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You may have heard about the United Nations World Happiness Report. It may also be of little surprise that the United States does not rank among the top countries. In fact, the 2013 report ranks the United States 17th behind a variety of countries, including its northern (Canada, 6th) and southern (Mexico, 16th) neighbors. Leading the pack is Scandinavia, with Denmark and Norway taking the top two positions, Sweden fifth, and Finland 7th.

While the list has seen a lot of shuffling since its initial release in 2012, little has changed at the top. Denmark led in 2012, followed by Finland and Norway. Clearly Scandinavia, especially Denmark, is doing something well. So what is it that sets these countries apart? Rather than re-summarize the entire report, I will refer you to Tuesday’s Huffington Post blog on the topic. In summary, Denmark is the happiest country due to several key aspects of the Danish life:

    • Denmark Supports Parents
    • Healthcare is a civil right
    • Gender Equality is prioritized
    • Biking is the norm
    • Danish culture puts a positive spin on its harsh environment
    • Danes feel a responsibility to one another

I am no expert on Denmark but I take great pride in the country and some of its unique characteristics  Having spent 5 months in the country – studying in Copenhagen, living with a host family in the town of Køge, commuting by train/bike, meeting students through club volleyball, traveling the country, and generally just learning the Danish way – I experience a lot of what was highlighted in the report. And, despite many American political and ideological beliefs that might downplay or disregard these pieces of Danish life, it works.

My host family was a family of 4, two working parents and two elementary-aged children. They worked full-time and were able to work their schedule around the needs of their children’s education and extra-curricular activities, both of which were very high quality. Students in Denmark are literally paid to pursue advanced degrees. Talk of going to the doctor is never followed by “but I just cannot afford it right now” and people are pretty healthy already since they exercise frequently through their normal commute. And don’t get me started on biking – I could go on forever!

What may be the oddest cultural trait listed here is the responsibility Danes feel for each other. Honestly, my explanations could never do it justice. You have to be there. It is not universal and it is not all-encompassing, but Danes really do show compassion and responsibility for achieving larger social goals. Many will tell you they don’t mind paying high taxes and elaborate on exactly why they feel it is their duty to support the country’s strong social safety net.

The Huffington Post made one point I really appreciate:

But why Denmark over any of the other wealthy, democratic countries with small, educated populations? And can the qualities that make this Nordic country the happiest around apply to other cultures across the globe? Here are a few things Danes do well that any of us can lobby for…

“Any of us can lobby for.”  That is exactly right – Denmark clearly benefits from its small size and its small and homogeneous culture, but even more importantly Danes demand more from their government and from each other. So, what’s stopping us? What is stopping you?

We feel safe – Anna-Katarina Graavgaard, Dane