According to the World Happiness Report—Scandinavian countries have historically ranked among the happiest places on the planet. Informed by life expectancy rates, GDP per capita, and other metrics, Denmark was ranked the second happiest country in the world for 2022—behind Finland alone.
Living and working in Copenhagen this spring, I was keen to take a peek beyond the stats and learn firsthand what this distinction is really all about. At a time of global uncertainty, where unfettered joy can be hard to come by—how happy are Danes, really? How are they navigating life against the backdrop of that uncertainty? What are they doing differently? What can the rest of us learn from them?
The candid conversations I had with 15 generous individuals who call Denmark home did not disappoint. Though most of them marveled at Denmark being named among the top five happiest countries in the world the last 11 years running (and the happiest country for three of those 11 years), the insights they shared with me in the course of our conversations were striking. Despite a clear awareness of human suffering and injustices in the world today—and no shortage of their own personal challenges over the past two years—in varying degrees, every person I spoke with reported being happy, with 88% characterizing themselves as “quite,” “very,” or “extremely” happy.
Freedom Through Social Support
Pointing to the country’s social structures as fundamental contributors to widespread Danish happiness—medical equipment COO Allan Junge Hyldal explains, “Having the personal freedom to pursue the things I find interesting without being afraid makes me happy. If something happens to me physically, or I become sick or somehow disabled—I feel safe knowing my family and society will be there for me. With good healthcare systems, I have the freedom to explore things across all spectrums of life without having to worry all the time. I also don’t have to worry about my two teenage kids, knowing that with a free college education, it’s totally up to them if they want to be successful. If you fail—you don’t fall too far in Denmark. Its systems and society help pick you up and move you forward again. It’s really about reducing the negative uncertainty in your life, which allows more room for happiness to grow.”
Happiness is Not Necessarily Synonymous with Success
Some of my conversations revealed a clear distinction between happiness and the tenets of professional and financial success. “I once thought that success around personal ambitions and career would make me extremely happy,” shares consumer goods CEO Peter Normann Nielsen. “I found out that’s really not the case. It doesn’t mean that I’m not focused on creating things, but a bigger car will not make me happier. Of course, if you’re unhappy with what you’re doing professionally, that can affect your personal life as well—but for me, happiness is not connected to work. I first think about my well-being when I consider happiness. Your current situation as an individual, and what you’re personally driven by. Then it’s of course related to family, and friends and domestic things. Safety goes together with that. If they are all in a good situation, that makes me happy. The drive for me now is prolonging those periods of time in life where they’re all in a good situation.”
Happiness is Something to be Prioritized
The Danes I spoke with also don’t leave their happiness to chance. “I definitely prioritize happiness,” says eco-manufacturing CEO Carsten Nygaard Brogger. I am a simple person that believes happiness is actually quite simple. Everything starts when you are in a positive, happy state. All things you do throughout the course of a day should seek out positive energy and create positivity. Very seldom can you get to a flow state or start a business case in a sea of negative energy. I can feel it in my body when another person is in a positive, happy flow. It comes out in the way they engage with everyone, and how powerfully they communicate their directives. Everything just goes smoother. To prioritize that happy flow I get out of bed every morning, smile in the mirror, think positively throughout the day, and send out good vibes. If I find myself in a room with negative people who aren’t having the best day and can’t change the situation, I simply excuse myself and find others with positive energy to engage with. I believe it’s up to each of us to not only keep the smile on our face that we left the house with in the morning, but to have a bigger smile on our face when we go back to our families in the evening. That is the task."
For “cleantech” startup founder David S. Miller, prioritizing happiness is a function of taking swift action. “As an empath who is always aware of injustice and human suffering in the world, public service and volunteering are directly tied to my happiness,” he shares. A prolific problem solver with a breadth of interests from education to environmental solutions, he explains, “Prioritizing happiness to me has long been about making a commitment to doing the things that will actually make a significant difference in the world—from ensuring the expansion of a Copenhagen grammar school at risk of closure due to a lack of facilities and classroom space, to developing methane eradication technology that mitigates climate change.”
Fintech startup CEO Constantin Jørgensen prioritizes happiness by being more intentional with his time and discriminating about the things that vie for his attention. “Having agency over your life is fundamental to happiness,” he explains. Engaging in relationships and activities that don’t serve your higher goals or afford you space for spontaneity and joy each day is the equivalent of carrying heavy equipment up a mountain that you don’t need. Learning to abandon the things that are not aligned with what you want is critical, as is making the distinction between being available and having free time. Sometimes it’s saying no to your best friend because you need time to decompress, or create a bubble of free time for yourself to not be productive.”
