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Happy Danes Are Here Again August 1, 2008

Posted 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……….



1. Dwight Furrow - August 1, 2008

Hi Nina and welcome back.

I concur about some of the social science literature on happiness. They never clearly define what exactly they’re measuring. It should be obvious that expectations matter in a person’s judgment about their condition. It is too bad they don’t read our books.

As to the Danes, I am sure they are happy because of their beer. And when global warming allows them to grow wine grapes they can graduate to the pursuit of nirvana. (Yes, I am revealing a prejudice.)

Of course, because Nirvana is more difficult to achieve and quality wine grapes difficult to grow they will no longer be happy having raised their expectations.

2. Paul Moloney - August 2, 2008

If nothing else in the Bible is true, the passage where Paul tells Timothy to take some wine for the sake of his stomach seems to have truth in it. I have a mild form of colitis which interferes with my digestion. Drinking wine settles my stomach. Drinking beer can be more fun for me than drinking wine, but the beer does not have the same medicinal effect on me. Beer and wine are topics in themselves, on which I could go on and on.

It is interesting to hear that the Danish people are the happiest people on earth. I am glad that someone is.

It would seem that happiness would have something to do with knowledge, as it would seem to be impossible for anyone to be happy without knowing they are happy. Knowledge is not the same as opinion, as opinion is mixed with ignorance and ignorance is the contrary of knowledge. People, then, can be of the opinion that they are happy when they are not. A common notion seems to be that happiness is equated with pleasure. It would seem that happiness would include pleasure, at least not exclude it.

If happiness does have a correspondence to knowledge, it would seem we would more likely be happy the more intelligent we became. If happiness is a byproduct of knowledge, this would be another reason to consider ignorance an evil.

3. Mopers Unite! « Philosophy On The Mesa - August 25, 2008

[…] has made the same mistake to which Nina alludes in this post from a few weeks ago—he defines happiness as contentment without ever considering the […]

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