Year in year out, some new study confirms that the world’s happiest people live in cold, wind-swept Denmark.
Geography of Bliss author Eric Weiner offers a compelling theory why: expectations. It isn’t really that the Danes have low expectations; it’s just that they do not, as we Americans tend to do, attach their personal well-being to to things they want. As Weiner wrote last week on his Happy Days blog:
Danes seem to know instinctively that expectations kill happiness, leaving the rest of us unhappy un-Danes to sweat it out on the “hedonic treadmill.” That’s what researchers call the tendency to constantly ratchet up our expectations, a sort of emotional inflation that devalues today’s accomplishments and robs us of all but the most fleeting contentment….
The hedonic treadmill insinuates itself into our lives, in ways large and small. As a budding audiophile, I recently purchased a headphone amplifier — a tiny black box that attaches to my iPod. Wow, I thought, this sounds incredible. At least that’s what I thought for about one week. Then my ears grew accustomed to the enhanced fidelity and craved something better. Before long, I was back on line, credit card in hand. Intellectually, I knew that my next audio fix would be just as fleeting, but I couldn’t resist the seductive pull of the hedonic treadmill.
Denmark represents what some sociologists call a “post-consumer society.” Danes have nice things, but they value quality over quantity. Instead of time spent shopping alone, Danes engage in hygge (pronounced “hoogey”). It’s a kind of spontaneous get-together with friends. Add to that the fact that Danes are compulsive joiners. Ninety-two percent of the population belongs to a social club. Almost all of the recent research into Happiness Studies comes to the same conclusion: we are social animals, and nothing makes us happy as consistently as strong social bonds.
A University of Cambridge study also found that trust in government, the police and other people is a remarkable determinant of individual happiness. All of the Scandinavian countries seem to bear this out. Transparency International gives Finland a 9.9 out of 10 in terms of political transparency and lack of corruption. Sixty-four percent of Norwegians agree with the statement, “Most people can be trusted.” In Brazil, the number plunges to five percent. What’s more, researchers have dropped wallets all around the world. The result? If you have to lose your wallet, do it in a Nordic country; the chances are good you’ll get it back.
While travelling through Scandinavia last year, I noticed something else. Train conductors and house painters are not looked down upon, or looked past. Scandinavians don’t seem to accept the rigid class divide of the U.S., and they don’t tie so much of their identity or their happiness to their jobs. What the American philosopher William James called “that bitch-goddess status” does not seem to hold as much sway over the Scandinavians as it does with us.
What’s going on here? How did the land of the obstreperous Vikings turn into the land of milk and honey? About 1,100 years ago, King Olaf discovered Christianity and converted his pagan country to the teachings of peace and brotherhood. The Scandinavians never seemed to take too seriously all the piety of Christianity, but they did start handing out an annual award for peace called the Nobel Prize.
The late, great American writer Guy Davenport spent several summers in Copenhagen. Many of his brilliant, utopian fictions are set there. He observed in his “Danish Journal,”
The Danes are a highly moral people who are unembarrassed by the facts of life. They sunbathe naked in their parks. They have decriminalized every affection they can think of.
I think it was Davenport’s profound disillusionment with his own country that led him to revere Danish culture above all others. The Danes adopted the right parts of Christianity–that whole brotherhood of man thing–and rejected piety and prejudice. They replaced consumerism with conviviality. As one of Davenport’s characters writes in his own journal, the Danes made their two greatest goods, “freedom of spirit for the individual, and social justice for the community.”
I could be happy with that.