Happiness Requires Strategic Focus
For Jørgensen, that focus centers on introducing spontaneous fun into his life every single day. “You can’t expect that a week on a boat circling a tropical island will cure or fix an entire year of not being happy,” he says. “Though I admit I’ve missed a day or two over the years, whether I have a funny conversation with a colleague and laugh so hard that my abs hurt, or just pick up a friend’s dog and play with him—it’s vitally important to take a few moments every day to have fun and dissolve the stress in the body. To create that fun, several years back I decided to make my morning memorable by dancing the entire kilometer from the metro into my office, regardless of who I saw along the way. Far less gracious than Singing in The Rain—I arrived at my office dripping in sweat and laughing out loud before my visibly entertained colleagues, who asked me what I was on. Nothing really crazy happened, and it didn’t take a million dollars, but it meant so much—and to this day, just thinking about it brings me joy and energy."
For spirits entrepreneur, Frederick-Sebastian Krause, taking an arm’s-length approach to social media is a key driver of personal happiness. “Some years ago I decided to take a back seat to all the Facebook warriors. As an empathic person, I would get very emotional reading all the posts featuring bad things happening in the world, and all the fiercely defended opinions about those posts—each brought to the fore as click bait. With so much going on and no reason to engage as no one seemed to be listening, I felt powerless to do much but feel bad about it. No one can take that all in and still be a functional human for their families and employees. Instead, I opted to just focus on being productive and doing worthwhile things—whether that meant focusing on a new project or re-thinking a business plan."
For non-profit CEO Federica Marchionni, happiness is a beautifully methodical process. “Though I’m a naturally positive person, there are certainly very sad days featuring major events that you simply can’t control. The first thing I do is allow myself to feel what I feel. After processing the event or news, I strive first to find the positive in it—and not just for myself. I realize my happiness impacts all those around me—family, my friends, and those I work with. My disciplined focus in that moment is to not allow the things I can’t control to make me unhappy. I give a clear time limit to any residual negative thoughts—forcing myself to shift to positive thinking. I do this by identifying whatever remains about the event that isn’t positive or doesn’t make me happy, and I resolve to change it—whether that means changing my environment, the job, the relationship, or my mind. Coupled with that, I go for a run as a literal way to disconnect. In those moments of moving meditation I mentally surrender, allow my mind to relax, and become fully present. It’s in those moments I feel completely free, and new ideas and solutions naturally come."
Global brand director, Sara Buck Christensen’s leading strategy in unhappy times is drawing on the support of her powerful social circle. “A big family and friends person, I will always revert back to them in uncertain or challenging times,” she shares. “I’ve had a wide variety of close girlfriends for more than 10 years—each of whom I can talk to about how I’m feeling on a range of different topics, from work to family to health. Each of them know me well, are super open, and have all been through hard times. Even if it’s just five minutes on my way to the bus in the morning, I also still talk to my mom every day. As the person who knows me best—both the good and bad—I really appreciate that connection, realizing a lot of people don’t talk to their parents regularly. There’s something beautiful about still having a really good laugh with her."
Good old-fashioned logic is global event SVP, Thomas Veje Olsen’s focused strategy to navigate his way back to happiness in uncertain times. “Of course, there is cause for legitimate concern in the world today,” he admits. “While there is a war going on in Ukraine not too far from where we live, and a madman at that invasion’s helm sitting in Russia—we don’t really know what could happen. Daily media exposure to the carnage, and reminders of the scenario’s potential impact on our well-being can fan anxiety—highlighting our inability to mitigate our risk through personal decision making. It’s out of our hands. The strategy I’ve adopted to find my way back to happiness is to take a step back from the unfolding scenario, and identify what the real risk here is. Being really rational about it, I use statistics, and back into the reality that a car accident taking my kids to school is a far more likely event than a nuclear attack, or being hit by a bomb.”
