The Politics of Happiness


The centre-left are keen to hold up Denmark as a paradigm of collectivist contentment. According to the story, Danes score highest in national happiness tests because they have more concern for well-being than prosperity, put the common good before individual self-improvement, and willing accept high taxes if public services work well. The New Labour mouthpiece that is Radio Four loves this kind of analysis, as seen in their piece called Denmark and the Politics of Contentment.

There’s only one problem with the story. It is false. It’s not hard to find out why. A little research always helps.

For instance, in an academic article called Why Danes are smug: comparative study of life satisfaction in the European Union, the authors discuss several factors at play, ranging from hair colour, genes, food, climate, language, alcohol and smoking, marriage and children, general health, exercise, prowess in sport, and expectations as well as the welfare state. Clearly, the picture is a little more complex than James Naughtie & Co would have us believe.

What struck me was the conclusion, according to which Denmark’s football victory over Germany in the 1992 European Cup had more to do with national happiness than the welfare state!

More interesting for me was the matter of expectations. The Danes don’t seem to have many. Then, when things ‘go right’, they are very glad.

Imagine that happiness can be measured on a scale from 1 to 10 (10 being the highest). Now, imagine two people, A and B. A is aiming for 10 but makes it to 7. B expects a 3 but lands a 5. Who is happier? Certainly, you could argue that B is both more content (having exceeded his low expectations) but less happy (overall). This seems to be the Danish situation summed up.

I highly recommend an article called Brave New Denmark Revisited, written by a Dane, in which the perception of Danish happiness is compared to the reality. And the reality? Not happiness, barely even contentment, but ‘security’, the security of an “indoctrinated and subdued society who for fifty years or so been subjected to a social engineering programme which is to serve as one model for the European Federalist Superstate.” Ouch!

If all it takes is a football match to create national euphoria, then there’s trouble afoot. Panem et circenses!

Image credit: sciondriver.