MAY Discussion: Is there any truth to this story?

Danes are the happiest people in Europe, a survey suggests. But what is the secret of their contentedness?

Something is markedly unrotten in the state of Denmark.

Asked to rate both their happiness and long-term life satisfaction, Danish people trounce their European cousins.
Many in Denmark put this regularly-surveyed contentedness down to a dynamic economy and a pleasant work-life balance, with people leaving the office on time, jumping on effective public transport and heading off to pick up their delightful children from a shiny, well-run kindergarten.

But there are others out to savage the myth of the happy Dane, arguing that low expectations of life account for their unusually happy disposition.

Kevin McGwin, from Maine in the US, works on the Copenhagen Post newspaper, and is well-used to surveys suggesting the Danish love of life. It could all be down to a pleasant quality of life, he suggests.
“Denmark is very consumer-oriented and very family-oriented. People are sure to leave work at 4.30pm. They work their eight hours and go home. Pressure to work overtime doesn’t exist.”

Denmark has a 37-hour week. Parents get 52 weeks of maternity/paternity leave to be shared between them – 24 weeks is usually at full pay, with the rest often at as much as 90% pay. Much of it can be spread over the first nine years of the child’s life. Childcare is subsidised with no parent being asked to pay more than 25% of the cost.

Danish ambassador to London Birger Riis-Jorgensen says he doesn’t find it surprising Danes rate themselves as happy.
“In other parts of Europe globalisation is perceived as a threat. For Danes, 78% think globalisation is an opportunity.
“We have high taxes but we have generous unemployment benefits, a lot of life-long learning. We feel secure and we feel that we have opportunities.

“We have a lot of faith in government as an institution. The authorities are normally competent, uncorrupt and approachable.”
Danes fundamentally believe their state is well run, Mr Riis-Jorgensen says, but citizens are still capable of complaining when there are problems with public services.

“If 5% of trains are running late it is a political problem.”
And the safe streets of Copenhagen can be a surprise to foreign visitors.
“When foreigners are finding out they can safely let their children bike to school in the suburbs of Copenhagen they get pretty amazed.”

But a study by the University of Southern Denmark earlier this year found success in happiness surveys might be down to low expectations.

Fears not realised

Researcher Kaare Christensen looked back over three decades of surveys that had created the legend of the “happy Dane”.
“In countries such as Italy and Spain, people have much higher expectations for what the coming year will bring, but they’re not especially happy or satisfied with their existence.”

But Danes take a more realistic view of life, he suggested at the time.
“Year after year we’re just happy that things didn’t go as badly as we’d feared.”

And even McGwin, who is married to a Dane, is sceptical that Danes’ happiness is all its cracked up to be.
“The weather here is pretty lousy and half the year it’s dark. They are as depressed as Hamlet some days.”

© BBC – April 2007

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