washingtonpost.com
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.

"The only time my family ever sat together was for a Sunday meal. In Denmark, it's every day," he told me. I listened as Cunningham gave me the social democracy elevator pitch, nodded as he spoke of "this secure society" and how "everything is built for the middle class, not the upper class" and "the health system is great" and "90 percent of the places serve non-chain coffee," all of which no doubt make their contributions to Danish well-being. But it was the image of the families sitting together every day that stuck with me, families where everyone knows each other's stories and kids fall easily into their parents' arms at midnight in the Tivoli.

And then there were the brief glimpses of joy I caught each time a fireworks shell burst or a fountain danced to life. It is probably unwise to judge a country's happiness by the faces of its children as lit by fireworks, but the quiet awe of Danish children at such moments was priceless.

On the other side of the park stands Restaurant Herman, which is new and does not yet have a Michelin star but is nevertheless the province of another hot chef, Thomas Herman. He is young, Danish and fiercely committed to keeping the country's dinner table interesting. This he does by taking Denmark's many comfort foods and moving them out of their comfort zones, which can be something of a dangerous game. Strawberries are still served with cream, for instance, but now the cream is infused with foie gras.

"I'm also playing with Burning Love," whispered Herman with some gravity, speaking of a dish of mashed potatoes and bacon that has been a Danish staple for generations. He is "reinventing my grandmother's kitchen," "getting people to recognize the memories with the taste" and serving tiny oysters on the half-shell dressed with cabbage and smoked meat, as well as tiny squirts of green ice cream bursting with the flavor of garden-fresh peas. In short, he's an innovator, though one whose views on the Big Question echoed those of the sausage lady:

"I think we are happy because we have the best beer in the world, Carlsberg."

Herman's restaurant belongs to a complex called Nimb, which reopened in May after a multimillion-dollar restoration. It boasts several eateries, a 13-room hotel with sumptuous suites overlooking Tivoli, an upscale delicatessen, a wine bar, a chocolate factory and an on-site dairy.

"We have a total lack of respect for authority," said Nimb's resident manager, Mogens Norgaard, offering his own theory on the source of Danish happiness. But such irreverence cuts both ways. For instance, "we don't listen to our doctors," he continued, which is why a disturbing percentage of Copenhageners still smoke cigarettes. Then again, is it this impiety that allows them to view anew what others have long since learned to ignore?

"See these?" said Norgaard as he ushered me through a hotel door. "They're Arne Jacobsen. You have to touch them."

I thought he was talking about someone in the next room, but no, it was the doorknobs themselves that he didn't want me to miss. Jacobsen, the famed 20th-century Danish designer, came up with these sleek silvery handles with the sensuous curves whose uniqueness, um, completely eluded me.

"They're amazing," I said, playing along. But then Norgaard smiled, which somehow pushed me over the top.

"When you grab them, it's almost like they grab you back!"

It was the sort of performance that didn't even fool the doorknobs, much less Norgaard, who gave a worried glance before hurrying me down the corridor.

* * *

All right, I'll level with you. I will never find happiness in a doorknob. Or a beer glass. Or a silver teapot (see below). This is not something I'm proud of, especially since it means that I'm far too American for so-called simple pleasures and that my warped sensibility has led to a headlong search for bigger fun, bigger cars and bigger credit-card bills, all of which will leave me exhausted and miserable and will shorten my life expectancy by several years. As such, I am exactly the wrong person to travel to Denmark and judge the Danes' epically modest life lessons.

Perhaps. But I can't help it. Hans Christian Andersen deserved more.

To get to the grave of the greatest writer of fairy tales in modern history, you have to trek farther from the center of Copenhagen than seems necessary, to an unfancy cemetery in the working-class neighborhood of Norrebro. There, after wandering down tree-lined lanes that wind past enormous monuments to Danes you've never heard of, you come across a simple headstone surrounded by hedges and set off only by a small patch of red begonias. I couldn't for the life of me understand why the inventor of the Ugly Duckling -- not to mention the princess who felt a pea through 20 mattresses and the town where an emperor paraded through the streets naked -- didn't spend eternity in a solid gold mausoleum.

(What about that major tourist attraction, the Little Mermaid statue in the harbor? you will ask. "It's our Statue of Liberty," someone told me, although it's worth noting that Miss Liberty is 300 feet tall and has her own island, while Miss Mermaid is barely five feet and sits on a boulder on the beach.)

"We just really enjoy simple things," explained Ken Nakashima, a Dane of Japanese descent who works at the Georg Jensen store downtown, where some of the world's most revered silver flatware is sold. "A dinner with friends, a coffee in the street" -- and, you guessed it, a modest grave. It felt odd to endure a lecture on simplicity from a man who sold the most ornately filigreed butter knives I'd ever seen, but Nakashima himself saw no contradiction. The headstone at Norrebro, the glittering 1915 silver and ebony Jensen teapot, the Little Mermaid and the Little Match Girl -- all wouldn't be nearly so lovely if they weren't quite small indeed.

