Our Living Well, On Location series explores cities and countries from around the world. How do other people pursue health and happiness? We're going coast to coast, country to country to find out.
Last month, Denmark was crowned the happiest country in the world.
“The top countries generally rank higher in all six of the key factors identified in the World Happiness Report,” wrote University of British Columbia economics professor John Helliwell, one of the report's contributing authors. “Together, these six factors explain three quarters of differences in life evaluations across hundreds of countries and over the years.”
The six factors for a happy nation split evenly between concerns on a government- and on a human-scale. The happiest countries have in common a large GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy at birth and a lack of corruption in leadership. But also essential were three things over which individual citizens have a bit more control over: A sense of social support, freedom to make life choices and a culture of generosity.
"There is now a rising worldwide demand that policy be more closely aligned with what really matters to people as they themselves characterize their well-being," economist Jeffrey Sachs said in a statement at the time of the report's release.
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:
Denmark supports parents
While American women scrape by with an average maternal leave of 10.3 weeks, Danish families receive a total of 52 weeks of parental leave. Mothers are able to take 18 weeks and fathers receive their own dedicated 2 weeks at up to 100 percent salary. The rest of the paid time off is up to the family to use as they see fit.
But the support doesn't stop at the end of this time. Danish children have access to free or low-cost child care. And early childhood education is associated with health and well-being throughout life for its recipients -- as well as for mothers. What's more, this frees up young mothers to return to the work force if they'd like to. The result? In Denmark, 79 percent of mothers return to their previous level of employment, compared to 59 percent of American women. These resources mean that women contribute 34 to 38 percent of income in Danish households with children, compared to American women, who contribute 28 percent of income.
Health care is a civil right -- and a source of social support
Danish citizens expect and receive health care as a basic right. But what's more, they know how to effectively use their health systems. Danish people are in touch with their primary care physician an average of nearly seven times per year, according to a 2012 survey of family medicine in the country. And that means they have a single advocate who helps them navigate more complicated care.
"This gatekeeping system essentially is designed to support the principle that treatment ought to take place at the lowest effective care level along with the idea of continuity of care provided by a family doctor," wrote the authors of the family medicine survey.
By contrast, Americans seek medical care an average of fewer than four times per year and they don't just visit their general practitioner -- this figure includes emergency room visits, where many uninsured Americans must access doctors. This diversity of resources means that many Americans don't have continuity of care -- not a single medical professional advocating for them and putting together a comprehensive medical history.
Gender equality is prioritized
It isn't just parents who can expect balanced gender norms. Denmark regularly ranks among the top 10 countries in a World Economic Forum's yearly report that measures gender equality. While no country in the world has yet achieved gender parity, Denmark and other Nordic countries are coming close. That is in no small part because of the strong presence of women in leadership positions. Reported the World Economic Forum:
The Nordic countries were also early starters in providing women with the right to vote (Sweden in 1919,
Norway in 1913, Iceland and Denmark in 1915, Finland in 1906). In Denmark, Sweden and Norway, political parties introduced voluntary gender quotas in the 1970s, resulting in high numbers of female political representatives over the years. In Denmark, in fact, this quota has since been abandoned as no further stimulus is required.
Indeed, the country currently has its first female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt (although she has been leader of the Social Democrat party since 2005). Its blockbuster hit television show, Borgen, features a female prime minister (pictured above) as well -- a complicated, strong female character that stands in contrast to America's enduring obsession with male anti-heroes.
But government leadership merely exemplifies greater gender balance throughout the culture. As Katie J.M. Baker puts it in her exploration of gender politics in the Scandinavian country: "Unlike in America, where bestsellers goad already overworked and underpaid women to Lean In even further, the assumption in Denmark is that feminism is a collective goal, not an individual pursuit."
Biking is the norm
In Denmark's most populated and largest city, Copenhagen, bikes account for 50 percent of its residents' trips to school or work. Half. Half of commuting happens on a bike in Copenhagen and that doesn't just improve fitness levels and reduce carbon emissions, it also contributes to the wealth of the city, reported Forbes:
Researchers found that for every kilometer traveled by bike instead of by car, taxpayers saved 7.8 cents (DKK 0.45) in avoided air pollution, accidents, congestion, noise and wear and tear on infrastructure. Cyclists in Copenhagen cover an estimated 1.2 million kilometers each day –- saving the city a little over $34 million each year.
What's more, just 30 minutes of daily biking adds an average of one to two years to the life expectancy of Copenhagen's cyclists.
Danish culture puts a positive spin on its harsh environment
Here's how Danish people turn lemons into spiced mulled wine: Ever heard of the concept of hygge? While some would define it as cultivated coziness, hygge is often considered the major weapon in combatting the dreary darkness that befalls the Nordic country over the winter. In a place where the sun shines fewer than seven hours during the height of the winter solstice -- a level of darkness that can (and does) stir depression and sad feelings -- the concept of a cozy scene, full of love and indulgence, can help to mitigate some of the season's worst psychological effects.
After all, both strong social connections and many of the indulgent foods associated with hygge -- such as chocolate, coffee and wine -- are mood boosters.
Danes feel a responsibility to one another
Danes don't prioritize social security and safety simply so they can receive benefits; there's a real sense of collective responsibility and belonging. And this civic duty -- combined with the economic security and work-life balance to support it -- results in a high rate of volunteerism. According to a government exploration of Danish "responsibility":
Denmark is a society where citizens participate and contribute to making society work. More than 40 percent of all Danes do voluntary work in cultural and sports associations, NGOs, social organisations, political organisations, etc. There is a wealth of associations: in 2006, there were 101,000 Danish organisations -- worth noting in a population of just 5.5 million.
The economic value of this unpaid work is DKK 35.3 billion. Combined with the value growth from the non-profit sector, public subsidies and membership fees, the total economic impact of the sector represents 9.6 percent of the Danish GDP.
But that sense of stewardship isn't just extra-governmental: Danes also take pride in their involvement with the democratic process. During the last election in September 2011, for example, 87.7 percent of the country voted. It's not surprising, given these statistics, that the University of Zurich and the Social Science Research Center Berlin have given Denmark the very highest rating for democracy among 30 established democracies.
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