Inside The Happiest Country: Denmark

Back in July, I posted an article titled, The Danish Way of Wealth. The article was a hit, with readers sending me oodles of positive feedback. And included in the feedback were comments from a few kind souls who were born and raised in Denmark.

Not being an expert on the home of Hans Christian Andersen, I invited one such friendly, bicycle loving soul, Carl, (who maintains his own personal finance blog: www.moneymow.com) into my virtual world to provide his take on Denmark, and why its citizens are consistently rated as the happiest folks on the planet.

Oh, but before I welcome you to our discussion, you should know that no money or other compensation will change hands between Carl and myself. We’re just having fun here, hoping to provide you with an informative, enlightening and entertaining read.

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Enter Thy Kingdom!

Welcome to the Kingdom of Denmark! (is that introduction okay, Carl? Too hokey? Do tour guides speak like that in Denmark? No? I should stop now, shouldn’t I? Right.)

BuddhaMoney (BM, from here on in): Hey Carl, in the spirit of talk show hosts, welcome to the BM community! No, scratch that. It sounds ridiculous. I’m trying too hard. Let’s just dive right in, okay? How about we start with you filling in some general background about Denmark?

Carl: Sure! Here’s some general tidbits:

  • We’re a small country, about 5.5 million people living on land that’s about twice the size of the State of Massachusetts (the 7th smallest State of the Union).
  • Our native tongue is Danish, a useless language that pretty much no one speaks outside of Denmark. But mostly everyone speaks English as a second language, which is taught in school from third grade onward.
  • As for placing us on a map, our neighbors are Sweden to one side and Germany to the other.
  • And yes, as you already mentioned, I do love biking! And it’s made so much easier by the fact that Denmark is as flat as North Dakota.

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The (Horrors!) Welfare State

BM: Tell me about the so-called ‘welfare state’, as some North Americans pejoratively label Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries.

Carl: Denmark is definitely a welfare state! But unlike residents of countries that favour more capitalist systems, we’re good with this. I mean, close to 100% of Danish citizens approve of our political system, a system that ensures an acceptable level of welfare for all people living in Denmark.

Not to be cute here, but think about the word, ‘welfare’. Divided in two parts, you have ‘well’ and ‘fare’. We want all of our residents to live well as they travel through life. Because we see this as society’s responsibility, and we are all a part of society. Why this is seen as a negative in some parts of the world is beyond my understanding.

BM: There’s complete consensus then about government support given to people?

Carl: There’s close to 100% agreement that taking care of all members of society is everyone’s responsibility. Sure, there’s quibbling about the degree to which the welfare state should support people but not the fact that it should.

BM: Based on what you’re saying, it comes across as though your political parties are generally in agreement on most issues.

Carl: Hey, politicians are politicians, right? Meaning there will always be differences between the party holding power and minority status parties. But I will say that our political landscape is way less fragmented than that of many other democracies. For the most part, all of our political parties are social democratic. And within the social democratic framework, some parties lean left, others right.

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Free Education For All and Virtually No Debt!

BM: I hear that all education is free. Is this right?

Carl: Yup. 100% free tuition from elementary school through to completion of university studies. Bernie Sanders totally envies us! Hah! Know what else? From the age of 18, as long as we are in school and not living with our family, we get paid $1,000 / month. For those who still live with their family, the monthly stipend is slightly lower.

BM: What! Why?

Carl: The thinking is that this money allows us to focus on our studies rather than working a part-time job to support ourselves, which takes away from study time. Still, we are not prevented from working and some people do choose to work part-time jobs.

Also, unlike North America where so many people live with their parents into their mid and late 20s, most Danish people live on their own by the time they’re 20. Simply because, to a large extent, most people can afford to do so with the government giving them $1,000/month.

BM: It follows then that students graduate from university without any debt?

Carl: Correct. Student loans are available from the government at low interest rates but few people see any reason to take a loan.

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Know What Else is Free? Health Care

BM: Tell me about health care in Denmark.

Carl: Like education, there’s no political debate about the provision of health care. It’s free and we all agree it should be free.

BM: Well, it’s not really ‘free’. Health care is paid for through income taxes, yes?

