Great Dane lessons to be learnt by rest of us

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - COMMENT -

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.

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