Oh, Happy Danes

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During the past few months, there’s been some buzz about a University of Leicester study that found Denmark to be the happiest country on earth.

Denmark? The country with the second-highest suicide rate in Europe? The home of gray skies, pickled eel, 60% tax rates — and Prince Hamlet, the most famously depressed character in all of literature?

Yes, that Denmark. It outranked all of the 178 nations surveyed, including the US (23rd), UK (41st), France (62nd) and Japan (90th).

Anyone who’s even slightly libertarian (Is such a thing possible?) is bound to ask how can it be. And, I suspect you are at least as skeptical as I am about surveys like this one. However, however much the validity of the researchers’ conclusions may be questioned, some striking insights emerge from their work.

The researchers concluded that access to good healthcare and education are the most important factors in the happiness of a nation’s citizens. That could help to explain why Switzerland ranked second, Austria was third and Sweden, Finland and Canada made the top ten — along with Bhutan, an autocratic Himalayan kingdom. It might also explain why most of the countries at the bottom of the list are impoverished African states (all of which are, ahem, former colonies) and former Soviet republics.

However, I believe that there are two other co-related qualities that the researchers missed because they may not be as quantifiable as some of the qualities they measured. For lack of better terms, I will call them proximity to war and empire and anxiety about influence and power. These qualities bear upon another phenomenon researchers identified in the contented countries: People in them do not have lofty expectations from their own lives or their countries.

One trait that the Happiest Ten share is that none save Canada has been involved in a war lately. This flies in the face of what some military historians and social scientists have argued: Wars actually improve the mood of a country (at least if people think they’re not losing) because people "rally around" their leaders and homelands during time of conflict. Indeed, researchers going all the way back to Emile Durkheim have noted that rates of suicide usually decrease during times of conflict and as people direct themselves outwardly rather than inwardly. However, I don’t think that people at such times are less likely to commit suicide because they’re happier. Rather, anger toward a putative enemy seems to drive people at such times. Are angry people happy people?

Of the Tickled-pink Ten, only Canada sent troops to the Persian Gulf War of 1991. However, our neighbors to the north did not send as many soldiers, sailors and flyers as this country or its other allies sent. And in my own none-too-scientific observation, based mainly on conversations with Canadian friends and acquaintances and following coverage in their country’s media, the denizens of Quebec and Manitoba did not experience the surge of jingoistic pride over their country’s sojourn in the sands as the good burghers of New York and North Dakota experienced over their country’s imperialistic adventure.

Denmark’s last entanglement in combat was its ill-fated resistance to Hitler’s invasion and its aftermath. Switzerland has not been at war, officially or extralegally, in at least half a millennium; Sweden is also centuries removed from its last military conflagration. On the other hand, there’s been talk of Prince Harry himself joining his subjects who’ve been sinking alongside their American allies in the quicksand of internecine warfare in the desert.

While France has refused to send its young men and women to be slaughtered in the idiocy in Iraq, it — like England and the US — is still staggering under the weight of its militarism and imperialism. It sent a contingent to Bush the Elder’s Gulf War, but more important, it — again like Britain and America — is dealing with the consequences of its fairly recent colonialism and its military-industrial-welfare state. Even when they’re not elected to office, Jean-Marie Le Pen and his allies influence their nation’s politics by stoking smoldering resentments against les beurs and other immigrants from former colonies. Why are Algeriens and Ivoiriens flooding the customs gates of the Paris airports and the Port of Marseille, bringing the scenarios presented in Le Jour Ou France Tremblera (The Day France Will Shake) and Le Camp des Saints (The Camp of the Saints) to life? They are the inevitable casualties of any empire: The imperialistic power takes their land and other means of support from them, so they are left with few other options but to go to their former oppressors in search of work.

Furthermore, even when France, the United States or the United Kingdom are not directly involved in conflicts, their economies can be likened to addicts whose heroin, so to speak, is military spending. (Thank peace activist/physicist Michio Kaku for the analogy.) To justify such spending, new enemies must replace the ones that have expired or become allies. Whipping people into frenzy against young men who live and die for seventy-two virgins in the afterlife surely cannot improve anyone’s mental health or well-being. If suitable bogeymen can’t be found, a country’s plutocrats/warlords have one option: to sell their wares throughout the world. Thus have the three aforementioned countries become the world’s leading arms dealers. This breeds resentment, which gives people justification for their anger.

None of the Ten Happiest countries have fallen into this cycle. In fact, the Swiss have a history of arming no one but themselves, and then only enough to protect themselves. It’s pretty difficult to build an empire with such a policy, but, as we have seen, it has also kept them out of a lot of pointless wars. To be sure, the Danish and the Swedish crowns once lorded over empires. But the spread of those courts’ holdings never came close to rivaling those of his/her Majesty or la Grande Armee in their heydays, and even the oldest Danes and Swedes cannot remember hearing their cultures’ equivalents of "Rule Britannia." And the fortunate result is that people in those countries do not have the same oversized sense of what their nation’s role is, or should be, in the world.

You might say that they don’t have the hangover or withdrawal that inevitably follows militaristic imperialism. So they don’t engage in futile battles to hold on to Caribbean or Arctic islands, as the British did for so long with Northern Ireland and the French did in their North African colonies. They also don’t have to act out of fear that terrorist will wrest their grip off the world’s affairs, as American leaders seem to be doing now.

Not having such expansive overseas holdings also ensured that the Danes’ and Swedes’ languages would be spoken almost nowhere but in their own countries, and that anyone who emigrated would be assimilated into whichever country he settled. In contrast, there are still people who remember when French was the international language of diplomacy and culture and Britain "ruled the waves." People and nations cling stubbornly to memories, however distorted, of past glories and don’t give up visions they have of current lordship. So the American President finds that he can rationalize nearly anything and everything he pleases by saying that he leads "the world’s only superpower," and the French — and, to a lesser extent, the British — still cling to the notion that their capital is the center of the universe.

The results of clinging to such misguided and antiquated notions are encapsulated in a joke I heard when I was living in France:

Q: What do you call someone who speaks three languages?

A: Trilingual

Q: What do you call someone who speaks two languages?

A: Bilingual

Q: What do you call someone who speaks one language?

A: French, English or American (depending on who is telling the joke.)

At least one study testifies to this truth which, like so many others, is revealed in humor. In contrast, the Danes and Swedes are among the most likely Europeans to speak a language other than their own. I have been in many situations in which people spoke a language other than my own. I certainly felt calmer and more content when I understood the language. I suspect most people are like me: They tend to be more fearful of those they don’t understand than of those they do. In my experience, happiness generally does not include fear.

So, the University of Leicester people got at least part of the recipe for happiness right. Get a good education, be healthy — and get rid of your armies, colonies and anything else that makes governments powerful.

Justine Nicholas [send her mail] teaches English at the City University of New York.

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