Once again this year, Denmark was named the happiest place on Earth – and by no less an organization than the United Nations! The latest World Happiness Report plopped us Danes atop of a populous pile of 156 nations.
But how can this be? High taxation? Beautiful people? Pastries? After polling current DIS students and staff, we have some answers…
#1: From the Bakery to the New Nordic Kitchen
Ok, so pickled herring with raw onion might not sound appetizing to the American pallet, but Denmark does possess an impressive platter of local specialties to keep everyone smiling.
The local pastries are delish – hence, why the world calls them ‘Danish pastries’ (the modest Danes refer to them as ‘wienerbrød’, translated literally as ‘Vienna bread’). From flødeboller, to snitter, to snegler, these tasty pastries line the windows of bakeries throughout Copenhagen. Sankt Peders Bageri, around the corner from DIS, offers Wednesday snegle deals!
Denmark is also bringing the ‘New Nordic Kitchen’ to the world stage. Think many courses with small portions, creatively displayed, of ingredients found locally throughout the seasons. Copenhagen’s restaurants alone have a total of 15 Michelin stars, with Noma voted the world’s best restaurant three of the last four years. While Danish smørrebrød restaurants are becoming trendy in New York city neighborhoods, there’s nothing like the real thing when walking by a shop window in Copenhagen full of colorful open-faced sandwiches built to taste bud perfection.
#2: Green, Clean, and Serene!
We cycle everywhere. In fact 50% of Copenhagen’s urban commuters travel by bike. This means more daylight, more fresh air, fewer traffic jams, less stress, lower fuel costs, more human interaction, and free exercise (which of course release endorphins that make us happy!)
This urban philosophy is mirrored throughout Danish society with a huge focus on sustainability. For instance, half of domestic electricity production will be wind power by 2020 (it is currently 20%), biomass is the largest renewable energy source at 70%, and by 2050 Denmark is aiming for total energy supply based on renewables.
With more hours of darkness in winter than an exceptionally thirsty vampire would even deem necessary, hygge holds a special place in the hearts of Danes. You’ll hear us say that the word cannot be translated to English because there is no equivalent concept, but best translated, hygge means ‘coziness’ or ‘snugness’ – just with Danish interior design and loads of candles. Whether you live with a Danish homestay, meeting a friend for a coffee at a café, or popping into an office at DIS, you’ll find candlelight keeping us hyggelig – a tradition DIS students always bring back with them to the U.S. after a semester in Denmark.
#4: The Weather (Yes, the Weather)
Sure, Denmark is known for rainy days, but we are not afraid of the weather, and love to be outside year-long. In fact, one of the most infamous Danish sayings translates to “there’s no bad weather, only bad clothes.” Throughout the fall and into winter, it’s common to see Danes sitting outside at restaurants with a lap blanket, leaving a baby warmly tucked into their stroller outside a cafe, and biking through wind, rain, and snow.
And when the days grow warm and start to lengthen in the spring, we take to the parks, outdoor cafes, canal sea baths, beaches, and city squares with such wanton enthusiasm. Jazz festivals, open-air markets, fairs, concerts, food festivals, sporting events, and traditional summertime celebrations like Sankthans Aften, fight for outdoor space and slots in the bursting Danish calendar!
#5: Social Security and Low Income Inequality
Time to get serious and delve into the world of Danish politics. From 1924 until 2001, the Social Democrats were Denmark’s largest parliamentary political party, which allowed them to lay the foundation for a modern welfare state, with low income inequality and well-funded social services. As Danes, we have what many refer to as a ‘safety net’ which allows us to take bigger risks with what we want to do with our lives, and we are one of the most socially mobile societies.
We have benefits like state-funded education and up to a year for maternity leave (and dads can even take very generous paternity leave), and lower crime rates which are great for our stress levels! And even if we do get too stressed, we have public health care to fall back on.
Of course, taxes in Denmark are very high as a result, but the social consequences tend to be positive enough for us Danes to make the sacrifice.
#6: Pretty Palaces and New Nordic Architecture
As well as being a society of low inequality, Denmark is also Europe’s oldest monarchy – something perhaps slightly incongruous to outsiders (you can even take a course Royalty in the Land of Equality). The Kingdom of Denmark, as it is officially known, is a unitary constitutional monarchy with Margrethe II as our queen. Beautiful castles dot across Denmark and even downtown Copenhagen, giving the country a feel of a fairytale landscape. The palaces and castles are complemented with winding medieval streets, cathedral spires, Viking burial grounds, and baroque buildings all with their own stories to tell.
Next to spires, cobblestones, and castle gates, you’ll find some of the world’s most cutting-edge buildings and urban landscapes! Nowadays, Denmark is a renowned leader in urban design and architecture and the center of the New Nordic design movement. Henning Larsen, Bjarke Ingels’ BIG, and Jan Gehl are just some of the world-famous names making Denmark a leader in design – spreading exciting and functional architecture around the globe.
Consider taking courses in architecture, interior architecture, urban design, or urban studies – offering you deeper insight and understanding of Scandinavian and Danish architecture and design methods.
#7: (Not So) Great Expectations
This is the most popular suggestion for why Denmark is the world’s happiest nation. Basically, we have low expectations – we wake up expecting clouds and rain and then the sun shines! This lack of entitlement in terms of having a good career, satisfying social life, and so forth means we are rarely disappointed and, often, pleasantly surprised.
But “low expectations” is perhaps not completely accurate as a reason. Danes don’t necessarily have a pessimistic disposition – merely realistic expectations. But when you live in a country with excellent contemporary urban design, a strong architectural heritage, cutting-edge Nordic cuisine, low crime, and a social welfare safety net as givens, perhaps having normal expectations does make you happy!