“It gets so hard, just to be okay/
Sometimes being happy, baby/
Is what I’m most afraid of”
Is it really so difficult to smile?
Unless you’re in, say, Milan, where the law makes it illegal not to walk around in public grinning like a Cheshire Cat, most of us would certainly rather be beaming than bawling.
That seems to be the case in Denmark at least. For the second year in a row, it has been voted the happiest country in the world in the World Happiness Report.
According to a release from Visit Denmark, it is the combination of a relatively high GDP, good healthy life expectancy and high levels of social support that once more gives Denmark an edge over other nations.
Switzerland, along with Scandinavian neighbours Iceland, Norway and Finland, make up the rest of the top five. Meanwhile the US features as the 13th happiest country, the UK 23rd, China 83rd and India staggers at 118th on the list.
The idea of measuring happiness has proven controversial, even spawning an entire book from Denmark-based journalist, Michael Booth, who grappled with the findings.
“Was Danish happiness nothing more than oblivion sponsored by Prozac?” he wrote in The Almost Nearly Perfect People. Yep, I’m sure the neighbourhood have embraced him with open arms after that one.
To be fair, it isn’t just Denmark that suffers from the stereotype that everyone is sad. Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America is loved like a rock star in Sweden. When the book was adapted into a film, it was a Norwegian, Erik Skjoldbjærg, who directed it, while it is commonly assumed that the hard drinking ways of the Finns is a way of ameliorating the harshness of their environment.
Although the five different countries, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Finland are drowned out by tidal waves of honey light during the often-brief summer, living in the dark for much of the year is widely attributed to leading to mental illness, in particular seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a mood disorder triggered by the two most extreme seasons: summer and winter. SAD is characterised by everything from difficulty waking up in the morning, over-eating, anxiety and social withdrawal and, according to some people, leads to a dependence on drugs and alcohol.
In Denmark it appears that there ways of coping. An enviable work-life balance, sufficient leisure time including the importance of the ‘hygge’ aka socialising, a decent welfare system and – perhaps most importantly – low expectations (ever heard of a complaining Dane?) go a long way to warming things up.
As an outsider, I have never felt happier in any of the Scandinavian countries and a lot of this was a result of the people. And it’s not just me who thinks this way. Morrissey, who is hardly known for being upbeat, was so enamoured by Scandinavia he even penned a whole love song in its honour.
In Copenhagen, I only had to pull out a map and two locals rushed to my side to ask how they could help; cars always stopped in Iceland, where hitchhiking is as much a social custom as taking off your shoes before entering someone’s house. Of course I can be accused of looking at life through rose-coloured glasses (or was it just over-exposure to the midnight sun?) but if five weeks of holiday a year and a more humane social system are the trade off for a bit of cold weather then I think I’ll go buy some thermal clothing.