6 Reasons to Visit the World's Happiest Country

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Is that a woman or a 12-year old drinking beer? I don’t know, but they’re happy about it.

Denmark has recently emerged as the world’s happiest country, beating out Bhutan, the long-time favorite of anthropologists everywhere.

The birthplace of LEGO–a contraction of leg godt or “play well”–offers even the first time visitor an incredible sense of hygglige: amiable cosiness.

“I remember you mentioned in your book,” my Danish editor said over lunch in Copenhagen two weeks ago, “that you had a big head.” I do have a huge head. I took a bite of delicious Esrom cheese and nodded for her to continue, keeping one eye on the wienerbrød.

“But you don’t have a huge head. You just have a healthy, normal-sized Danish head.” I smiled–home at last.

Even if you don’t have a Danish bloodline like I do, there are some good reasons to visit Copenhagen, the capital of the world’s happiest country…

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The First Published Map of World Happiness: the US ranks 23rd, the UK 41st, and Japan and France at 90th and 62nd respectively.

Here are just 6 of them:

1. More than 80% of the Danes speak English.

English movies are almost never dubbed in Denmark. Combined with excellent free education, this results in a high % of Danes speaking more pleasant English than the average Brit or American.

“OK, I’ll see you for dinner at 6pm then,” I said to one friend named Christopher over the phone. “You shall. Have a nice evening and see you soon,” he responded. Did I just get out-Englished by a non-native speaker? I felt like a TOEFL student.

You’re more likely to have communication problems in the bayou of Louisiana or in a pub in Manchester than you are in Copenhagen.

2. Christiania–the anarchist state of Scandinavia.

In 1971, a 101-acre site formerly used for army barracks was effectively seized and converted by hippies into “The Free State of Christiania.” They hotwired themselves into the power grid, created their own form of goverment, as well as a rich community of shops, schools, recycling programs, and most things you would associate with a normal township–but they claimed sovereignty and paid no taxes. It became a haven for artists, alternatives, and soft drug dealing, among other things, and the Danish government–though allowing Christiania to exist as a proclaimed “social experiment”–has been trying to shut them down for more than 35 years. In 1991, the appointed powers within the anarchist state agreed to pay rent and cover the costs of water and electricity.

I spent a late night wandering through the beautifully painted historical buildings of Christiania, ultimately ending up with two friends at The Woodstock Cafe, where we drank organic beer and met interesting vagabonds from all over the world. Dogs played outside among the metal barrels, which glowed like jack-o-lanterns from the flames inside them, producing surreal shadows on the graffiti all around us. It was incredible.

Most Danes agree that Christiania’s days are numbered. It’s an anachronism that has somehow survived every attempt to demolish it, but it’s nine lives will soon be up. Get there before it’s gone.

3. Danes pair food and wine better than most Italians or French.

That’s a strong statement, but I was amazed at how precisely, and insistently, most decent restaurants paired courses with wine. Restaurant Saa Hvidt, featuring young culinary superstar Frederik Hvidt, offers a prix fixe 5-course meal with five separate wines for each tapas-like dish. Incredible and unlike anything I’ve had in more than 30 other countries. Danish cheese is also the best I’ve ever had.

For a taste of real home-cooked Danish food, eat with a local family for about 400 DKK through the Dine with the Danes program.


5 small courses and 5 delicious wines at Saa Hvidt, with the good people from Borgen.

4. The people are beautiful but seem unaware of the fact.

As Bill Bryson once observed: you could cast a Pepsi commercial here in 15 seconds.

Right up there with Argentina, Denmark has a jaw-dropping number of gorgeous people. The truly beautiful part, and unusual differentiator, is that appear blissfully unaware of the fact. There is little LA-style pretension unless you go to a social climber magnet like Club NASA, which helps to pull the mirror gazers off the streets. Go in the spring or summer and there is no need for catwalks–the sidewalks at Nyhavn are good enough. For those feeling the club or lounge itch, Vega and JazzHouse are hard to beat.

5. Danish design is incredible to experience, even for non-designers.

“It doesn’t cost money to light a room correctly, but it does require culture.” This quote from Poul Henningsen, encapsulates the beauty of Danish design minimalism. Much like in Japanese design, form follows function, and half of the time I found myself in a great mood in Copenhagen, I realized it was due to the planned passage of sunlight in Danish architecture, as well as their understanding of interior lighting intensity and placement.

