Contributing Writer for Wake Up World
Happiness is a national obsession in the United States. Take a walk down the self-help isle of your local bookstore and you’ll find a litany of titles seducing readers with the promise of bliss in one way or another. Whether cultivating the correct brain chemistry, embracing the perfect diet or having the best spiritual practice, there are plenty of experts who offer the ultimate path to living joyously… Or so they say.
But here’s the rub: If these recommendations actually made a significant and lasting dent in our unhappiness, the self-help industry would have perished long ago. Instead, business is booming — Americans alone spend $11 billion annually on self-improvement books, CDs, seminars, coaching and stress-management programs.
Are Americans really so miserable that we need to spend billions of dollars a year just to feel a twinge of happiness? Is all this self-help really making us any happier? Maybe we’re approaching happiness in the wrong way altogether. To find out, we need to study and observe cultures with high levels of consistent happiness. And a good place to start is with Denmark.
If You’re Happy and You Know It…
“The Danish aren’t happy in a back-slapping, ‘have a nice day’ American sense, or in a “party on the beach” Australian sense. The Danish have a deep contentment with themselves and with their lives, which creates a solidarity and makes people more trusting of one another and less stressed.” ~ Helen Russell, author of “The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country
If you were to visit Denmark and asked any random person walking down the street if they were happy, chances are, the answer would be yes. How does a country with such dark and gloomy winters and a high divorce rate of 42.7% pull it off? As with most things in life, the answer is multifaceted.
The Happiness Research Institute (located in Copenhagen, Denmark, of course) offers a few clues as to why the Danish enjoy such a high level of happiness in their day-to-day lives:
The Danish are some of the most trusting people on earth, so much so that they will leave their bundled babies in strollers alone outside shops while inside running errands. They trust in one another to be, well, trustworthy.
Community Social Services
Stress can be a real joy-killer, especially when it’s linked to money worries. Since the Danes have generous unemployment benefits — about 80% of their previous salaries for two years — anxiety about security is significantly reduced. Moreover, the Danish enjoy a universal health care system. Tax-funded and state-run, quality medical care is provided to every resident without exception. Some may cringe at the high tax rate in the country, but when compared to the United States, the Danes actually pay far less in medical costs when all is said and done — about half.
With a 34-hour work week, the Danes have plenty of time to socialize and follow pleasurable pursuits. Danish families also have 52 weeks of paid maternity leave. It’s not just for mothers, fathers also receive time off — two weeks with full salary. Additionally, the mother can share the paid leave with her husband after 18 weeks if she decides to go back to work.
Add to this a high GDP, progressive attitudes, gender equality, free university education, minimal corruption and low social, political and ideological divisions among the population, and the Danish have a solid recipe for cultivating a happy culture.
Then there’s the idea of “hygge”, which is about savoring the little pleasures in life: enjoying a glass of wine, lighting a candle, sharing time with family and friends. With hygge, you leave worries and complaints at the door, conversation is pleasant. Discussions on politics or other highly charged topics, as well as disputes, are handled another time.
You may be thinking at this point that beyond trusting more and hygge, most of the elements contributing to the Danes happiness are directly tied to the country’s social structure, which would be impossible to implement in the United States due to its size and diversity. Not so fast. Have a look at how the Danish raise their kids and you’ll discover a down-to-earth approach for encouraging a happy mindset, no matter what your age.
A Danish Spin on Parenting
One of the main distinctions of Danish parenting is that they take an authoritative approach, rather than an authoritarian or permissive stance. Danish parents don’t give ultimatums, instead they rely on communication and respect to work through problems. This eliminates power struggles and no-win situations. The communication and peaceful resolution tools children learn help them to become skillful (and content) adults later on.
Empathy is also important. Parents teach their kids to practice understanding — rather than judgement, competition or greed. Because of this, the development of narcissism is rare and children grow into adults with strong empathy for those around them. An example would be witnessing someone who is angry or upset. Danish parents would use it as an opportunity for the child to talk about and explore the emotion of anger without judging the other person.
Reframing is another skill Danish children learn in their daily lives. By reinterpreting events in a better light, they are taking a negative situation and trying to find the positive within it. A case in point — Danes wouldn’t complain about the weather, they would be thankful they weren’t on vacation while it was raining. Part of reframing also involves the avoidance of limiting language, such as “I always,” “I never,” “I hate this,” or “I love that.” When we use this type of language, it boxes us in and suffocates any fluidity present within the situation at hand.
Finally, overpraise is a foreign concept for the Danes. Studies show that when kids are always told how smart or wonderful they are, there is a tendency to give up easily when the going gets tough. By being labelled “smart,” the child feels they shouldn’t have to work hard — it makes them feel dumb, so they shy away from it. The Danish praise process and effort, rather than inherent talent. They simply don’t limit their kids through labels.
If you would like to learn more, “The Danish Way of Parenting: A Guide to Raising the Happiest Children in the World“ delves deeply into the cultural foundations and practical philosophy shared by a nation, which has been voted one of the happiest countries in the world for over 40 years straight.
- “The Danish Way of Parenting: A Guide to Raising the Happiest Children in the World” Jessica Alexander, Iben Dissing Sandahl MPF, Forlaget Ehrhorn Hummerston, Copenhagen, 2014
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