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According to the second World Happiness Report (WHR) survey released earlier this month by Columbia University's Earth Institute which covered 156 countries, cold, and unspectacular Denmark was once again ranked the happiest nation in the world. It was followed by other northern European countries such as Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden.
Singapore is ranked at 30th place in WHR and it can take pride for being the first among Asian nations (excluding the Middle East). The Republic has about 5.3 million inhabitants, slightly less than 5.6 million in Denmark. Both countries are relatively rich. Singapore is ranked 4th in the world in GDP per capita with US$61,803, more than 30% than Denmark which is ranked at 16th place with US$42,086.
However when you look at income equality, Denmark boasts the lowest Gini coefficient in the world (this is a measure of inequality, ranging from 0 to 1, the higher the number the greater the inequality) of 0.24 followed by Sweden, Norway and Austria which were also ranked among the top 10 happiest countries. At 0.48, Singapore's Gini coefficient is double that of Denmark and is among the highest among advanced economies. As an economist I was never fond of GDP per capita, I much prefer the median income that can tell you what the majority of the population earns.
What is the secret of the Dane's source of happiness? In my journeys to the land of Lego, the Ugly Duckling, the Mermaid and probably the best beer in the world as well from interviews with Danes, I have observed a few unique traits.
1. Contentment - Danes are very realistic about their definition of the word happiness and with expectations from life. People are not looking constantly for what they do not have but feel happy with what they have. When expectations are low, there is a higher chance of achieving them. Dane's attitude to money is refreshingly different from most countries. Money and material goods are not as important . Most Danes are content with what they have. A typical flat in Copenhagen is 70sqm and the Danes are happy with their small home and their bike. They hardly compare upwards. They see themselves lucky to have what they have. Danes tend to spend money differently. Instead of buying bigger houses or bigger and more expensive cars and another bag or more branded goods, they like to spend money on socializing with others and creating memories, They do love to buy gifts though, especially during Christmas for their family and friends.
2. Egalitarian Society (Janteloven) - The Danes believe in the principle that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities. They actually have a Danish word for it "Janteloven" which means The "Law of Jante" or the "Who-do-you-think-you-are law". This law is common to Scandinavian communities that looks negatively at people who show off with their success. The upside of "Janteloven" is that people do not look down on other people. If your job is to clean the street or drive a bus, you are equal to and proud of your job as to a CEO. People will not look down on you. People are not motivated to buy luxury cars to show off their wealth. This releases much of the pressure to acquire more and more materialistic symbols of success. More people can make their passion into their profession even if they do not earn as much as bankers. According to "Janteloven", no one will judge their choice of career. The Some Danish friends told me that "Janteloven" has a dark side of discouraging people from becoming outstanding.
3. Greetings: It is an irony that in cold Denmark people display warmth even to strangers while in tropical and hot Singapore, people often avoid connection. The Danes are super friendly people. They will greet you when you establish eye contact with them. In Singapore people often look the other way or at their mobile device trying to avoid the exchange of smiles and greetings, depriving themselves from the emotional health benefits in making social connections. Isn't it amusing to see that even the power plugs in Denmark are smiling?
4. Welfare system - Like the other Scandinavian states, Denmark has a strong social safety net that keeps the Danes secured and assured that if something bad happens to them they will be taken care of. When everyone needs not worry about bad times, the nation base stress levels are much lower than the rest of the world. People feel a greater sense of security and peace of mind.
With one of the highest tax rates in the world, Denmark offers its citizens free education, university, medical services and elderly care. You will not find in Denmark senior citizens working as street cleaners.
Not all is happy on this front, however. Faced with global competition and declining productivity, the nation is now engaged in a debate over how many of such entitlements it can continue to afford.
5. Trust: The Danes are probably among the most trusting people in the world. Three out of four Danes believe that they can trust a majority of people. Shopkeepers can put merchandise outside the shop with the tag price displayed and trust that people will pay and not grab and run away. To the astonishment of tourists, Danish parents feel secure leaving their children outside in a baby carriage while mum and dad enjoy delicious Danish pastries and cappuccino inside the cafe.