Bigger is not better, as is so often the case in the US, and the tallest building in Copenhagen is a modest 358 feet.

From the sleek silverware of 2001: A Space Odyssey to the most famous chairs in the design world, the Danes have a functional and pleasant feast for the eyes almost anywhere you go, whether the renowned Louisiana museum or your hotel lobby.


6. Bite-sized goodness: public transportation is as good as Japan, and you can cover the entire city in a weekend.

I looked at where I wanted to go. It was on the other side of the map from my hotel. “How long does it take to get there by taxi? 20 minutes?” The receptionist looked at me and laughed: “10 minutes by bicycle.” Copenhagen is probably the most hassle-free capital I’ve ever visited.

Rent a bike for 100 DKK and you can cover 1/2 of the “Barcelona of the North,” as design god Sir Terence Conran calls it, in an afternoon. 1-3-hour bike tours from Central Station are a perfect first-day orientation. The numerous S-line and Metro stations, in addition to HUR buses, will get you where you want to go if self-propelled locomotion isn’t your gig, but the average Dane bicycles 375 miles per year. Get off your ass and join them for the real Danish experience.

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Looking for other happy travels?

Here are the combined top 10 according to separate studies from the University of Leicester in the UK and Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the latter of which had 953 indicators (!):

* 1 Denmark
* 2 Switzerland
* 3 Austria
* 4 Iceland
* 5 Bahamas
* 6 Finland
* 7 Sweden
* 8 Bhutan
* 9 Brunei
* 10 Canada


6-month old salted cod and four other pairings in Copenhagen. And, yes, there was caviar in the dessert.

Posted on: April 14, 2008.

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173 comments on “6 Reasons to Visit the World's Happiest Country

  1. Interesting, but I’ve always wondered why the “happiest places” in the world in many cases have a higher suicide rate than the USA/Australia. Could it be that the way they rank these happiest places is because of certain socialized programs/standard of living?

    I think Dennis Miller breaks down this concept well. He says that in the end, when we lose the “struggle” in life, we often turn out weaker and have less resolve to excel in many ways. I’m not saying socialized anything is bad, but at a certain point we have to realize that life more like the Serengeti plains than the Garden of Eden.

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  2. Hmmm….totally agree w/Denmark! But clicking through the link says Switzerland is tied for #1. Now, I love the beauty of Switzerland, but I’d never think to describe the locals as “jolly.”

    Maybe they’re just happy on the inside!!

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  3. Am now intrigued with Danish cuisine, especially with the “best cheese” comment. Since I don’t think I’ll be able to head to Denmark any time soon, do you know of any Northern California Danish restaurants? I’d be very interested in delving into the food!

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    • Hi nana, in California, im not completely sure of any Danish restaurants in Northern CA.. I live in southern CA, and a small town north from me, called Solvang (Danish meaning “Sunny Valley”) is a Danish Village. Solvang was founded by the first Danes who immigrated here from Denmark, and all of the architecture and such is Danish design. there are many delicious Danish bakeries and restaurants where you can get some great Danish quisine, and theres plenty of sights to see. theres a few seperate Danish museums, and windmills which you can take tours of also.. Solvang is pretty much a small taste of Denmark in america! if your interested in that kind of thing id suggest going to google and looking up Solvang California :)

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  4. Totally agree with point # 4, my buddy and I went to Denmark and I have to tell you, Danish women are some of the best looking women on the planet. Blue eyes and platinum blonde hair without the “attitude” of course. Plus they seem to think Asians are exotic creatures, we totally felt like Harold & Kumar goes to Denmark dude.

    http://www.feedbacksecrets.com

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  5. Hi Tim,

    When you were talking about dessert…the thing that grows in the garden, that you called weeds, is nettles…popular ingredient at the moment in Copenhagen (not sure if that’s because it’s in season or just in fashion at the moment).

    Glad you’re enjoying Cph. :)

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  6. @Donovan,

    I’ve seen the stats on suicide in Scandinavia as well. I suspect — pure speculation — that, unlike Japan, suicide in these places are largely a result of the long periods of darkness due to their latitude/location. Large-scale SAD with predictable results.

