante” might teach people contentment and a limit, but not really happiness. What about ambition? What about risk? What about fulfillment?


Should life have deeper meaning and fulfillment?


“Personal fulfillment is very important for my happiness. I try not to obsess about it, but so far, things have gone well. I admit that it can become a bit boring if everything is working out. You don't have anything to chances to take - things become dull.”


What about religion? Does that play a role in someone’s happiness?


“Denmark is a Christian, secularized country. I am not religious, but I don’t exclude it. Personally, religion does not play a role in my happiness. But I do feel that I have a lot of faith and spirituality. God equals the universe. I like to delve into my inner world through nature or meditation. There is as much to be found in the inner world as in the outer world.”


What if the world changes? What if what seems stable now becomes unstable? Where will the source of your happiness come from when all of this security is gone?


“There would definitely be more pressure, it might make me a bit more career minded and serious, but I think I would still keep my same values - to contribute, to help and to volunteer.”


Lars Rievers, an editor at Berlingske Media and co-worker of Simon echoes similar sentiments. He believes that happiness can be found in friends and family. He also believes that doing work that “makes sense and matters” also contributes to happiness.


When I asked Lars if he thinks that government programs and security add to happiness, he told me “not completely.” He went on to explain that he has family in the United States. He said that when his mother (in Denmark) is ill or needs care, he calls the government and tells them to take care of it. His family in the US tells him that when their parents or family members have problems, they don’t call the government, they rely on family and friends to help. He says, “There is something right about doing it that way - that personal commitment to taking care of our own. There might be some happiness in that as well.”


I asked Lars is he would trade security and accept risk if it added more meaning to his life? “Yes, at this point in my life - yes. But I think that people at different seasons of their life would answer that question differently. Right now I have less to lose - so I can afford to take more risk.”


Simon Christiansen agreed that deeper meaning would be worth the risk. So, how does Simon, a single guy in his 20’s, brimming with potential, want to be remembered 100 years from now? “I want to be remembered for my attitude and my presence. I want to be remembered as a person who was very devoted and who took responsibility for the things I want, rather than complaining and worrying about it. I want to be remembered for being optimistic.”




Ah, the “Danish Optimism.” There is actually a theory about that too. Researchers from the University of Warwick evaluated information from 131 countries and found that the closer a nation was genetically to the Danes, the happier its people were. In summary, when it comes to the gene that is linked to low levels of life satisfaction, fewer Danes possess this version of the gene - and therefore are not as susceptible to depression or unhappiness.


And that might end up being really important - because as most of us have figure out, the world is not stable and security is an illusion. The pursuit of happiness may have a head start when you live in a wealthy, stable, socially-oriented nation - but it doesn’t guarantee the kind of happiness that resonates in your soul and that exists regardless as to your circumstances or geographic location. That kind of enduring happiness requires a life of meaning, purpose and the pursuit of fulfillment - and it is “location independent.” That sort of abiding happiness often includes risk and getting out of one’s comfort zone.


True happiness, I believe, involves living for something outside yourself, bigger than yourself and it doesn’t always come with guaranteed security - or even a guaranteed successful outcome. But that’s life - and a good life doesn’t just consist of an easy existence. But if you are fortunate enough to have the advantages of wealth, security and friends - I think the world expect deeper attempts at living bigger and experiencing deeply fulfilling happiness - not just static existence. But don’t worry too much about happiness and the state of the world - my optimistic Danish friends will tell you, “everything will work out OK.” They’re just happy like that.

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