Carl: Fair enough. That’s right. Just like in Canada. The only medical procedures you’ll pay out of pocket for are cosmetic services. And included in health care is dental treatment. Although this is free only until age 18, after which you pay out of pocket.

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We’re Not Utopia

BM: Not that I want to bring down this feel good story about your homeland, but are there any negatives you see about Denmark?

Carl: No problem, BM! Sure, Denmark isn’t utopia. We have our share of problems too. And the big time problems are similar to what other countries are experiencing.

Take immigration. Owing to increased immigration to Denmark, there has been a considerable rise in support for the right wing (nut) parties, with about 25% of Danish voters backing parties with a nationalist, close the border bent. The unfortunate response from mainstream political parties has been to make it increasingly difficult to immigrate to Denmark. I see this development as shameful. Because people from all over the world make positive contributions to Danish society. We used to be a more open country. Sadly, this is changing.

Then there’s the urban/rural divide. Politically and socially, Denmark is becoming more divided between people living in large urban centres and those living in small towns. Again, sadly, this divide creates more conflict and tension within our society.

And of course, there is the issue of taxes. While we benefit greatly from free education and health care, we pay an enormous amount of taxes! Our tax system is progressive so the more you earn the more you pay in income tax. The downside here is that, as you earn more and pay more in taxes, the incentive to work harder diminishes, because so much of your earnings will have to be paid in taxes.

Like any country with excessively high rates of taxation, some really talented people opt to leave Denmark to avoid paying high taxes the rest of their life.

And the same goes for successful companies. I mean, what’s the incentive to remain in Denmark if an unfair portion of earnings goes to taxes and not to employees or shareholders? Also, high tax rates make it more difficult for companies to attract talent from outside of Denmark, which of course reduces our global competitiveness.

BM: You mentioned that few Danish residents take on student debt, which is amazing when compared to skyrocketing debt rates among North American college students. What about credit card debt? Is this an issue?

Carl: Credit cards are used somewhat but much less than cash and debit, which is much more common. So to answer your question, owing to limited use of credit cards, there’s not much credit card debt. For me, this is a result of strict financial regulation and a culture of low debt that is ingrained in us from the time we are children.

BM: That’s amazing. And smart. And with no to minimal debt, surely this contributes to Denmark consistently rating as one of the happiness countries in the world. What about bicycling? This I suppose also contributes to happiness?

Carl: When was the last time you rode a bike and did not smile? See what I mean! Yes, we love our bikes. Most everyone owns a bike here and rides it! Think of Denmark as having a bicycle culture, whereas you have a car culture in North America. The whole country is flat as a pancake, and the biking infrastructure in the bigger cities, like Copenhagen, is fantastic with whole streets having been cleared to make for larger bike lanes. Like many Danes, I bike to and from work daily wearing my work gear which, for me, is a suit.

Also, and this ties back to taxes, when you consider the amount of import taxes on cars, I totally understand why people choose to ride bikes instead! For example, a Tesla model S that costs $69,500 (USD) in the USA would cost about $118,000 (USD) in Denmark. As for a bike, there are no additional taxes and I assure you that the initial cost, and maintenance fees, are nowhere near the cost of a car.

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Hygge. What’s That?

BM: As you know, one of my recent posts talked about hygge. As you also know, I’m not Danish. Being an authentic Dane, and me being the pretend King of Denmark, I anoint you an automatic expert on this subject. So, please, tell us about hygge.

Carl: Glad to! Hygge is a subject that has been discussed a lot abroad; there are plenty of books about hygge being sold everywhere at the moment. For us in Denmark, it’s part of everyone’s daily life, but we rarely discuss what the concept of hygge means. Everyone just seems to know what it means.

To me, hygge describes a special mood. The closest English word is probably “cozy”, but it is much more than that. I often associate hygge with the picture of being inside during a snowstorm in front of a fireplace with a cup of hot chocolate. It is about the feeling of happiness, trust/safety, fun and relaxation all at once.

We use it mostly as an adjective for different situations. For example, when I describe a nice dinner with some of my friends, I might say that it was ‘hyggeligt’.

BM: Well my new friend, your insights are much appreciated. May your days continue to be filled with hygge!

Carl: Thanks for listening to all my babbling about this tiny country, and may your days be filled with enormous amounts of hygge too!