Why Are the Danes So Happy? It's the Simple Things

By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 10, 2008

It was a long time before I felt comfortable asking the Danes why they are the happiest people on Earth, and by then I had already made up my mind as to why this was, already decided it wasn't for me, already sullied the country's largest park with a sign that read, "WHY ARE THE DANES THE WORLD'S HAPPIEST PEOPLE? AMERICAN NEWSPAPER WANTS TO KNOW."

It was all very melodramatic and, as such, distinctly un-Scandinavian, but I had only a few days for a pursuit of their happiness and needed to make every moment count. My tip-off came courtesy the University of Michigan's World Values Survey, which in June proclaimed Denmark to be the happiest nation among 97 surveyed, a conclusion arrived at by asking souls all around the world whether they were very happy, rather happy, not very happy or not at all happy.

A high percentage of Danes put themselves in the first category, which seemed awfully, well, happy of them, especially given the present state of the world. I decided that this was something that needed to be investigated, but then I got there and found that happiness was a difficult subject to broach, mostly because of what it seemed to imply.

"Is it that the people of the United States are not happy?" said the first person I asked, a woman selling sausages from a cart on the Radhuspladsen, Copenhagen's expansive central square.

I gave her my best whatever-gave-you-that-idea face, which she immediately saw through. Then I sighed.

"We're sixteenth."

Sixteenth happiest, that is. The sausage lady smiled vacantly, the same smile she'd given me earlier when I'd asked for a knakker ("A knocker? A nacker? I'm talking about the fat one"), one of those glorious sausages that snap when you bite into them, a snap you can hear on most street corners in town.

"I think we are happiest because of the Carlsberg," she finally said.

At first I thought the sausage lady was being flip, just trying to take the edge off her conversation with the American, whose countrymen are known for their competitiveness and penchant for concealed weapons. Then it occurred to me that she might be serious. After all, Carlsberg is a Danish beer even more ubiquitous than the sausages, and thus could double as a handy metaphor for the country itself: simple, unremarkable, blond. Furthermore, a few pints into it, simplicity does indeed seem a virtue, unremarkable things become their opposite and, well, blonds do appear to have more fun. But then the buzz lifts, the dazzle evaporates and with it any real chance you'll ever be as happy as the Danes.

* * *

The Moorish architecture and minarets have been restored to former glory and there's now a loop coaster that you might see in any amusement park in the world, but other than that, there's not much I can tell you about Tivoli Gardens that you don't already know. Copenhagen's celebrated playground, which dates to 1843, still impresses with its odd combination of string quartets and thrill rides, and the 120,000 light bulbs still don't come into their own until sundown, which, this being Copenhagen in summer, doesn't happen until 10. Oh, and the sight of drowsy children falling easily into their parents' arms at midnight is as precious as ever.

"I came from a working-class family in Essex," said Paul Cunningham. He was sitting on a stairway behind the Tivoli restaurant that bears his name -- the Paul. His airy, glass-walled eatery (it's haute cuisine in a conservatory, really) is one of 11 Copenhagen restaurants in possession of a Michelin star, and so Cunningham is by definition a "hot chef," a British transplant who is helping lead a resurgence in Danish cooking.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company