Happy Danes Are Here Again August 1, 2008Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
I, too, must apologize for the infrequency of my postings lately; like Dwight, I spent part of this summer in Europe, in the Happiest Place on Earth. No, not EuroDisney, but Denmark (hence the blogs about Danish Conditions), and while I could spend time analyzing Danish beer (because it is good, and plentiful), I want to reach higher (or lower) and look at the consequences of good beer, or perhaps the root causes. This is my roundabout way of getting to the issue that keeps popping up: the numerous surveys confirming that the Danes are the Happiest People on Earth, lately a 60 Minutes show from Feb.17/June 12, and the recent annual survey of the National Science Foundation.
Is it true? Are Danes happier than others? There is something curious about not only the question, but also the answers. You’d think that Danes would love to hear that they’re so happy, but they don’t. It makes them downright unhappy, and causes a flurry of counter-surveys where Danes try to prove to themselves that they’re a miserable, suspicious lot. They point to the high suicide rate, the lousy weather, the high taxes, the bureaucracy, and so forth. Intellectual Danes prefer to think of themselves as Kierkegaardian melancholics with an ironic distance, pondering existential issues in noble suffering. But they’re actually quite level-headed, even so, and people outside of academia, without the ambition of living up to a tradition of seasonal depression, are really fairly contented. And here we reach the issue of the question itself: While all these surveys agree that Danes are “happy,” few seems to bother defining what they mean by “happy.” Perhaps that’s because they’re not philosophers. Is it a constant, or even occasional, feeling of ecstasy? Is it a bubbly, bouncy, joyous undertone to one’s life? Is it a general “feeling good” about things? A confident expectation of good consequences? Or is it simply absence of misery? Believe me, Danes aren’t bouncy, or ecstatic, any more than the rest of you guys. They like to laugh, but that doesn’t make them perennially lighthearted. But there is a significant absence of misery, inasmuch as the country has had a stable social system for over 150 years, with a clear focus on a safety net for most if not all, and social engineering involving a +50 percent income tax rate, in addition to the near-20 percent VAT (value added tax). Equality is a big thing in the Danish public spirit and history, as an ideal, if not an actual fact these days, and there is a common belief (not quite justified anymore) that nothing can go totally wrong, because the System will watch out for you. So there is an absence of abject fear of the future—even right now, with the Danish housing market nose diving, people still have faith that “it’ll all work out.” Which puzzles economic analysts.
But there is something else: the size of dreams. In this country we’re used to big dreams, big successes, and also big disappointments. Some of us like it that way. In Danish, however, I can’t recall any equivalent expression for “The sky is the limit.” But there is Danish expression, “God has made it so the trees don’t grow into the sky.” In other words, one doesn’t strive beyond the realm of what one considers feasible. Is that a sign of a mature culture? Or a culture cooped up in a very small place, having to adjust to close neighbors? I know what Nietzsche would say—“herd mentality”! That doesn’t mean he’d be right, but if a small place creates small-scale dreams, it means one’s expectations aren’t too high, and one doesn’t get easily disappointed. This answer was actually featured in the 60 Minutes show, but it had already been circulating on the web for a few years, among expatriate Danes.
Let’s end on a less serious note. That brings me back to beer. One of the expectations that Danes do have, is the accessibility of excellent beer. Microbreweries are abundant, and the classics, Tuborg and Carlsberg (supporter of the arts) are still around, too. As much as Denmark prepares to be a wine producing country within the next 20 years and expected heat waves, beer is still king. Do people make beer because they feel good? Or do they feel good because they make beer? I remember a particularly long hot summer many years ago in Denmark, when the breweries went on strike—picking their timing well. Then the Danes were miserable; everything was wrong, they didn’t trust the government, they feared the future—in other words, they acted like we do on a regular basis. Have we found the missing element, the secret to the Danish happiness recipe? Hmmmm……….