Happiness Transcends Tumultuous Times
For university liaison officer, Kirsten Gelting—taking action is the key to rising above difficult times—acknowledging that action can look very different from person to person. While she considers herself adaptable—easily finding comfort and peace in a broad range of activities from nature walks to salsa dancing—she recognizes it’s not that easy for everyone. In the throes of the pandemic, she watched her first-born suffer from a deep depression. “You can’t just get over something like that thinking positive thoughts. While I can easily find joy and gratitude in the little moments of life, small progress made, or just a good day—for those with mental health struggles, it can feel like things will neverchange. Moving forward and taking action to get better might be just putting one foot in front of the other, one day at a time. It may be impossible for a time to see their way through to the other side of it. But by playing an active role in mental health diagnosis, starting therapy, beginning a cycle of antidepressants, and paying attention to the small things—for the first time in months, my first-born was able to see a butterfly, and with a deep respect for it—fully appreciate its beauty.”
Wellness tech founder Anneli Barthholdy knows a thing or two about resilience, and will tell you that just a little time, space and mindfulness can go a long way in sustaining happiness. “While Covid itself didn’t have a huge impact on my happiness, my father’s death the year leading up to the pandemic, and my business launch during the global lockdown of March 2020 and its closure less than a year later—having lost all my savings, created roller coaster-grade emotional peaks and dips for me personally. The combination of things I could not control—from the personal loss of my father, and having to close down, to trying to restart my career, and feeling I wasn’t good enough all made for a crushing collective experience,” she admits. “A tipping point person who needs to bubble myself when things really get to be too much, I booked a hotel room with a spa bathroom for two days that I promptly escaped to for a bath, a book, and wine. After mentally checking out and giving my brain a little break, I was able to mindfully settle back into my own space and come back refreshed to deal with the situation.”
Creative agency CEO, Emil Spangenberg’s MO for transcending tumultuous times is to never stop moving forward. “Earlier this year my mom was diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s, after an uncertain and undefined period of almost three years” he shares. “At the outset of that kind of diagnosis, you understand that something is changing and happening to your loved one, but there’s a pervasive feeling of uncertainty, and being unable to hold onto something specific. You’re incapable of maneuvering or prioritizing because you’re just floating in free space. It’s the closest feeling to helplessness I’ve known. And while it doesn’t change the prognosis or make a diagnosis like that any less awful, having the ability to do something—whether that’s planning for the most comfortable quality of life for my mom, or engaging her cognitively in ways that bring her joy—it feels like I’m adding value. Like a car stuck in highway traffic, if there is a backroad you can take that will get you there no faster, but keep your wheels turning—at least you’re moving forward and not just standing still."
Happiness is Contagious
Sharing a happy moment in all its lovely detail not only has the capacity to spread joy to others—but also recreate joy for the storyteller as they re-live a favorite memory.
“One of my happiest memories is of my late grandmother, one summer that we were on the beach together,” recalls aspiring novelist, Christian Holse Salicath. “She was an avid tanner, with very dark, caramel colored skin, and I was very pale. I had just come out of the water and laid down on the towel next to her before closing my eyes and feeling the sun on my eyelids. With her eyes also closed she asked, ‘Can you feel the sun drying your skin?’ ‘Yes,’ I answered. And then she said, ‘Savor it! Just savor it.’ I think about that all the time.”
“Sailing for me is the absolute freedom,” shares grad student Peter-Emil Ruud Nordlund. “When you sail out and can no longer see land, you realize it’s just you and the force of nature. You recognize the huge probability of danger, but it’s not like a car where you’re like ‘I want to get out.’ You can’t get out. And sometimes, it’s rough. In those moments you can see where the wind is coming from, and feel its force propel the boat forward. The water and the wind—they make you extremely humble. You can sail 12 or 16 hours before you reach a harbor. That is the absolute happiest place.”
“One of my favorite memories is the almost ecstatic physical sensation of experiencing art,” says publishing intern, Mads Joakim Skovgaard Holm. “When I reach a point that I’ve actually experienced a piece of art—whether it’s reading a book or visiting a museum—and then I look away—it makes the world around me almost vibrate with a sense of purpose. It makes me want to try to understand it, as if every little minute detail about it wants to tell me about itself. When I walk away from the true experience of art, it’s like another level of existing. I once read a Grant Morrison comic and I looked away. It was as if there was something new I had to understand in everything. And that feeling of walking around, alone, being mindful in a very explicit sense, recognizing everything around me. I feel like nothing compares to that."
May these happiness vignettes from Copenhagen not only help to enhance your own personal joy, but expand the good energy you bring to those all around you.
Until next time, Namaste. ——Noelle