Why Are The Danes So Happy? Could We Be That Happy, Too?

By the UN’s highly objective analysis, the US is in steep decline in relation to our people’s hopes, aspirations and experience of daily life. This report affirms recent posts and identifies why we are increasingly unhappy and points to how to reverse that trend.

Just How Unhappy Are We? A Look at the 2017 World Happiness Report

The World Happiness Report has been produced by the United Nations since 2012. Prior happiness reports were produced by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a unique forum where the governments of 34 democracies work to promote economic growth, prosperity, and sustainable development. Today, the UNs’ World Happiness Report covers 155 nations and produces scores based upon six main factors found to support happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance.  How does the US fare in happiness?  In 2007, the US ranked 3rd and by 2016, we fell to 19th. The chart at left represents the composite of these six factors in a calculation called the Cantril Ladder. The decline in US happiness is clear.

Why has the US’s happiness declined so precipitously?  Jeffrey Sachs is special advisor to the UN Secretary General and author of Section VII of the UN’s 2017 Happiness Report. Section VII focuses exclusively on the decline of happiness in the US. Sachs put it this way. “The predominant political discourse in the United States is aimed at raising economic growth, with the goal of restoring the American Dream and the happiness that is supposed to accompany it. But the data show conclusively that this is the wrong approach. The United States can and should raise happiness by addressing America’s multi-faceted social crisis—rising inequality, corruption, isolation, and distrust—rather than focusing exclusively or even mainly on economic growth, especially since the concrete proposals along these lines would exacerbate rather than ameliorate the deepening social crisis.”  Couldn’t have said it better myself.

So how are Happiness ratings compiled? From Chapter VII:  “The six factors that comprise the happiness score include: log income per capita (lgdp), healthy life expectancy (hle), social support (ssup), freedom to make life choices (freedom), generosity of donations (donation), and perceived corruption of government and business (corruption). Of these sources, two involve personal material conditions (lgdp, hle); one focuses on individual values (donation); and two involve social capital (ssup, corruption). The last, freedom, should be interpreted as a combination of individual factors (wealth, skills) and social factors (democracy, civil rights, and social rights).”  The table below compares 2005 and 2016 US ratings along these six factors. While ratings for health (hle) and income per capita (lgdp) both show slight gains, all other factors decline. While I got a tad lost in the quantitative analysis, Sachs goes on to point out that addressing the four social factors has a far greater impact upon collective happiness than does wealth and health. As the chart below illustrates, over the past 12 years US GDP and income (lgdp) and health (hle) have all increased while all the social factors have declined resulting in the precipitous drop in the overall happiness of our society.

Interestingly, when you compare the US with the four leading Scandinavian countries, countries that historically rate in the very top of the ratings, you see that the while the US leads significantly in GDP and income (lgdp), they fall far short in terms of the other more human and social factors.


While Sachs asserts that it is GOP social and economic policies that are particularly contributing to this decline, I would argue that since the 80’s economic policies of the GOP and Democrats differ only in degree. What’s more, the influence of money and lobbyists in Washington has robbed Americans of any sense of agency. A Retake post from last week pointed to two dozen policies which Americans favor by wide margins, each one of which would address the four social factors that contribute to collective happiness. But public support has not translated into policy, as government has ceased to be a vehicle for implementing popular aspirations. As a result, as the chart from the Happiness Report depicts, American’s trust in government has plummeted over the past 50 years. Click here to review the Retake post that described governmental indifference to the popular will.

The table at left, also from the 2017 Happiness Report, plots how American policy and economic structures have contributed to an extraordinary concentration of wealth in America. Sachs notes:

“In recent years, the evidence of social crises has become overwhelming, across every aspect of social life. A small group at the top of the income distribution has continued to make striking gains in wealth and income, while the rest of society has faced economic stagnation or decline, worsening public health indicators including rising rates of drug addiction and suicide, and declining social trust.” To read the full 2017 World Happiness Report, click here. It will provide much detail on how the actual ratings are derived and analysis of Happiness in China, Africa and Chapter 7 on the US. Click here to go directly to Sachs’ Chapter 7.

