The Happiest Place on Earth

Here I am in wonderful Copenhagen. I arrived yesterday afternoon in lovely sunny weather, found my hotel, and then went for an evening stroll. It was so hot, in fact, that I was forced to sit outside drinking cold beer instead of preparing my talk, but then I’m not on until Thursday so there’s still time. Later on, the weather broke in spectacular fashion with a huge thunderstorm brewing up over the city. I sat and watched the son et lumière show out of the hotel window into the early hours, savouring the gorgeous earthy smell that comes with summer rain.

As I’ve mentioned before, Copenhagen is one of my favourite places. I was first invited here while I was a PhD student twenty-odd years ago and have been back at least once a year ever since. Of course, in the summer, especially in June when the days are longest, the city is particularly fine, but I actually like it here all year round. Of course it’s a bit dark and a bit cold in the winter months, but snow doesn’t make things fall apart here like it does in Britain, and Copenhagen takes on an austere beauty at that time of year which endows it with a unique sense of place. And, best of all, the harsh winter seems to make people embrace the summer even more joyfully. It was lovely to see people out enjoying themselves last night in the sunshine without a hint of the violence that blights Britain’s town centres after a day like this. Above all, though, Denmark is just such a civilised place. It’s a very egalitarian society, with excellent public services, virtually no poverty, a strong sense of its own identity, and a robust democracy.

After an early breakfast in my hotel (the slightly odd but very comfortable Hotel 9 Små Hjem where I’ve stayed a number of times in the past), I found this clip on Youtube.

I find it very amusing for a number of reasons. One is the supposition that happiness goes with sunny weather, which I find laughably superficial. I’d hate to live anywhere where the weather was the same every day, even if it were warm. The reporter also seems bemused that Canada appears higher in the table than the USA. It’s no surprise to me: given the choice, I’d much rather live in Canada than America!
Above all, the snide incredulity about “cold, dreary, unspectacular” Denmark is a truly excellent self-parody. It may be cold – sometimes – but, as Billy Connolly once said, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes”. But there’s certainly nothing dreary about Denmark – it has a vibrant culture and a long and fascinating history. It may be “unspectacular”, if by that you mean that it’s not gaudy or pompous or ostentatious. Modesty is a sadly underrated virtue.

I’m not a fan of league tables – and I dread to think what bizarre methodology produced the one referred to in the clip – but as a seasoned visitor it actually comes as no suprise to me that the Danes are in the Premier division for happiness. The point is that happiness isn’t about external things such as the weather. Nor is it about showing off. It’s a frame of mind. The Danes seem to understand that better than most.

P.S. I love Victor Borge! And what’s wrong with herring sandwiches?

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8 Responses to “The Happiest Place on Earth”

  1. John Peacock Says:

    Sounds like Copenhagen shares many of Edinburgh’s virtues…

    I haven’t been there since the 1990s, and at that time I was shocked to see that it was infected with a plague of graffiti: that kind of breakdown of order seemed against the generally civilized air of the place. Since that time, the graffiti problem seems to have got worse everywhere – has Copenhagen managed to get a grip on it? I do hope so.

    • telescoper Says:

      There is some graffiti. There wasn’t any when I first came here in 1988. You see groups of anarchist youths wandering about which wasn’t the case 20 years ago. Perhaps the two are related. I can’t tell as I can’t read the graffiti! Perhaps the younger generation is less content than the older.

  2. “Above all, though, Denmark is just such a civilised place. It’s a very egalitarian society, with excellent public services, virtually no poverty, a strong sense of its own identity, and a robust democracy.”

    All very true. I’ve been to Denmark many times, though often on the way to Sweden and Norway (which with respect to the things you mention have much in common with Denmark, although in other respects they are as different as chalk and cheese); I’ve also stayed at the same hotel.

    Denmark has the highest taxes in the world, but there is little political pressure to decrease them. People realise that it’s not a zero-sum game to pay less taxes and spend more out of one’s income, since the latter usually involves a substantial fraction going into profits for someone else (public services are essentially non-profit) and doesn’t have the aspect of solidarity which public services do (i.e. everyone pays in and society can afford that some people take out more than they pay in, which is good for society since it is preferable to a life of crime, say). For quite a while now, a party which historically is similar to the Liberal Democrats (i.e. not the social democrats, communists etc) has been leading the government, although such parties often have tax reduction as their main goal.

    One thing I remember about Denmark is that it is not uncommon to drink out of bottles, even at a posh restaurant. Swedes tend to think of Danes as a bit uncivilised, since two traditions are much weaker in Denmark than in Sweden: taking of one’s shoes before entering a building (in Sweden, this is the case not only in private homes but also in some schools) and having a dedicated knife or spoon for butter or jam, rather than everyone sticking his dirty knife or spoon into the butter or jam. But these are minor quibbles. :-)

    • telescoper Says:

      Politics here is quite different to the UK. On the one hand, it’s what many people would assume to be the epitome of socialism – high taxes, high public spending, etc. The gap between the two wage earners and the lowest is astonishingly small (and between professor and PhD student). On the other hand, Danes are also quite conservative; they tend to like the way they’ve set things up and don’t want to change it much.

      When I bought my railway ticket yesterday I had an amusing chat about coins with the lady at the ticket office. I had some old ones which I wasn’t sure were still vaild. Cue vitriolic outburst about the Euro. Denmark may be a small country, but they’re not afraid to say “no”! It seems the Danes are opposed to losing the Krone in just about the same way as we British are opposed to losing the pound!

  3. Say hi to Berian if you bump into him.

  4. “On the other hand, Danes are also quite conservative; they tend to like the way they’ve set things up and don’t want to change it much.”

    It depends on what one means by “conservative”. Literally it means “wanting to keep things as they are” (i.e. conserve them), but it is often used to describe the political agenda of the conservatives at the time the term was first used, i.e. the opposite of socialism. I don’t want to use the words “left” and “right” here, since these have also changed throughout history. (The ruling Danish party’s name translates as “Left” and some might think this fits with the “socialist” agenda in Denmark. However, as I mentioned, the party is historically similar to the Liberal Democrats. The name comes from the time when free-market economy, democracy etc were new, progressive, liberal etc—the opposite was the traditional absolute monarchy.)

    “The gap between the two wage earners and the lowest is astonishingly small”

    Although in Denmark the distribution of taxes has something to do with the distribution of wealth, the main difference to most other countries in the world is the small variation in gross incomes. There are many reasons for this, and the fact that, as in all of Scandinavia, basic information about everyone is publicly available (in the old days, in a book in city hall; today, on the web for all to see), e.g. income, tax paid, wealth, certainly helps to make salaries more objective.

    Someone who knew Martin Schwarzschild told me that Martin had told him that, when he agreed on his salary at Princeton, he was told not to mention it to anyone. The assumption was that it was a high salary. I mentioned that the employer might have even more reason to insist on discretion if the salary were low. “Hhmmm…I’ve never thought of it that way” was the reply. :-)

  5. Bryn Jones Says:

    Two curious facts about Danish politics:

    (1) The current and previous two prime ministers were called Mr. Rasmussen.

    (2) The leader of the main social democratic party is a Kinnock.

    • In general, the Scandinavian countries have relatively few names (both first names and last names). For example, the only famous Martin Rees in England is probably the Martin Rees. One of the most famous astronomers in Sweden is Bengt Gustafsson, but there is also a famous ice-hockey player by that name as well as a famous general. So, three Rasmussens in a row is less surprising in Denmark than a similar situation would be elsewhere.

      In Greece, of course, politicians with the same name is an entirely different matter. :-(

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