6. “Hygge”: One of the things I adore most about the Danes is Hygge which is a fundamental aspect of their culture which literally means coziness but it is so much more than that. It is the art of creating intimacy: allowing friendship and camaraderie to bloom. To be present, connected and share contentment. Relaxing with good friends and/or loved ones, often indoors either around the dinner (often not alcohol) table or in the living room, where a group of people get together and "Hygger". They enjoy good food and something to drink in a friendly almost romantic atmosphere by lighting a few candles. Danes spend more time at home. These hours of meaningful togetherness strengthen the relationships. They create an atmosphere of security and joy during those hours. There are a lot of supportive discussions also going on, one friend who one evening joined called it a kind of “mental coaching session” where the group also finds answers to different questions. The elders often are asked to share their opinions from their experiences. It is also common to play a game, that kids sing a song, or they watch a movie together.
My Danish friend Christian Hoffeldt says that "Danish homes are also decorated differently than you see in other countries. For example, the sofas are more gathered around a table, they are not placed near the walls as you sometimes see in the East. The light is often a little subdued and then they keep the temperature in between 23-26 degrees, you will see lots of candles in the windows and on the table, etc. So, the mood becomes more “we are close together” and more intense - is my experience. This is so strong than even teenagers stay home to join, rather than to go out with friends! They are typically not asked to stay, but they feel they cannot miss out on it. But it's only for people you know a lot, who are invited, into this or you need to be a part of the family, but it’s much more stronger than a "hello anyone home" kind of thing, this is very typical of Danish people."
7. "Arbejdsglaede" - Alexander Kjerulf, the Danish "Chief Happiness Officer" shares with the world that only Scandinavian languages have a specific word for the term"Happiness at work". In Danish the word is arbejdsglaede. The work of www.ha-p.com since 2006 is focused on helping organisations mainly in Asia to become a happier place to work so it can retain and attract best talent and keep them engaged while giving their very best to the organisation.
8. Available time and hobbies - Danes do not work and shop around the clock like in Singapore. Despite the cold weather they will use their bike, they will go outdoors, they have many hobbies and then pursue them with friends. They devote time to friends and most of them belong to more than one association. They do not send their kids for extra tuition over the weekend.
To conclude, more than half of the points above are within each person's capacity. If we want to be happier, we can learn from the Danes to be more contented. To count our blessings and accept reality. It is not bad to have aspirations and work for them, it is bad to live in a state of constantly feeling inadequate until you reach there. As Rabbi Hyman Shachchtel wrote in his book "The real Enjoyment of Living", the happiness formula is "Wanting what we have" divided by "What we want to have". Or as Chip Conley wrote in his NYT bestselling book Emotional Equations: the formula of happiness is Gratitude divided by Gratification. The more we are appreciative and are content with what we have, the happier we get.
We are in control of our time. We need to manage it better. The more we devote time to developing and enjoying our hobbies and have fun activities not just with the family but also with friends we will become happier. Can we bring "Hygge" to our lives? The easy part is to buy the candles. The more friendly we get, the more welcoming, kind and giving we are, the better connections and friendship we will have.
Do we deserve "Arbejdsglaede"? The more talented you are, the more choices of work place you have. Do you check the culture of the organisation you intend to join before you accept a new position? What is your contribution to make it a happier workplace? Do you help and bring the best out in the people around you? Do you enjoy what you do? Are you helpful? According to Gallup Organisation, people who have at least one good friend at work are at least three times more engaged than those have none. If you can chose your work like the Danes and focus on "Arbejdsglaede" , you will most likely be happier at work and home.
Regarding the increasing welfare benefits, don't be quick to demand it. It is not an easy mission for countries out of Scandinavia. Those countries are blessed with natural resources and steady income that allows them together with more than 50% tax rate and about 25% buying tax to extend so many free benefits for their citizens.
* The writer is the co-founder of the"Joy-Care Leadership" programme. Avi is an expert in helping organizations to plan and implement strategies to make happier workplaces for better well-being, higher engagement, greater creativity, productivity and employees' retention. Avi has lived for 15 years in Singapore since 1992, served as a Trade and Tourism Commissionaire of Israel in a regional office that was responsible on Singapore, Indonesia, Malysia and the Philippines. Avi is an Economist and holds MBA in Marketing and Entrepreneurship and was VP of a few ICT and investments companies.