Tough duty: My comparative happiness field trip

(By Mark Pougnet) I am sure you have read articles pronouncing Denmark as the happiest country in the world– with the USA not even in the top ten. There have been many of them over the years. But is it true? And how do they evaluate that? Are they using comparable factors? Could the Danes’ expectations be lower, so when they are met, they feel happy?

As we know, happiness is enshrined in the US Declaration of Independence. It is also present in the constitutions of Japan, South Korea, Bhutan, Haiti, Venezuela, Liberia, Brazil, Vietnam (salute to Ho Chi Minh!) -- and the United Nations has proclaimed March 20th as the International Day of Happiness.

Other famous quests for national happiness are expressed by such slogaans as "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" in France; "Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit" (unity, justice and liberty) in Germany, and "peace, order, and good government" in Canada.

I recently visited Denmark for the first time. While I only visited Copenhagen, I was determined to see if Danes seemed happy. I decided I would compare happiness in my home state of Colorado against the world’s reigning #1. (While Colorado is three times bigger geographically, they both have about the same population, with Denmark slightly bigger at 5.7 million people.)

So here are the factors that I consider objective comparable statistics:

Factor                         Colorado                     Denmark                     Happier

GDP Per Capita          $53k                            $60k                            Denmark

Unemployment Rate 4.20%                          6.30%                          Colorado

Population Growth     8.50%                          0.40%                          ?

Homicides per 100k    2.8                               1.0                               Denmark

College Graduates       44%                             27%                             Colorado

Median Income           $58k per household    $44k                            Colorado

Poverty Rate               12.10%                        13.40%                        Colorado

Home Ownership       65%                             63%                             Colorado

Income Inequality       0.44 gini coefficient     0.23                         Denmark

Obesity Rate               18%                             42%                             Colorado

Minimum Wage          $8.31                           $20                              Denmark

Top Marginal Tax       37%                             62%                             Colorado

Life Expectancy          80 years                      80 years                      Tie

Energy fm renewables  3%                             51%                             Denmark

Small Businesses          564k                           213k                            Colorado

Average Work Week    38hrs                          28hrs                           Denmark

Incarcerated per 100k   383                             61                                Denmark

Patents filed annually   3,472                          1,190                           Colorado

Suicides per 100k         19                               9                                  Denmark

Consumer Debt % GDP 18.4%                     47.8%                          Colorado

Voter Turnout               57%                          86%                             Denmark

Annual Hrs Sunshine  3,107                          1,786                           Colorado

Biking to Work           10%                            56%                             Denmark

While this sketchily researched table (thanks, Google) may have its flaws, the results are more in line with what I expected. In fact, I have not even heard of anyone who has immigrated to Denmark – whereas 100,000 people have moved to Colorado in each of the last three years.

One comparable that bears a little more explanation is charitable giving which is not in the chart above. In fact, the US has consistently ranked #1 or #2 on the CAF World Giving Index.  Denmark is quite far down the list at #39 – with a 10% drop in the last year’s report. I checked to see where Colorado fell in a rank of states - #26, i.e. average.

Thus it’s fair to conclude Coloradans are much more prolific charitable givers than Danes. But when you think about it, this makes sense. Danes are highly taxed and trust their government to create the welfare safety net. Coloradans are more lightly taxed but like to determine for themselves who should receive their gifts of generosity.

So summarizing the table above: Danes are more productive but earn less. They are heavily taxed to support a strong welfare state but have just as many poor people, more fat people and fewer taking advantage of the free college education.

Their population is not really growing but they kill each other, commit suicide and send people to prison at much lower rates than we Coloradans. We are much more innovative, are less in debt but they seem to trust their government much more. They are greener, we have better weather but our life expectancy is identical.

Net net, the two places are almost dead even on my comparable happiness comparison chart above.  But on a personal level, what did I experience and observe in my (statistically irrelevant) three days in Copenhagen?

Things that would make me happy if I lived there:

** The number of bike lanes, bike paths, bike-only bridges and the easy bike to work culture. I’m told they even de-ice the bike paths before the roads.

** Their carbon neutral goals are fantastic. Lots of wind power being used and thousands of windmills out at sea. They want to be carbon neutral by 2025.

** I did not see a single beggar in three days.

** Denmark has a royal family but by all accounts they are normal people and highly admired. In fact we were told it is the world’s oldest monarchy.

** Smorrebrod open faced sandwiches are fantastic. The Danish pastries were just average (??) but the waffles terrific.

** People don’t get mad at the least provocation (nice demeanor all around).

** They like and trust their politicians.

** The social net if you lose your job is good (pay for two years to get back on your feet) although I wonder how much laziness and lack of urgency this creates.

 ** Danes seem to be more tolerant of immigrants than us. Although the new influx is really going to test them. Good diversity of Thai’s, Turks and Indians who all seem to be getting along.

** People are fit. Fat people are tourists.

**  University and education is free.

**  The food is great. Best restaurant in the world is here – Noma and its offshoot 101.

** As with our flag in the US, there are lots of Danish flags being flown.

**  They have a great work/life balance.

**  An afternoon exploring the canals and the Nyhavn harbor is fun and relaxing.

** They have fantastic old city and church architecture but all the churches I visited are all empty.

**  Their new opera house is very innovative and striking (designed by a Dane like the Sydney Opera house).

** They have a hip food court in an old paper warehouse called Papiroen that had marvelous ethnic food to go with great people watching.

Things that would make me unhappy if I lived in Copenhagen:

** The high taxes are great for creating a social-net but it definitely stifles innovation.

** Not a lot of tech there. No real incentive to take risks.

** Honest business failure is not admired – its frowned upon.

** The richest Dane in recent years (owner of the shipping company Maersk) donated all the funds to build the new opera house, which was well over $500m. But when it was discovered he got a tax donation he was vilified in the public opinion circles.

** Sales tax on cars is 180%. Yes, it supports their carbon neutral goals but I would not be happy without a car.

**  Making a lot of money is frowned upon. I hate to sound materialistic, but success should be admired if the fruits of success are deployed admirably.

** Their most famous landmark – The Little Mermaid – is little! They could have made it a little bigger.

** I’m not sure where I would work – their largest companies are in industries (shipping, pharmaceuticals, food, beer and energy) that I am not passionate about - except Lego but that’s not headquartered in Copenhagen.

**  No one on the bike path announces when they are coming up behind you – mind you there is only about 50% compliance of this in Colorado.

** Drivers drive slowly.

**  While the weather was great when we were there – hottest September in 17 years – I know daylight is short in winter, it gets cold and rains a lot.

** They are in the EU but don’t use the Euro. I know this speaks to their independent streak but it feels like they are hedging their bets financially.

So, in conclusion, I think I could live there but I highly doubt I would be happier there than here in Colorado. At the end of the day, I am too much of a capitalist and would resent the high taxes to pay for the welfare safety net.

I’ll take my chances without the net, and deal with working more, more bums and murders, hating politicians while enjoying better weather, more creativity and less green energy. And if judging by migration patterns it seems like a lot of people agree with me.

Mark Pougnet ( was born in South Africa and is a longtime resident of Colorado. He works for a tech company in Denver.