How to Be Rich, According to the Happiest Country in the World
Meik Wiking, author of The Little Book of Hygge, tells us what the Danes know about converting wealth into well-being
Every other week, Paul Ollinger investigates how redefining success can help us lead better lives.
Winters in Copenhagen are long and dreary. Denmark’s tax rates are legitimately scary. And Hamlet was a bit glum, to say the least. But year after year, the Danes place at or near the top of the World Happiness Report, a global ranking that uses Gallup World Poll data to measure contentment by country.
By comparison, the United States seems like it should score very well on a happiness test. Winters here are, on average, far more temperate. Our tax rates are relatively benign. And boy, do we have a lot of resources to entertain ourselves, from 23 Six Flags amusement parks to a near-monopoly on Cheesecake Factory restaurants. Despite this, we keep coming in around 18th or 19th on the list — this year, sandwiched between Germany and the Czech Republic.
I wanted to find out what the Danes know that the rest of us don’t — and, more selfishly, how I could implement some Danish happiness practices in my life. So on my podcast, I interviewed Meik Wiking, the CEO and founder of Denmark’s Happiness Research Institute and the author of the international bestseller, The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living. If you’ve ever heard of hygge (which is pronounced roughly “hoo’-guh”), it very well may have been in relation to this book.
Wiking and I discussed how the difference between Danish and American happiness is a function of what we value. Speaking generally, Danes emphasize togetherness, their social safety net, and work-life balance. “Nordic countries are really good at converting their wealth into well-being,” he told me. “They invest in things and experiences that create good conditions for good lives.”
In contrast, Americans glorify individualism, affluence, and achievement. It’s why millions of us spend 70 hours a week at jobs that feel inauthentic to who we are and what we want. And this attitude doesn’t seem to be changing with the next generation. In one recent peer-reviewed study, three-quarters of first-year college students from 2000 to 2009 ranked “being very well off financially” as essential or important, a percentage that exceeds that of Gen X and is 68% higher than that of baby boomers. Of all goals the survey asked the students to assess, including developing a meaningful philosophy of life, keeping up with politics, and creating art, being rich remained the top priority.
The more Wiking and I discussed each country’s respective approach to life, the more I thought about the mega-author, talk show host, and marriage whisperer Dr. Phil. (I know that seems weird. I promise it’ll make sense in a minute.)
If you’ve ever watched Dr. Phil’s talk show, you’ll recognize a trick he uses to get his guests to see the errors in their marital argument tactics. The guest — usually the husband — can’t resolve his domestic disagreements because he insists his point of view is logically correct. At which point, Dr. Phil breaks out his signature Socratic question. Kindly but firmly, he asks, “Do you want to be right… or do you want to be happy?”
In those few words, he elegantly contrasts an apparently self-evident positive (being right) against a far more important objective (being happy). Here’s why this is relevant to the question of Danish happiness: The idea that riches and professional status are self-evident positives is ingrained deeply into American culture. It’s a belief I held firmly for most of my life. Yet we spend very little time considering whether affluence or status actually leads to life satisfaction.
There’s no better time than a pandemic to challenge our deeply held assumptions, so let’s channel Dr. Phil to see if we can achieve Danish-style well-being. Instead of wondering, “How do I get promoted?” or “How do I make more money?” a better question might be: “What do I need to be happy?”
When we start to put serious time into finding an answer, it becomes clear that, to some degree, happiness is a choice. Barring illness and tragedy, we have a much better chance of being happy when we cultivate an awareness of the true sources of satisfaction and choose to prioritize them over shiny objects that don’t deliver.
This is where the Danes do so well. Danish culture values both authentic work and work-life balance, two factors that have a big impact on our happiness. “A lot of miserable millionaires spend their lives working on something they don’t enjoy just because they can make a bit more money,” Wiking says. The Danish way: “Listen to your gut and to where your passion is.”
Of course, you might not be able to change careers in an afternoon, but there are small ways we can generate happiness every single day. For example, Danes place a lot of emphasis on spending time with loved ones — more than any other EU country, as Wiking points out in his book. That might sound inconsequential, or like Danish propaganda, but it is neither. According to the Harvard Study of Adult Development — an eight-decade longitudinal study about the sources of wellness — social relationships are a massive indicator of health, happiness, and life expectancy. (So the decision to visit with friends instead of plopping on the couch and watching Netflix not only makes you happier, but can actually help you live longer.)
And when the Danes get together, they do it right, implementing the tenants of hygge, which Wiking explains as “the art of creating a nice atmosphere.” They do things like light candles and a fire, turn on music, and lay out a buffet that is not only delicious but conducive to conversation. They create moments where they can savor togetherness, relaxation, and some simple pleasures, which add up to a truly rich lifestyle.
When things aren’t going so well, Wiking adds, the same Danish values also provide a three-step prescription to turn the day around: “In Denmark, we have sort of a mental health [checklist]: Do something active. Do something together with other people. Do something meaningful.”
In other words, your actions toward feeling better do not have to be heroic or pricey. Improving your mood can be as simple as asking a friend to go for a walk or registering for a volunteer activity — anything to get outside and get out of your head.
Despite their high happiness scores, it seems the Danes don’t have any proprietary secrets after all. They are just more intentional than other countries about creating experiences and environments that make life better. You and I can increase our own well-being by replicating some of these simple behaviors. After learning about hygge, I have started lighting candles in my home office every morning and building dinnertime fires twice as often. Maybe it’s because the family gathers and chats beside the toasty hearth. Or maybe it’s something in our primal relationship to flame. But I promise you this: fire works.
So does reaching out. As the world continues to open up a bit, my wife and I have also been far more proactive about creating safe social engagements on our back porch where, despite the social distance, we can share wine, laughter, and good conversation with our neighbors. It’s a simple pleasure — it’s certainly no trip to Six Flags with Dr. Phil — but it makes us happy. And that should be the goal.