After a short trip to Denmark (photos) I’m beginning to formulate some theories on why Danes score high on world happiness surveys.
First, they don’t seem to have better answers than we do in the U.S. to the tough challenges. There are lots of jobs for competent, educated people. Danes who did not do well in school and who did not advance beyond high school are at home living with their parents. Danes are simultaneously admitting immigrants from Muslim countries and surrounding government buildings with concrete blocks to deter an attack from these guests whom they don’t fully understand.
Second, part of Danish happiness is predicated upon being willing to live at what for an American would be a fairly low material standard of living. Residential homes are not big or fancy. Furniture tends to come from Ikea. A 10-year-old compact car with broken air conditioning is a perfectly fine (single/only) car for a family of three. A typical urban dweller won’t own a car at all, but will rely on a bicycle or public transport (maybe not too much fun in the cold wet winter!). If we compared Danes in Denmark to Danish-Americans in the U.S. it would certainly be clear who were the rich cousins. One upside of the whole country being somewhat poor is that very few people have the means to indulge in conspicuous consumption. Conspicuous consumption makes everyone in a society poorer and less happy. Consider the owner of the 10-year-old sedan that gets a family reliably to every necessary destination. Now a neighbor buys a $50,000 SUV. The sedan owner wants to keep up with the Jones family and their pavement-melting SUV so he takes on a second job and cancels plans to take a nice summer vacation. Now he and everyone else in the neighborhood have $50,000 SUVs but for most of them it isn’t something they would have bought otherwise, which in turn means that they will derive less than $50,000 in value from having the new vehicle compared to the old. If the former sedan owner previously would have only paid about $10,000 to swap our his old car for the new SUV then he suffers a $40,000 loss as a consequence of conspicuous consumption. This may be one reason why people suffer a measured loss of happiness when neighbors get wealthier.
One way to be happy with less income is to not need a car, a $9,100/year sinkhole for American family wealth (source). Unless a transport service runs fairly frequently it cannot serve as a replacement for a car. The Danes run the Metro every six minutes even at off-peak times and keep it going 24 hours per day (the only U.S. city that comes close to this is New York). Trains that handle hour-long trips to outlying towns will run at least three times per hour all day. Roads almost everywhere have dedicated lanes for bicycles (see separate posting). These lanes are separated from the car lanes by a curb. So a Dane can always use a bicycle safely. He or she can always rely on the Metro. He or she can conveniently rely on train service. Possible lesson for the U.S.: either shut down public transit or beef it up to the point that people can get rid of cars (of course, we would probably want to reconsider running these services with government employees, who earn as much as $100 per hour (plus benefits) to drive a bus (see Boston Globe). Eliminating a $9,000/year after-tax expense is equivalent to giving an American family a $12,000 to $18,000 pay raise (depending on income level and combined city/state/federal income tax rate). Most families would be happy if the adults got a raise like that!
Another way to be happy with less income is to spend less time occupied with money. The smallest coin in general circulation is half a crown. This is worth about 9 U.S. cents. In other words, the smallest value coin that a Dane might conceivably handle is a dime. So people aren’t counting pennies. Sales tax is included in the published price so you don’t end up spending 10 percent more than expected, as you would in California, for example. Credit/debit cards are accepted everywhere for everything so you could spend months without handling cash.
Danish life seems to involve less uncertainty. You can be pretty sure that you aren’t going to strike it rich. There are only a handful of wildly successful enterprises in Denmark, e.g., Maersk and Novo Nordisk. At the same time you aren’t going to become destitute. So you can concentrate on stuff other than trying to earn more money, e.g., connections to family and friends, participation in community groups, hobbies, etc. These non-work items are the ones that happiness nerds say are the most important.
Divorce, a big potential source of unhappiness, is simpler, cheaper, and faster, as covered in a separate posting.
One element of certainty that not everyone will appreciate is the adherence to and enforcement of rules without exceptions. We spent a day with a guy who uses a wheelchair. We’d be stopped at the side of a country road trying to cross. In the U.S. it would be almost unimaginable for a car not to have stopped to let a wheelchair-bound person cross (imagine trying to explain to a passenger why you hadn’t stopped!). But in Denmark the cars would whiz by. They had the right of way under the rules and they were taking it, regardless of the fact that the pedestrian happened to be in a wheelchair. We parked at Hamlet’s castle, in an out-of-the-way town northeast of Copenhagen. The parking lot was only about one third full. Everyone parked there was buying $13/person tickets to see the castle. Yet we had to buy a timed ticket to park there until 3:03 pm. We were a little late getting back and discovered that at 3:08 pm the authorities had noticed our overtime parking and given us a $116 ticket (an effective rate of $1392/hour for those last five minutes). [Separate issue: why oh why can we not have a Singapore-style system where a transponder in the car and sensors in parking lots and on congested roads take the money out of our checking accounts without us having to pay constant attention?]
