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Comment: Taking a closer look at Danish happiness

Denmark is a microcosm of anomalies, paradoxes and hype. But in terms of happiness, it is neither better, nor worse, argues Colin Feltham

The American political scientist Francis Fukuyama has made quite a bit of the concepts of ‘Getting to Denmark’ and ‘Denmarkness’ – images of an exemplary, fair, democratic, egalitarian state.

At the same time British academics Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their much-lauded book The Spirit Level, claiming to support an evidence-based politics, commend the Scandinavian countries for their strategic economic levelling policies which allegedly result in fairer, happier and healthier citizens.

And of course Denmark has for many years been hailed as the happiest country in the world, based on surveys of subjective experience and opinion.

So I was interested as a relatively late-life love migrant to Denmark in trying to understand such claims.

Positive psychology

My academic background is in counselling and psychotherapy, and counselling psychology is keen to respect subjectivity while keeping one foot in the science camp.

The UK’s so-called ‘happiness tsar’, the health economist Lord Richard Layard, has written extensively on the ‘science of happiness’ and made various connections between economic disparity and life satisfaction, unemployment and depression, and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) as a means towards happiness and re-employment.

Indeed the UK government ploughed considerable resources into CBT on Layard’s recommendation (just as Sweden embraced and later scaled down its commitment to CBT). But in spite of the rise of the science of positive psychology – Monty Python’s ‘look on the bright side of life’ – the UK retains a huge, festering gap between rich and poor.

So, are the more economically equal Danes happier and healthier than Brits or others? How would we know? What methods would we use to find out? Bear in mind that Fukuyama’s work, as well as Wilkinson and Pickett’s, and Layard’s, have all been heavily criticised, indeed savaged by some other academics.

Melancholy, yet happy

In my short experience I’d say the Danes in person seem not much more or less happy than any others.

Sure, health care is good (except for expensive dentistry), welfare is good (if perhaps unsustainable in the long-term), education is free, the streets are clean, slums are not evident, and people seem pleased enough with their lot. Danish humour is unrestrained by the political correctness that countries like Britain still observe.

But Danes can also tolerate ambiguities: Monarchy and Christiania, a state-supported Lutheran church and irreverent free speech, healthy cycling with high smoking and cancer rates, gun-toting police in a peaceful country, happy yet reclusive personalities, an ethos of equality and non-corruption and tax-savvy prime minister husbands, and so on.

Denmark, home to melancholy Kierkegaard and Lars von Trier, is also simultaneously ‘the happiest country in the world’.

No doubt sociologists and statisticians can clarify the nuances of such questions.

Consoled by philosophers

In my own country, Brits seem to be better moaners than Danes. Gratitude is an evidence-based ingredient of positive illusions, we are told, so perhaps the Danes’ sense of stoical contentment serves them well. I will probably habituate in time to being cut off at the knees financially by high taxes, like sales taxes on books. Meanwhile, thank god for Aldi, online newspapers, easyJet and fresh air. And love.

Depending on which survey you read, and when, it’s actually now Norway or Costa Rica that’s happiest.

It’s always a country with a small population, it seems. Small is something like beautiful, perhaps. Maybe tiny Denmark is simply a microcosm of the worldly milieu of anomalies, paradoxes and hype we all live in.

And even the most enlightened social and economic policies don’t serve anomalous cases well.

Education can stimulate us, science can inform us, religion, the arts and love can sway and contain us emotionally, but we all have to make our own minds up and make our meandering way as lone, fallible individuals.

I’m with Kierkegaard here, the Greek Cynic Diogenes, and the tragedy-identifying Norwegian Peter Zapffe: the consolations of philosophy.

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