As I was preparing for this summer and told people I was going to Denmark, one of the first things they would say is “that’s the happiest country in the world!” I would smile and nod my head while thinking “it’s probably because they have free healthcare and education that is focused on healthy growth and development rather than standardized test scores.” Nevertheless, I definitely came to Denmark determined to gain some more insight on why the Danes consistently report being the happiest. With the help of my Positive Psychology course, I think I found some answers.
Just to set the record straight, Finland is actually the country that is ranked as the happiest in the world according to the 2019 World Happiness Report. Denmark did hold the title in 2016, but has since dropped down to second and third place over the past few years. Still, the Danes have consistently held their position in the top five so I think it is safe to say that Denmark is in fact one of the happiest countries in the world. But why?
The World Happiness Report explains that the happiest countries “tend to have high values for most of the key variables that have been found to support well-being: income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust and generosity.” While I have observed almost all of these to be present in Danish society, the aspect that I find the most powerful is the deep social trust that exists in Denmark. Generally speaking, social trust is a belief in the honesty, integrity and reliability of others and a person’s level of this reflects their estimate of trustworthiness of people in general.
Not surprisingly then is the idea that social trust is a necessary component of a cohesive society because people who trust one another are more likely to interact and cooperate. When citizens believe that they have people and resources to fall back on in times of need, they become more willing and motivated to contribute positively to society. This seems pretty straight forward, right?
Social trust is a foundational component of Denmark’s economic system that emphasizes equality, therefore leading to higher levels of wellbeing for its citizens. Researchers have found that social trust is often lower in countries where income inequality is greater, which can further lead to inequalities of subjective wellbeing.
Places like Canada, the Netherlands, and Nordic countries that have high levels of social trust subsequently rank higher on economic equality. Furthermore, these countries emphasize the importance of creating equality of opportunity in terms of social institutions like public education, health care, and the labor market. Interestingly, the social welfare state of Denmark ranks high on the Gini index, a measure of income equality, revealing that Danes experience comparatively less income inequality than other countries.
This all sounds great on paper, but how does it really play out? For an assignment in my Positive Psychology course, I conducted informal interviews with Danes to find out why they believe Denmark is such a happy place to live. When I talked to a small group of middle aged Danes, they expressed the peace of mind they experience as a result of the financial safety net of the welfare state. They explained how they believe it is “hard to become really poor” because they feel like the government will assist them if they run into financial troubles. I highly doubt this is an answer I would hear if I asked Americans about feelings towards financial security from the government.
Furthermore, the Danish welfare model helps reduce anxieties about financial uncertainties. For example, education is free which means that parents do not have to worry about how they are going to support their children’s education and career aspirations. Parents can also receive up to 32 weeks of financial support for parental leave and all Danish citizens receive access to free health care. When interviewing the Danes, these were positive features that they expressed pride in. Clearly, this drastically contrasts to the systems that exist in the U.S.
Social trust is also an underlying factor of Denmark’s tax system. Denmark has one of the highest tax rates in the world with the average Dane paying 45 percent in income tax. To most Americans, this number seems outrageous. However, most Danes support this system because they see this as a way to purchase a quality of life and invest in their society. While the Danes that I interviewed did not seem overly thrilled with the fact that a large portion of their salary is given back to the state, they also did not appear to be resentful or angry about it. Rather, they expressed understanding of the system and a belief that they are benefiting from it.
This is another drastic cultural difference that I observe in America and presumably other Western countries. There is a major opposition to increasing income tax, especially among the wealthy, because most people do not believe that they should be paying to support other people. The “American Dream” narrative that underlies the majority of our social and economic systems emphasizes the belief that if you work hard enough then you will be rewarded appropriately. This means that those who receive welfare benefits or government aid are unfairly seen as lazy and deserving of their economic hardship.
Another interesting research finding we talked about in class is that prosocial spending is associated with higher levels of wellbeing and life satisfaction. Generally speaking, prosocial spending is using one’s money to benefit others as opposed to spending on oneself. Because Danes pay some of the highest taxes, this may be another contributing factor to Denmark’s high ranking on happiness measures.
Overall, I think that that a main reason why Denmark ranks as one of the happiest countries is because of the social trust that underlies the Danish welfare and tax system. When people feel like they are supported and have a financial safety net in hard times, they are more likely to contribute to their communities. By taking pride in and caring about the wellbeing of others, they are also contributing to their own happiness. While this is definitely not the whole story, it is a variable that I believe is the most fascinating and impactful.
This does not mean that a similar system would work in the U.S., and I think that even just hinting at the idea of socialism would be blasphemous to many Americans. But maybe the concept of social trust could be fostered in other ways that align better with the traditional American values that the majority of people in the U.S. hold.
For example, treating people fairly and justly means creating systems that allow for equal opportunities. Starting off with the assumption that anything can be achieved through hard work and dedication ignores the fact that different socioeconomic backgrounds and environments face unique barriers. Taking these factors into account and investing in Americans who need extra support may help us achieve real equality and increased wellbeing.
I do not think that we need to become Danish to create a happier United States, but we can learn a thing or two from the Danes.