As has been pointed out by a commenter on a previous post, Danes may have more affection for their more-or-less unified government than Americans have for our dog’s breakfast of local, state, and federal governments. Taxes are high in Denmark but services are visible: fantastic parks and playgrounds, beautifully maintained public facilities of all kinds, paid-for education through college and graduate school, paid-for health care, etc. In the U.S. the government doesn’t provide that much to employed middle class families. We get a public school that was supposed to be for our kids but is often run for the benefit of school system employees instead. We get to drive on roads that are very poorly maintained compared to Danish roads and lacking in bicycle infrastructure. We have fire and police departments, of course, but ideally we don’t rely on them for hands-on assistance every day.
Having a smaller socially cohesive society yields substantial savings in time and money. Partly due to trust and partly due to having civil law (based on the Roman/Napoleonic Code) rather than common law, transactions can be very simple. I rented a $1000 bicycle in Denmark for a week without putting down any kind of security deposit, signing any liability waiver forms, or receiving a helmet (Danes do a huge amount of cycling but helmet use is uncommon compared to the U.S.). Museums had spent a lot less time writing out elaborate rules for what you could and could not do and employ very few guards by American standards. The Copenhagen airport doesn’t have the fancy X-ray scanners and you don’t take off your shoes to go through the metal detector (it is extremely uncommon to wait more than 10 minutes to get through security, according to locals). Office buildings spend much less on security. The U.S. per-capita GDP is much higher than Denmark, but much of the GDP is spent on writing and signing liability waivers, hiring security guards, paying TSA screeners and investing in fancy machines, running prisons to incarcerate people at the world’s highest rate (Wikipedia shows that Denmark has 1/10th as many prisoners per capita as the U.S.), etc. This is not to say that life in Denmark is perfect. The Louisiana Art Museum warns visitors about thieves breaking into cars in the parking lot. I helped a Canadian woman adjust a used bicycle that she had just bought because her previous bike had been stolen. Even in a country where all of the necessities can be obtained from the state, some people will decide to augment their material lifestyle through crime.
What about people stuck in low-wage service jobs? How happy are they? I asked a smiling young woman who was serving us ice cream ($6/cone) if she loved her job. “How would you like to do this for 8 hours per day?” she replied. “That girl was probably making about $22 per hour,” an American emigrant to Denmark pointed out. “And she’ll take home half of it after taxes. You will never get the kind of service in a restaurant that you expect in the U.S. because the waitstaff aren’t working for tips.” Mostly what I noticed was that there were fewer workers in many situations compared to the U.S. and more effort put into saving labor. For example, we went to a supermarket at about 2:30 pm on a weekday and a 15-person line had developed to wait for the single cashier. At the airport Icelandair had chosen to employ a staff of zero at the check-in desks. Passengers were expected to get a boarding pass from a machine and drop their bags at an SAS counter. Before going through security the Danes had a step to verify the validity of one’s boarding pass. Where in the U.S. this was done by a private security screener and then again by a TSA agent, in Denmark this is done with a self-service machine.
Finally… how about those prices? Is it possible to be happy in a country where McDonald’s charges for ketchup? Will a person be thrilled if the only available solution to thirst is a $4 bottle of water or trying to drink from the tap (museums don’t have drinking fountains)? For a visitor staying with a Danish host one answer is to live like a Muslim during Ramadan. Eat a big breakfast and drink a lot of tap water prior to heading out for a day of sightseeing. Try not to consume any food or drink until returning in the evening. Buy all souvenirs at the airport before departing so that you can get a 25% discount (the shops and prices are the same, but you won’t pay value-added tax if you can show a ticket back to the U.S.).
[Travel tips: Consider flying Icelandair. The flight attendants are friendly and enthusiastic. The planes are on time and not too packed. The stop in Iceland means that no leg is longer than five hours. There is no Heathrow-style 45-minute security line to change planes. You'll clear immigration in Iceland in about 5 minutes and won't be asked to show your passport again when you arrive in Denmark. They sell Angry Birds lollipops in the duty-free shop.]
More: See a few of my photos