Lessons from the Happiest Countries

The University of British Columbia economist John Helliwell, considered one of the world's leading happiness experts, points out that “the happiest countries, like Denmark, are, first of all, countries with a higher sense of community. They give people opportunities to engage with each other. And they have higher levels of trust, which is so essential to happiness. If people lose a wallet in these countries, they expect it will be returned with everything intact, and it is, almost always.”

Helliwell adds: “They are generous. Denmark ranks at the top in per capita foreign aid and expenses to fight global warming. Generosity is huge where happiness is concerned. We give students twenty bucks each and tell one group to spend the money on themselves and the other group to give it away. The ones who give it away always report higher happiness levels afterwards.

“The Danes also encourage everyone to participate. In their eldercare facilities, everyone works, not just the staff. The people who live there are treated as citizens, not clients. Their summer camps bring kids to spend time with seniors in eldercare facilities, and the kids don't want to leave.” Helliwell notes that although Americans sometimes think of Denmark as a nanny state, with great restrictions on personal freedom, the Danes rank highest in the world when asked, “Do you have the freedom to make your life as you choose?”12

At a 2010 Gross National Happiness conference in Vermont, Line Kikkenborg Christensen, a young Danish graduate student, explained why Danes feel free. “I feel secure for me and for my children, so I can follow my passion,” she declared. The Danes' strong social safety net (including excellent free health care, free higher education, and generous unemployment insurance) means they feel less need to get the highest-paying jobs and can choose the work they find most satisfying.13

Jennifer Lail, a University of Washington graduate student, observed the Danish attention to social connection while she was studying in Copenhagen. Her experience was eye-opening. “It's not a cultural norm to work after five there,” she says. “Outdoor cafés fill up, even in winter. There's lots of attention to health as well. Hiking maps are everywhere, and half of all trips are on bicycle. Neighborhoods have public sports halls that most people belong to, from childhood on.” Despite working less, the Danes are very productive while working, and Denmark is a wealthy country.

You always see many people in the streets, and there is this sense of people taking care of each other, trusting each other. It's common to leave babies sleeping in their strollers outside stores. Everyone feels safe doing that. They are also serious about the design of things. They have lots of ways to make cars slow down. You find tables and benches on ordinary sidewalks so people can stop to rest and chat awhile with friends or strangers. Before I came to Copenhagen, I thought I knew what livability was, but I didn't.14

“Happiness is about time with family and friends, trust in neighbors, attachment to place,” says John Helliwell. “Atlantic Canadians are happier than people in Alberta or British Columbia, even though they have lower incomes. They have more social connection.”15

Helliwell's observations were confirmed for John de Graaf on a recent flight from Seattle to Houston. He sat next to a vivacious young woman, an actress and singer from Beirut, Lebanon, named Milia Ayache. She was on her way from Vancouver, where she'd been visiting her grandmother, to enjoy Thanksgiving with other relatives in Texas.

Milia had learned what matters most in life from her experiences during bombing raids in Beirut. When Hezbollah or Israeli bombs fell on her city, her middle-class family fled their home for nearby mountains. She remembered her mother telling her she had only minutes to pack a small suitcase. What would she take, knowing that her home might be only rubble when she returned? In such times, it was clear what mattered most — not expensive electronic gadgets, but a few clothes and items of sentimental value, like photographs, connections to the people in her life.

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