Many recent posts have been examining precisely this crisis and the political factors that have contributed to our now living in a profoundly troubled country. Interestingly, as the next summary depicts, Denmark was once mired in the same kind of crisis with the Danish oligarchy having a firm grip on public policy and the majority being without influence and living in relative squalor. How they emerged from that socio-politico environment is summarized below. There is much to be learned from their experience.

How Might America Achieve Greater Happiness? Look to Denmark 

Denmark is consistently at the top of the World Happiness rankings. But how is it that Danes are so happy, given their living in a country without enormous resources and with gloom-inducing climate?

From a Truthout report:  “Denmark wasn’t always like this. A century ago its economic system was deeply irrational and poverty was endemic. Despite having a parliament and free elections, a growing number of Danes came to realize that they had a sham democracy. The major decisions were actually made by their economic elite.” Does this sound familiar?  But following World War II, the Danes used the economic and spiritual depression that befell Europe to reinvent their country.

From Truthout:  After WWII, “the [Danish] 1 percent decided to hold out for market-based solutions: reliance on the private insurance approach to ill-health, for example. They proposed governmental austerity, which under the circumstances was laughable.” And this is much the way in the US:  market based solutions, austerity, and neoliberalism. But in Denmark a movement erupted offering a much different vision of what Denmark could be. It was bold plan.  From Truthout:  “The Nordic design isn’t welfare for the needy — that’s the old approach that has not worked for any nation in the world, ever. Instead, the Nordic model provides universal services given to all, whatever their income, as a matter or right, supported by progressive taxation that re-distributes income and wealth.” While not exactly parallel the People’s Platform advanced by OuRevolution and the LEAP Manifesto organized by Naomi Klein and Canadian activists each propose the same kind of bold new approach.  So we have models; but do we have the will to fight for them? Do we have the strategy?   Read on for suggestions from Denmark.

Finally, the Truthout report identifies an important factor in how the Danes achieved the framework of public priorities that underscores their county’s shift from neoliberal economic policies to a focus on the general welfare.  “The Danes did, however, end centuries of domination by their 1 percent and empowered the democratic majority to make decisions about the future direction of the economy. They designed a different economy, one that centers labor instead of capital, correctly understanding this shift to be the pre-condition for the abolition of poverty. They also turn to nonviolent direct action to do the heavy lifting when they see it is needed, rather than putting all their eggs in the parliamentary basket.” Interestingly, as will be reported in future posts, after hearing from Reverend Barber of his Poor People’s Campaign, Retake leadership has voted unanimously to support that campaign and begin training and planning a series of nonviolent direct actions and civil disobedience, much as was done in Denmark. No doubt, the challenge in the US is more complex as we have a history of slavery, genocide of the Indigenous population, and other manifestations of institutional racism that is not part of the Danish experience. But still, the oligarchy had a firm grip on Denmark 75 years ago and now the Danes are happy as clams while we are mired in the swamp. Much to explore, much to learn.

Click here to read the full Truthout report as it described in more detail the Nordic model and how the Danes mounted a broad popular movement to overcome an oligarchy that had a firm hold on their economic and political system and create a far more egalitarian society.

So do not give up hope. There are paths out of this darkness. As Valarie Kaur noted in her inspirational 6 minute address: “What if the darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb.” Her advice: push, breathe, push. And so we push. If you need a dose of inspiration, click here to access Kaur’s moving address.

In solidarity,

Paul & Roxanne


Categories: Economic justice, Social Safety Net

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1 reply

  1. Paul, in case no one else has mentioned it, the word you want in your title saying E Warren decries the progressive wing of the DNP is endorses or supports. Decry means the opposite, as in she detests them.

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