Why the Danes are the happiest

Over the past few years, Denmark has done incredibly well in The World Happiness Report, ranking number one in 2016, 2014 and 2013 and only missing out on the top spot by two places in 2015. Recently we’ve become more aware of Danish culture and values, as television shows like “The Killing”, “Borgen” and “The Bridge” have flooded our screens, and the craze for self-help books based on “hygge” (which roughly translates as wellbeing but also implies cosiness and homeliness) are set to be the big sellers this Christmas. But before upping sticks and moving to Copenhagen straight away, we should first work out what it exactly is that makes Danes so happy to see if we can recreate it at home.

The most obvious reason for the Danes’ strong sense of life satisfaction and general positive mood is their work-life balance, which is heavily weighted towards the ‘life’ part. The average full-time working week is the lowest of any OECD country at 37.3 hours, equating to less than 8 hours a day, five days a week. Compare this with the US’s average full-time working week (41.6 hours) or the UK’s (42.2) or even Turkey’s (50.5), and it becomes apparent that Danes spend significantly fewer hours at work than most people do.

Over the course of a year and a lifetime, the gap between hours worked in Denmark and hours worked elsewhere widens when holiday is taken into account. Over the course of a year, Danes work 61% of the hours that Indians do and 80% of the hours Americans do, with only Norwegians, the Dutch and the Germans spending less time at work. This is perhaps because Danes have a legal right to five weeks of paid holiday a year so they are encouraged to take time off, whereas in the US there is no legal requirement for employers to offer paid holiday. Furthermore, Denmark tops the list of time spent on leisure and personal care, with an average of 16.06 hours devoted per day to personal activities outside work such as walking, socialising and eating.

Working less does come at a cost though, as despite Denmark’s reputation as an incredibly rich country, the average household net-adjusted disposable income per capita is USD 26,945 a year - considerably less than the OECD average of 29,016. Their levels of higher education, education quality and life expectancy are only just above or in line with OECD averages, and Danes have to commit even more of their income to housing than most OECD citizens.

With Denmark performing essentially mediocrely in health, education and wealth out of the OECD countries, it seems surprising that they made it to the top of the happiness index. The reason why Danes rank as the happiest people lies in their perception and their attitudes. Their voter turnout is incredibly high across all incomes, 96% say they have people they can rely on, their water and air quality is high, and – most importantly – when asked to rate their life in general, their average (7.5/10) was a full point higher than the OECD’s. Perhaps this shows that the Danes’ value slightly different things: they would rather have more free time and less money.

There could be one final reason behind this Danish happiness phenomenon. Researchers at the University of Warwick found that “the greater a nation’s genetic distance from Denmark, the lower the reported wellbeing of that nation”, even adjusting from GDP, culture, religion, the welfare state and geography. In other words, the Danes are simply genetically programmed to be happier.