    I’d love to see any studies that have been done comparing cumulative annual exposure to sunlight and subjective reported well-being. I suspect there is a strong connection.

    All said, though, those Danes make the best of some rainy and cold days. Makes you want to slap people who complain about the fog in SF :)

    Tim

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    • I’ve actually seen studies showing that most suicides happen in summer time, when it’s not dark and cold. And that it should not have much to do with weather. Maybe it could be because most Danes are satisfied and doing very good in life. No poverty, no “real” worries about the future, a very “easy life”, etc. So when you are not doing well, and compare yourself to the rest of the Danes, you really feel bad compared to them, because the standards are so high there. Another thing, I saw a study about that, is that Danes are not very into religious communities where suicide is seen as a sin and you go to hell. That is the believe of many Christians (I think the Bible calls it a sin?), but not many Danes are religious. Also, sometimes Greenland (part of Danish Kingdom) is taken into the statistics, and they have a very high rate of suicides.

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  7. Wanderlust is boiling inside me… soon soon I will make my escape. I have to work your worksheet to see how much I need to make Denmark and Europe happen. My friend Konrad says Polish women are the most beautiful but some have ‘tude. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but there are many empirically attractive specimens in clusters around the globe. Are the men in Denmark as attractive and Large Brained/Big Headed as you? ;)

    Bill Bryson is one of my brothers favorite authors. I think “A Walk in the Woods” is his favorite because it takes place near his house. Gotta love NJ!
    I think my brother would like to be him. He just needs a beard and glasses.

    Hugs,
    Jen

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  8. Oh a great place for wine or beer pairings in the US is http://www.rosemarysrestaurant.com/ which is in Las Vegas. It’s off the strip, in a unassuming strip mall. Superb and amazing! Their tasting menu with perfect pairings and fabulous service. I felt like a royalty with napkins that matched my skirt. I haven’t been may places but it is one of the best places I have ever dined.

    Hug numero dos,
    Jen

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  9. Suicide in Scandinavia doesn’t carry the social stigma that it does in the states where many suicides are categorized as “accidents.” If someone is in a bad situation and no longer wants to live, they are free to exit. Maybe this leaves the happier people for those polls, or the other countries rate lower in happiness because they force miserable people to keep living.

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    • Denmark, was one of the few European countries that stayed with its own currency instead of switching to euros like most of the others, if your traveling from another country, you can go to a local bank and exchange your dollars or euros into Danish Kroners so you can shop and eat as much as you’d like :)

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  10. Seduction Chronicles: you’re definitely on to something there. As someone who has lived in Scandinavia (Sweden and Denmark both) for all his life, I can tell you that these happiness studies would be laughed at by a lot of natives who feel crushed under taxes and state nannying.

    Besides, exactly how do you quantify such a thing? Being somewhat of a grumpy curmudgeon, I am very skeptical of some government droid declaring that I am indeed “happy”…

    Bare mine 2 øre ;)

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    • True story. But we get tons of stuff for the high taxes, in US people die because they can´t afford medicine, while the Danes get money from the state to buy medicine if they´re poor (and if they don´t have a job they get a bit money too). And it´s free to go to the hospital. And children can go to do the dentist for free. And we have one of the best school systems in the world. I could go on forever.

      Many Danes probably says they´re unhappy, because they think that the rest of the world is an utopia.

      By the way, it´s called “Bare mine 25 øre”, not “Bare mine 2 øre”.

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  11. Interesting about the food and wine pairings. It could help that they don’t have a ton of local wine to choose from, but have a huge variety from relatively close by, thus freeing people to choose from a wealth of options without local prejudice.

    I’ve only been to Copenhagen once, and then only for two or three days, but it was the dead of winter and I still found it one of the most enchanting and fun cities I’ve ever visited.

    I remember how shockingly manageable the city was (we walked from one end to the other) This is a huge plus for me when I’m travelling. Not that I avoid big cities, but often my best memories come from smaller places where one can discover the local secrets in a shorter time. It has something to do with people in small cities being a little less jaded and maybe a little more open to strangers…

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  12. That being said, Tim is absolutely right that Denmark is a wonderful place and you should visit. Might be interesting to check out other parts than Copenhagen too, the rural parts, such as Lolland, are quite lovely. Check out the classic dogma film Mifunes sidste sang if you want a look at that part of the country.

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