Measuring Happiness: American Individualism vs. Danish Hygge

Written by Uma Hornish: 

Author Uma Hornish recounts how her study abroad experience in Denmark sparked some questions on social and cultural differences between the U.S. and other countries and the effects those differences have on happiness levels. Ultimately her questions led her to a research study called the World Happiness Report (WHR). The WHR annually creates a ranking of the happiest to least happy countries based on six factors: social support, generosity, GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, perceptions of corruption, and freedom to make life choices. The 2021 report focuses on the effects of COVID-19 on the structure and quality of people’s lives and how that in turn has affected their happiness. The report also evaluates how governments across 150 countries dealt with the pandemic to explain how that contributed to varying levels of national happiness. In this discussion, Uma looks at some ways the WHR informs why the United States’ happiness score continues to lag behind happiness scores of Nordic countries.

 

While studying abroad in Copenhagen this summer I visited a museum with an exhibit on “hygge”. Hygge is a defining part of Danish culture and essentially means a feeling of coziness, contentment, and community. Ironically, the fire alarm went off as I attempted to blissfully immerse myself in the exhibit, but even the fire alarm felt very “hygge” as its melodic, soft beep confused me and my American friends. We didn’t know what was happening until we were notified in English that we had to exit the building. Promoting hygge is important in Danish living spaces, workplaces, and public areas. The exhibit made me curious about hygge and the happiness that comes along with it, as well as why something similar doesn’t exist in the United States. The lack of an English word to describe this phenomenon may help explain why the happiness ranking of the U.S. pales in comparison to Denmark.

The World Happiness Report (WHR) annually composes a ranking of the happiest to least happy countries in the world. In the 2021 report, Denmark ranked as the second happiest country in the world just after Finland, a spot where the country has stood for many consecutive years. The United States can be found below Denmark in the number 20 spot on the happiness ranking of 150 countries.

While “happiness” is clearly subjective, I wasn’t surprised to see Denmark at the top of the list following the time I spent there. Every day of the week, the streets of Copenhagen were filled with bikers and there were always hordes of people gathering at parks or at the local harbor. Coffee is a social activity, and most cafes were confused by the American concept of “taking it to go.”

The WHR, in conjunction with the Gallup poll, uses a simple metric called the Cantril ladder to rank countries. The Cantril ladder asks respondents to answer how happy they are on a metaphorical ladder of rungs ranging from 0 to 10, 10 being the happiest they could possibly be. The scores of respondents in each country are then averaged to find which country scores the highest. Currently, Denmark and the U.S have ladder scores of 7.62 and 6.95, respectively, and these scores have remained relatively stable over the nine years this report has existed.

While the ladder score is the only determinant used for rankings, the WHR identifies six factors which they believe contribute to this score: social support, generosity, GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, perceptions of corruption, and freedom to make life choices. Based on respondents’ answers to questions regarding their quality of life, numerical values are assigned to each category. The WHR released their data report and codebook which breaks down every country’s individual scores by these categories.

The U.S. has a relatively high GDP per capita compared to other countries and a surprisingly high ranking in generosity. It should be noted, however, that generosity was determined by how frequently people in the country donated to charities. Denmark, unsurprisingly, scores near the top of the list for all six factors, but particularly stands out in having one of the highest levels of social support and lowest perceived level of corruption. Most Danes trust what their government tells them, as evidenced by their immediate response to changing Covid regulations. For example, the day that mask restrictions were lifted indoors in Copenhagen, people promptly responded and ceased to wear masks inside. However, upon my return to the States, I saw that mask usage varied even after government guidelines were issued saying masks no longer need to be worn indoors.

In the 2020 report, the WHR analyzed why Nordic countries score higher in happiness rankings and concluded that the most significant factors were having a generous welfare state, and social trust and cohesion. Unlike in the U.S., the government of Denmark financially supports students attending college and workers who lost jobs due to Covid, which leads to less monetary anxiety. Comparatively, the United States has less generous support for individuals choosing to pursue higher education and individuals facing employment difficulties, and thus it is not surprising that it had a much lower score in the ‘freedom-to-make-life-choices’ category compared to Nordic countries like Denmark.

Ultimately, the breakdown of scores seems to indicate that the U.S. falters in happiness rankings at least in part because we are so divided and we don’t have as much trust in one another or our government. The U.S. has a mediocre ranking in the category of social support, while Denmark and other Nordic countries rank highly in this category. This high ranking is attributed to national cohesion and trust. The WHR dispels the argument that social cohesion can only occur in a small, homogenous country. While it may be wishful thinking, it seems possible that the U.S., perhaps with a little more hygge, could become a more unified and happier country.

 

Sources: 

Helliwell, John F, et al. “Statistical Appendix 1 for Chapter 2 of World Happiness Report 2021.” World Happiness Report, World Happiness Report, 18 Mar. 2021, happiness-report.s3.amazonaws.com/2021/Appendix1WHR2021C2.pdf.

Martela, Frank, et al. “The Nordic Exceptionalism: What Explains Why the Nordic Countries Are Constantly Among the Happiest in the World.” World Happiness Report, World Happiness Report, 20 Mar. 2020, worldhappiness.report/ed/2020/the-nordic-exceptionalism-what-explains-why-the-nordic-countries-are-constantly-among-the-happiest-in-the-world/#fnref48.

“World Happiness Report 2021.” World Happiness Report , World Happiness Report, 20 Mar. 2021, worldhappiness.report/ed/2021/.

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