Denmark is the happiest place on earth. So say the polls and Morley Safer on 60 Minutes. Why is that? The Danes have high taxes, and the weather is cold. But other than that, their life style is terrific: great health care; students get paid to go to college; six weeks mandatory paid vacation every year for everyone; a 35 hour work week, or less; they don't believe anyone is better than anyone else; family and friends are more important than money and status.
My husband Kenneth is a Dane, and he is one of the happiest people I have ever met. So are his parents. Kenneth has lived in California for almost twenty years, but it hasn't dimmed his natural joy. He's so happy in the morning, I've wondered if he's taking something. Does he have a stash of Happy Pills in his drawer that I don't know about? I love the morning, and I'm usually in a fairly good mood when I get up, but sometimes faced with all his radiance, I have to ask, "Why are you so happy?" He shrugs, "I don't know," and wanders off in a cloud of contentment.
His mother's favorite saying is, "It's not so bad." One time she fell off her bicycle, (the Danes ride bikes, preferring them to cars that pollute and cost too much), and cut her thigh. She was in Spain at the time, vacationing. She didn't want to go to the doctor, so she walked back to the boat and sewed up the cut with her sewing kit. "It wasn't so bad," she told me. Kenneth's parents are sailors. Their sailboat isn't very big, but they sailed it across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, just the two of them and their dog. Kenneth's parents haven't worked since they were fifty years old. They prefer to be free, and they can be, frugal, happy, and free.
When I'm in Denmark, I have to admit, I feel happy. The Danes love to socialize, they call it hyggelig, getting together with friends/family and sitting around real cozy for hours talking and laughing and eating and drinking. They are always outside at a café, no matter what the weather is like. Any chance they get to be outside in a shred of sunlight, there they'll be, at the café tables, ordering up lots of good things to eat and drink, the bicycles parked in a row, a circle, no one locks anything, the baby strollers are there, the dogs, everyone feeling hyggelig.
The Danes have a saying: We work to live, we don't live to work.
Last night, in bed, I asked Kenneth what he believed in, what was his strongest belief. "That I'm going to die," he said.
"That's nice," I said. "What a joyful thought."
Kenneth shrugged. "It's not so bad."
"How do you know?"
"I don't know. But it's one of my strongest beliefs."
"What's another one?" I asked. "How about God?"
God is not the least bit interesting to Kenneth. In fact, his face kind of squinches up at the word.
"No," he said.
"No?" Kenneth didn't answer. God truly bores him. "Well," I said, "How about reincarnation?" This gets a glimmer.
"Maybe. But not as people."
"Then what?" I asked.
"Oh, animals or plants or dirt," he said.
"Then why not people? People are animals, and they have dirt and plant-like qualities."
Kenneth yawned. "Maybe." Then he closed his eyes and went to sleep. Immediately. Kenneth once told me, "I have a good sleeping heart."
If Kenneth was so happy in Denmark, why did he come here? The adventure, and other reasons I can't divulge, but he will always be a Dane, through and through. He loves his country. He considers California his country, too, but America as a whole, I'm not sure.
Morley Safer on 60 Minutes also said that the Danes have low expectations, another reason for their happiness. If they don't get this or that, it doesn't mar their lives. The American Dream can make us so miserable, trying to attain it. Freedom and happiness mean more to the Danes than attaining so many things, status, prestige, money, cars, houses. They have high hopes, but don't get disappointed if their dreams don't come true.
It's not so bad, they say. And they have plenty of hyggelig.
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