Danish can teach us to be happy

Everyone in the world wants to be happy. The secrets of happiness are therefore eagerly sought and highly treasured, but often in misleading ways.

Robert Kennedy pointed out more than 40 years ago that, ”the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials… it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

An increasing body of evidence has shown that subjective well-being – or happiness – can be measured in national and international surveys and that they can inform policy making. The international surveys frequently name Denmark as the happiest country in the world and this has naturally prompted an increasing interest from happiness researchers.

The subject of happiness has risen high up the international agenda in recent years. In 2011, the UN adopted a resolution calling for all countries to increase the happiness of their inhabitants and, the following year, the first UN conference on happiness was held, together with its first World Happiness Report. Today, leaders from around the world are expressing an interest in why some societies are happier than others, and what we can learn from them.

In Britain, then Prime Minister David Cameron initiated a large-scale study of the happiness of the British. In the USA, the National Academy of Sciences established a panel to examine how happiness measurements can be used in the development of policy. Meanwhile, countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, France and Japan have also taken steps towards incorporating happiness as a parameter for the measurement of progress.

In fact, these ideas are nothing new. Since the beginning of the 1970s, happiness has been used as a measurement for Bhutan’s development, and the concept is now enshrined in the country’s constitution.

What are the elements that contribute to the happiness of the Danes?

A strong civil society and democracy, high degrees of security, trust, freedom and prosperity, together with good working conditions with space for a life in balance all make a difference.

The Danes trust each other. Not only do they trust their families and friends, but also the man on the street – people they don’t know.

The Danes’ freedom is enshrined in a number of rights and they experience a sense of being in control of their own lives.

Danish workplaces are generally characterised by high levels of autonomy and job quality, both of which contribute to their happiness.

As a democracy, they have a high level of political participation, good governance and a low level of corruption.

Denmark is one of the countries with the greatest levels of social cohesion in the world. One reason is the high degree of participation in voluntary work. Both voluntary work and social relations are important for happiness.

The ability to be able to balance working life, leisure and family life are crucial for happiness. The Danes have time for a family life and leisure alongside their careers and enjoy high levels of flexibility in the workplace.

As Carol Graham, a professor at the University of Maryland and senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, one of the US’s leading think-tanks, puts it: Denmark has “a national standard of living that most countries couldn’t even dream of having” – and that the Danes are maybe able to appreciate what they have, helps.

In 2011, the UN’s General Assembly announced that it is a human right to ”pursue happiness.” But even if we aren’t interested in happiness, there are a number of socio-economic benefits to be gained for society by focusing more on the population’s happiness levels.

Happiness has a positive effect on health for individuals and reduces health expenditure for society.

Meanwhile, happiness researchers point to a link between happiness and volunteer work.

People who are happy are more compassionate and mindful of others who have less than them. This link offers the chance to strengthen the voluntary sector and its contribution to solving society’s challenges.

Meanwhile, happiness has been shown to be beneficial for productivity. Articles in international journals such as The Economist (April 6 2012), The Financial Times (May 8 2013) and the Harvard Business Review (Jan-Feb 2012) have shown a great deal of interest in the happiness effect on a company’s bottom line.

One reason for this is that happy employees are more productive and more likely to remain in their jobs. Happy workers are also healthier, which reduces the number of sick days.

Therefore, more and more businesses are actively seeking to increase happiness levels among their employees – as an example Google has appointed a Chief Happiness Officer.

The World Happiness Report 2012 concludes: “It makes sense to pursue policies to raise the public’s happiness as much as it does to raise the public’s national income.”

It is time for a worldwide debate about what countries can do to raise the happiness levels of their people.

Through an increased focus on happiness and further research, it is possible to find the best ways to create a better framework for happy citizens.

Furthermore, we should ask ourselves how we can use happiness to achieve some of the aims we have for our countries – such as a stronger and more sustainable economy, and a healthier population.

Denmark has its own challenges but remains an example of a country that has succeeded in securing its people’s happiness.

“The research is helping us redefine the good life. And we should develop a better societal design for better lives. And since Denmark does so well, Denmark should continue to be one of the innovators,” says John Helliwell, Professor of Economics, University of British Columbia and co-editor of the World Happiness Report.

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. Write to her at helpmecarin@inl.co.za or send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.