Why Are Danes So Happy?

This is a translated version of Kang's third essay of a series "Where Do I Want to Live?"

me in Denmark (photoshopped)

When thinking about where to live, I often ponder, "What am I living for?" The instinctive answer is happiness. What is happiness? If happiness is the goal, why not move to the happiest country?

Then I checked the UN’s “World Happiness Report.” Denmark consistently ranks 1st or 2nd. Korea, however, is 57th. What’s their secret? Are Danes really happier than us? Would living in Copenhagen improve the quality of my life? Is there any way I could live like a Dane in Jeju?

Trust – High Taxes, High Trust

Denmark has a high average income tax of 45% and a 25% VAT. In Korea, the income tax is about 24% for median income. After paying these high taxes, Danes receive extensive benefits: free education from kindergarten to university, 52 weeks of parental leave, childcare subsidies, national health insurance, pensions, and housing support.

Danish citizens’ trust in their government is remarkable. For 30 years, Denmark has topped the Corruption Perceptions Index. The government, judiciary, and military all enjoy broad public trust. Imagine believing your government is corruption-free. Growing up in a country where bribery and corruption scandals are the norm, this is hard to fathom.

If trust is a key to happiness, I also want to put faith in my government. I want to feel like my vote matters and our representatives genuinely prioritize moral values.

Altruism – Neighbors Are Not Competitors

In Korea, endless competition is pervasive: humanities vs. vocational schools, universities in Seoul vs. regional ones, large corporations vs. SMEs. The pressure to score higher, earn more certificates, and make more money is intense. It’s hard to be altruistic in a society where material wealth is the highest value.

In contrast, Danish public education values equal opportunity, free expression, and individual creativity. Though private education exists, most students don’t see the need for it. After finishing their education, Danes enjoy a minimum of 5 weeks of paid vacation annually, plus additional leave for personal events, illness, and parenting. By law, they can even take at least 3 weeks off consecutively in the summer.

Happiness comes from stability, not achievement. Living in Denmark wouldn’t guarantee a trouble-free life, but believing in a future with excellent welfare, equal education, and enough rest might make people happier.

Personal Changes

I’m not considering moving to Denmark. However, there are lessons to learn from a country with the world’s highest life satisfaction. While this essay covers trust and altruism, other factors like inclusiveness, green spaces, and efficient public transport also contribute to Danish happiness.

How can I apply these lessons? Blind trust in the government isn’t realistic, but I can advocate for moral responsibility in public service. I can’t force altruism on others, but I can start by volunteering at local charities. I can’t convince everyone that money and fame aren’t everything, but I can prioritize rest over productivity for myself. While I can’t make the entire nation happy, I can help those around me smile more. I can create a small, Danish-like oasis around me.

Have You Been to Denmark?

I haven’t been to Denmark myself. But curious about why it’s called one of the happiest countries, I spent several days reading articles and watching videos. One interesting thing I learned is that among political scientists, the phrase “be like Denmark” has become a catchphrase. Denmark’s political and social welfare structures are often used as models.

I also looked for complaints from Danes. Most of them were about the gloomy weather, with many cloudy days and little sunlight except in summer. Apparently, when the sun does come out, everyone becomes so happy they all go outside. For someone who hasn’t experienced it, this doesn’t sound so bad.

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