This put me in mind of Mette Eriksen, a woman Danish to the core ("Yes, I'm quite satisfied, I'm quite happy") who had previously spoken of her countrymen's happiness as if it were a secret weapon. "Maybe it's because we're a small country," she said. "It's how we survive in a big world."

Eriksen spoke to me while painting cobalt blue flowers onto chalky, unfired porcelain at the Royal Copenhagen store and museum. Hers was a pattern that dates to 1775, and Eriksen has been painting some variation of it for more than 20 years. She barely looked up at her visitor -- an intruder from the Big World -- and instead simply smiled at a delicately beautiful plate while carefully sliding her brush across it.

"You don't ever get tired of doing this?" I asked. It was the sort of question that would only occur to someone from the Big World.

"I'm quite sure I could do this the rest of my life," she replied. "We feel that there's a little bit of a soul in each piece."

The shops of Royal Copenhagen and Georg Jensen sit just a few cobblestones apart on Stroget, a thoroughfare that bisects the city and is often referred to as the longest pedestrian street in the world. Along its half-mile length I saw a towhead in a Che Guevara T-shirt who was tap dancing for coins, as well as a covey of efficient waitresses at La Glace, the city's oldest bakery, where they pack butter cookies into tins for the tourists and serve plates of heavenly, cardamom-spiced pastries to the locals. There were open-faced smorrebrod sandwiches of shrimp and mayonnaise, and bicycles, bicycles everywhere, thickly piled outside nearly every doorway, all of them chained to one another or not at all. And there were vendors selling summer strawberries and children eating them with stained fingers, and everyone seemed pleasant and kind and unargumentative and not in hot pursuit of anything, least of all happiness.

It was all a little maddening, to tell you the truth.

* * *

I have a firm policy against swimming in anything cooler than bath water, so it was a foregone conclusion that I wouldn't be taking the plunge at Islands Brygge havnebadet, a pool that can be found just across Langebro bridge from the city center. It's a public facility that's the source of many a shivering Copenhagener but also some civic pride. That's because the havnebadet is in a canal off the harbor, and the harbor, after a decades-long effort, is now clean enough to swim in. Hazards presented themselves (sign: "The pool will be cleared of people when ships pass"), but hundreds of Danes in swimwear hardly minded as they dived off a funky trapezoidal platform while the baroque facades of 19th-century Copenhagen looked on.

The havnebadet is indeed an impressive achievement, but it's hard to imagine that a pool could be the reason the Danes are the happiest people on Earth, and yet that is exactly what a passerby told me in the park known as Kongens Have. It is a green space of impeccably manicured lawns and studious languor in the shadow of Rosenborg Castle, where Denmark's crown jewels are under continuous watch by the tourists.

Kongens Have was also the scene of my garish, last-ditch effort to find a happiness I recognized. Don't get me wrong. The porcelain plate, the butter knife and the coffee in the street were all fine in their own way, but this was happiness we were talking about. And so -- what the hell? -- I made a sign with the aforementioned message, tacked it onto a 25-pound pallet and carried the whole thing to the center of the park.

And after all that, what did I hear? That happiness is to be found in a swimming pool, a pint of beer (Carlsberg again) or, most puzzling of all, a Le Klint lampshade.

It was in the 1940s that Kaare Klint, one in a long family line of architects and designers, had the idea for a globe lantern constructed out of a single piece of plastic hand-folded dozens of times. The shade has been in continuous production ever since, and whatever your view of those dangling white balls, they now hang from the ceilings of homes all over the world, Copenhagen included. Their warm glow is apparently quite conducive to what the Danes call hygge, a dangerously untranslatable word that might best be defined as a sense of coziness. Hygge is something they strive for in the quaint little pubs near Copenhagen University, say, and during all those softly lit dinners with friends.

"Remember, we have a half-year in which it's very dark, so lighting is important to us," said Pia Glargaard from behind the counter of the Le Klint shop just off Stroget. "We like candles, too," and comfort food served in an atmosphere of gentle ambiance, and intimate evenings where the joy elicited is inversely proportional to the size of what produces it. To some these gatherings might suggest solace, to others a seance, but either way -- one supposes -- it's an atmosphere in which a million little things can spring to life, the teapot and the doorknob among them.

And so it was at last -- during the flight home, actually -- that I finally, and suddenly, came to envy the Danes and their happiness built of a million little things. It was a conversion moment straight out of Andersen, perhaps the fairy tale he forgot to write. Except that he did write it.

Remember the fir tree, that perpetually dissatisfied fir tree, the one that yearns for a more exciting life outside the forest, only to long for a return to the forest when he is chopped down for Christmas?

"You must have been very happy," say the mice with whom the tree reminisces about his days of candles and tinsel.

" 'Happy!' exclaims the fir tree, and then as he reflects upon what he has been telling them, he says, 'Ah, yes! After all, those were happy days.' "

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company