Great Dane lessons to be learnt by rest of us
SOME Danish folk dropped by the Mahogany Ridge this week and the regulars wasted no time in quizzing them as to why their country was routinely considered to be the world’s happiest.
Granted, this is old hat as news goes. The World Happiness Report 2013 was released back in September, and most of us would prefer not to be reminded that, of the 156 nations surveyed, South Africa was ranked 96th. But, apart from their extraordinary TV dramas, what else are you going to talk about when you bump into Danes?
Our guests were surprisingly diffident about the findings. “Oh, that,” said one of them, a film-maker I’ll call Prågmåtic. “It is nothing. There are other countries which are just as happy. And, of course, we are just as unhappy as other countries, too.”
Prågmåtic had a point, sort of. There are other happy countries. The top five this year were all in northern Europe and, points-wise, there wasn’t much difference between them. But someone had to be first, and for two years now, it was Denmark.
So, in that sense, it was as unhappy as Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden.
But it was nowhere near as unhappy as Rwanda, Burundi, Central African Republic, Benin and Togo – which were the world’s most miserable in terms of the criteria used by the report’s researchers.
The happiest countries have in common a large GDP per capita, a healthy life expectancy at birth, and – listen up here, people – a lack of corruption in the government. But – listen up again – they also get it right in areas related to the individual choices of their citizens: a sense of social support, the freedom to make life choices and a culture of generosity.
So, in addition to prioritising gender equality, or insisting that everyone gets the best health care for free, or that families get 52 weeks of parental leave, the Danish have a strong sense of collective responsibility; more than 40 percent of them do voluntary work in cultural, social and sporting organisations, NGOs and heritage groups.
That is a staggering number of people who genuinely seem to care about the environment and society in which they live. One gets the feeling that social commitment, as far as these people are concerned, runs a little deeper than joining a golf club.
Another thing. They cycle. Half of Copenhagen’s residents – about 600 000 people – travel to work and school on bicycles every day. This not only lowers carbon emissions and improves fitness in the country’s most densely populated region, but in reducing congestion, pollution and infrastructural wear and tear, it also contributes to the wealth of the city.
They do so, of course, on modest bicycles with baskets and quaint oldfashioned bells attached to the handlebars and definitely not on the sort of steroid-fangled machines with which the alpha types take to our roads. Naturally, it is easier to cycle in Denmark, it being a flattish sort of place and most of the citizenry don’t want to kill you.
The Danish do, however, have very crap weather. But to combat the dark and depressing Nordic winters, they’ve come up with hygge, which, loosely translated, is a culture of cultivated cosiness.
“Right now, there is hygge everywhere in Denmark,” Prågmåtic said. “People are lighting candles, getting warm by the fire, chatting and making jokes, drinking lots of wine like we are here, and having a good time.”
Keeping warm in winter? Drinking wine? Enjoying good conversation? Hardly a unique cultural practice, I thought. But then I tried pronouncing the word – and discovered that it’s better left to the Danish.
“Not heerge,” Prågmåtic said. “Hygge.” I tried again. “No, not hairgh. Not haygger. Hygge.” I eventually gave up. This was much to everyone’s relief as my best attempt sounded like hawking up phlegm. Not pretty at all.
Prågmåtic was very kind about it. “You know,” he said. “What is also making us happy is that, in Denmark, we generally have quite low aspirations. Our ambitions are quite modest.”
Low aspirations and modest ambitions make you happy? Brilliant. There was much that we could learn from this, especially as our thoughts turn to that annual gesture in futility, the drafting of resolutions. Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to better ourselves and improve our lives. Far from it. But how welcome it would be for the rest of us if you just, you know, kept your plans to give up smoking and go back to gym all to yourself.
Happy new year, then. And remember: lower the bar, keep it low and, above all, keep quiet.