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'The state takes care of you': Why Denmark is such a 'happy' country

Emma Firth
Emma Firth - [email protected]
'The state takes care of you': Why Denmark is such a 'happy' country
Danes looking happy during the proclamation of King Frederik X in January 2024. Why does Denmark always score highly on international happiness rankings? Photo: Emil Nicolai Helms/Ritzau Scanpix

The UN World Happiness Report has ranked Denmark as the world's second happiest country for the sixth year in a row. We spoke to an analyst at the Happiness Research Institute about what the results mean and if Denmark can regain its number one spot from Finland.


The UN’s World Happiness Report, published on Wednesday, puts Denmark second on its national happiness ranking, a place it has held consistently since 2019.

The findings are drawn from Gallup World Poll data and analysed by leading wellbeing scientists. The number of people and countries surveyed varies year to year, but around 100,000 people in 130 countries participate in the Gallup World Poll each year.

General happiness can be difficult to measure, so what does the report actually tell us about Denmark?

Those polled are asked to fill out something called a Cantril ladder survey, where people score their lives on a scale of zero to 10 – zero being worst possible life and 10 being best. To collect a country’s individual score, known as the Average Life Evaluation, the Happiness Report takes an average of the numbers given by those surveyed in each nation across the last three years. This year's rankings are from polls carried out between 2021 and 2023. 

"You can't name a whole country as happy but you can ask the people in the country if they're happy or not and then say if an average population is happier than other average populations. That is what the UN Happiness report does well," Catarina Lachmund, Senior Analyst at the Happiness Research Institute, told The Local.


Since the report began in 2012, Nordic countries, which include Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland, plus the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Åland, consistently come at the top of the UN World Happiness Report.

"In general, the Nordic model turns out to be doing a lot of good for its citizens. There's a lot they are doing correctly, mainly funnelling wealth into wellbeing," Lachmund explained.

"If you look into the scales of 0-10 in the Nordics, it's not that a lot of answers are ranked 7 and higher, it's that there are not many answers in the lower rank, so there aren't as many people suffering. The Nordics focus on elevating their 0-4 rankings and there are policies that lift those at the bottom of the wellbeing scale, to get them into the middle.

"So even if life is challenging, the state takes care of you. There's social housing, free education, free health care, abortion rights, parental leave and if you lose your job there's unemployment benefit. In the US, if you lose your job, you lose your health insurance, then you might lose your housing and you're on the street without a roof and without health insurance.


"The Nordic system allows you to fail so if you fall, you don't fall too deep.

"The unions are also strong in Denmark. We have secure working hours, we have the time to rest. Going to work in the Nordics, means you're going to work 37 - 40 hours, you're insured and you have a right to get paid. Denmark doesn't have a legal minimum wage because of how strong the unions are. 

"Not everything the Nordics do is perfect and there are still different opinions on how policy should be informed. Denmark cut down one national holiday recently and increased the military budget, which caused mixed reactions. But human needs are met nearly all the time," Lachmund said.

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This year's report focuses on the happiness of people at different stages of life. It shows that since 2006-10, happiness among the young (aged 15-24) has fallen sharply in North America, to a point where the young are less happy than the old. Youth happiness has also fallen, but less sharply in Western Europe.

"This is a concerning trend that needs to be researched, that younger people report a lower level satisfaction than previously. But that is compared to a different generation. At the same time we see that negative emotions decline in East Asia and Europe and that the frequency of positive emotions is the highest for those under 30. So it is too early yet for conclusions or explanations about that," Lachmund told The Local.

Denmark took first place in the UN World Happiness Report in 2013 and 2016. Finland has come out on top for seven years in a row. So what can Denmark do to reclaim its number one spot?

"It's impossible to answer. Increase the amount of saunas!" Lachmund said.


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"Our theory (at the Happiness Research Institute) is that Finland is a younger nation, becoming independent from Sweden then Russia in 1917. So that could be a reason for happiness, that they are enjoying their national freedom. Also the fact they have had a progressive government and a smaller nation can make changes more easily.

"But the scientific answer here is that the differences are so minimal that you can't actually point them out," Lachmund added.

The two countries are separated by a smaller margin in this year's report.

Denmark's score is 7.586 and Finland achieved an overall score of 7.804. Denmark also came out on top for happiness in people aged 60 and over. So you could say that Denmark is the best country in the world to be happy... probably.


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