Denmark is forever top of ‘happiest country’ surveys. But why? TV presenter Simon Reeve, usually found in the world’s danger zones, explains what lures him back
How times change. The Danes, pillagers of yore, and for centuries perhaps the last people you wanted to see anchoring longships near your village, are – officially – the happiest people in the world. Jolly and satisfied, the Danes have built one of the most contented societies the planet has ever known, and have been topping international happiness surveys for years.
For me, safe, humane, prosperous Denmark is something of an antidote to the troubles of the rest of the planet. I’ve spent the past few years travelling the Tropics, making TV documentaries in some of the poorest and most afflicted countries (Somalia, I think, ‘wins’ the title of most dangerous and devastated place in the world). In between I’ve been skipping off to a Scandinavian state at the other end of the scale.
The Danes are even head and shoulders above other Nordic nations in the happiness stakes. Not as uptight as the Swedes. Not artificially buoyed by oil-wealth like the Norwegians. And, thankfully, not as suicidal as the Finns.
Very little annoys the Danes, so they don’t get annoyed. Their tolerance has been in evidence since my first trip to Denmark, a Copenhagen lads’ weekend in my early 20s. We were supposed to be going to Barcelona, but plans changed at the last moment. Still thinking we were going to a beach, several of us arrived in Denmark without coats. In early (chilly) spring. The only option was to get roaringly drunk.
We were too well mannered to be obnoxious, but few countries like wandering inebriates. Yet as we staggered around Copenhagen imbibing all manner of local intoxicants, all we encountered was kindness and mild amusement. People helped us, advised us, took us to bars, bought us drinks. I liked the place.
I thought I should return. Lucky for me I married a half-Dane who has taken me on regular trips back across the water.
The main clue to the happy national mentality can be found in one Danish word: hygge. Pronounced ‘whoo-ger’, it has no direct English translation but means a combination of cosiness, relaxation, comfort and inner warmth. My wife Anya says it’s “the feeling you get when you rent a cottage and pack it with your closest friends”. To understand Denmark’s happiness, you need to understand and experience hygge.
The Danes are the least-religious people in the world. But they believe in hygge. It’s a way of living, a belief that great pleasure can be found in even the simplest of activities. Snuggling up on a sofa under a warm blanket to read a book could be hyggelig (the adjective – pronounced ‘who-ger-lee’), as could barbecuing some sausages with your family and downing a few beers under a moonlit sky. Christmas is the high season for hygge, a time when people go out of their way to create warmth and cosiness. They might not pay much attention to the Christian side of the festival, but the Danes still happily celebrate the good times that Christmas offers.
Some of my favourite hygge moments have been with my wife’s family in Århus, Denmark’s second city, on Christmas Eve, when Scandies swap presents, gather together, eat duck with vast quantities of delicious caramelised potatoes, down bottles of the finest Danish beer, and then form a circle around the tree, hold hands, dance and sing. With bitter cold kept outside, candles lighting inside, and regular toasts and bear-hugs all round, it is the very incarnation of hygge.
Yet cosy hyggelig times are still possible in summer. Denmark is a long way north, but in the area of Jutland around Århus, I’m convinced they have better summers than we do in Blighty. There’s more weather clarity, so if it’s going to rain it actually rains (less drizzle), and if it’s going to shine, the sun rolls out for the whole day. I haven’t checked this scientifically, I confess, but I reckon that during the summer Denmark is just less grey.
The good weather (and less available cash due to higher taxation) encourages most Danes to take their holidays at home.
Danes spend weekends and summers at their family summerhouses, another vital ingredient that ensures national happiness. Around one in four Danes owns a summerhouse, so almost every family has access to one of these simple country homes.
My in-laws have a single-storey wooden summerhouse on the coast of Jutland, looking out over the Kattegat straits towards Sweden. It’s not huge and fancy, but it is quite the most wonderful, relaxing place, with a garden that slopes casually down towards cliffs and the cold, twinkling sea.
Danish summerhouses are not palaces or vast estates, but they are perfect for dining alfresco, picnics, log fires and all other hyggelig activities. They ensure that almost everyone has a bolthole to which they can regularly escape, to spend time resting and enjoying the natural world.
In keeping with their status as greenies, Danes are also obsessive cyclists, which must surely help to keep them happy and healthy. The tallest hill in the country is just 171m high and Denmark has more dedicated cycle paths per capita than anywhere else on the planet, encouraging three out of four Danes to own bicycles.
Eleven national cycle routes stretch 4,000km across the country. To our shame, my wife and I have only cycled part of Number 5, which takes those with fitter thighs up and down almost the entire east coast of Jutland from Skagen to Sønderborg. But even the relatively short stretch we pedalled, along disused train tracks and forest paths, was a joy.
Danes seem to think they’re happy because they have a fairly pessimistic outlook. Ask them how they’re feeling and they’ll say: ‘Det kunne være værre’ (‘It could be worse’) – so they’re rarely disappointed, and instead pleasantly surprised when the sky doesn’t fall in on their heads.
That’s their opinion, but as an amateur student of happiness, I have another theory, based on the results of another survey Danes regularly top: the national income disparity index – the gap between richest and poorest.
In Denmark the gap is one of the lowest in the world. Nobody is too rich, nobody is too poor. Street cleaners earn a decent wage. Even if you’re a Dane who’s made a tidy bob, you don’t go around flaunting your wealth and making everyone else feel useless, jealous and poor. This simple social code makes a huge difference. After all, we’re a pack animal, and we judge ourselves by our peers.
Although it’s not entirely relevant, Danes aren’t bad looking. When Robbie Williams visited Denmark on a European tour, he’s said to have complained to his management that the producers of the accompanying tour video had packed the front of the crowd with dozens of ‘models’ (of both sexes). Er, no Rob, replied his management. That’s just a typical Danish crowd. Apocryphal or not, there’s no disputing the rather healthy Danish look.
Danes have a surprising aversion to outright commercialism. They make plenty of money, but haven’t sold their souls to capitalism. In much of Denmark shops still close at 2pm on a Saturday, even in main shopping centres. Ask a British retailer about this wisdom and they’d have a fit.
But everyone has got better things to do of a weekend than traipse around the shops. As stores close, bars and cafés open earlier and people squander less money shopping and spend more hygge time with their families and friends. It actually makes Danes happier.
So head across the water to Denmark. It’s the perfect place for a hygge holiday. Just remember to adapt to the national mentality and make your journey as jolly as possible.
Author and TV presenter Simon Reeve has visited around 100 countries and circled the world three times for the BBC TV series Equator, Tropic of Capricorn and Tropic of Cancer. He is currently plotting a new journey.