Ever since I started my blog, curious readers have been reaching out to me about Denmark and asking whether Denmark’s reputation for being the ‘happiest’ country on earth is true.
The honest answer to that from a ‘foreigner’s perspective? It really depends on your circumstances, and especially your residency/citizenship status. So brace yourself for a (hopefully) level headed, ‘foreigner’ assessment of this reputation as someone living and working in Denmark.
I’ll give you my personal answer first – yes, I am personally speaking the happiest in Denmark than anywhere else I have been in my adult life. A big part of that is because I have a roof over my head, I secured my dream job during a pandemic, almost tripled my salary in the past year, live in the beautiful Danish capital, find it easy to communicate with people in English, did not have any issues whatsoever with settling in (getting CPR number, bank account, etc), and last but not least basically met the man of my dreams as soon as I arrived in the country. I mean, seriously?? You can’t really go wrong with that!
So how much of the above is specific to Denmark? Well certainly my job is specific to Denmark, and I know that my partner is like a…someone you meet once in a lifetime and got to hold onto type of guy. But of course one should consider that it’s easy to idealise a place with a reputation of being a social utopia. I consider myself extremely fortunate with my current personal circumstances, but the reality is that as an immigrant you will never experience the ‘full’ benefits of being in any country. Even though I get the same healthcare and other social services as citizens, there are some structural obstacles that I would face. It’s common knowledge that for example foreigners have to pay twice or more as much of a down fee if they want to purchase a property in the country, it will be more difficult to arrange loans with banks no matter how stable your income, etc. You could argue some of this is more than fair enough, but that’s just the kind of reality you should consider when moving somewhere – you will still be new to that country, and that comes with its own set of challenges. Furthermore, immigration is actually quite tough in Denmark. Just like the UK, even marriage will not grant you an automatic right to stay in the country. There are many hoops to jump through. Of course, this comes as no surprise to me – immigration policies are an easy way to build in structural discrimination anywhere. Furthermore, I am not eligible like citizens are, to any kind of state welfare funds/benefits (I’m surprised how few people know that foreigners don’t get these kinds of benefits). So being unemployed is not an option for me – I’ll never have a safety net to fall back on. And unfortunately, as with any other country in the world, racism exists in Denmark, among other social issues that I believe ought to be actively tackled – I do not consider Denmark exempt from that rule merely because it is ahead on some issues relative to other places.
With those qualifications in mind, let me outline what I believe Denmark does well:
Hygge. Denmark is undeniably a beautiful country, there’s almost a simplistic and quiet beauty to it – flat, serene, lots of countryside, lots of green landscape, surrounded by sea with several islands. And Copenhagen is really, in my opinion, the epitome of a beautiful life – mix of modern and new architecture, well-kept, organised, bike-friendly, very few cars, clean public swimming all year round, pristine parks, easy to get around, lots of places to eat or cosy up under a blanket at an outdoor cafe. I mean if you’ve been following my blog for a while I think the photos of the city should speak for themselves. I must say this is a huge part of the appeal of living in Copenhagen for me – just what a beautiful life it can be here. For an aesthete like myself Copenhagen is a dream. And yes, ‘hygge’ is a favourite word/concept for many who live in Denmark, especially in wintertime where having a beautiful, cosy time really matters when it gets very dark, bitingly cold, and gloomy. Fleeces, blankets, candles, fairy lights, a warm drink, a seasonal movie, quiet nights in, anything to do with Christmas – that is the vibe! I mean as soon as Halloween was over, Christmas decor got put up around the city and every shop started really pushing for this winter hygge. You’ll hear the word ‘cosy’ a lot in this country because that’s the closest English translation of the hygge concept.
Work/Life balance. This is not a myth – Danes really know how to achieve work/life balance! Of course this also depends on your field/workplace, with some being better or worse than others, so I’ll tell you from my personal experience as someone who works in academia: academia in the UK was no easy feat, and I can almost guarantee that any junior academic working anywhere is doing overtime with little pay, and are super stressed. Well, turns out this is not so much the case in Denmark (or at least my department).
Here, people actually leave the office by 5pm, including myself – shocker. In fact people will wander in at 10am if they so please, instead of keeping a strict schedule (of course this doesn’t apply to certain jobs). People with children leave at 3/4pm even, to pick up their kids from school or daycare. Overtime is just not a thing, and seems frowned upon. There is also a lot of flexibility with work and well-being – it’s understood that if you have a doctor’s appointment or some personal thing you need to attend to, you just go ahead and prioritise that without a need to ‘justify’ why you aren’t at work. Your health and happiness is a priority. And at my workplace at least I feel that people really care about each other and watch out for one another – a kind of ‘community spirit’ where people really lift each other up.
Let’s not forget the fact that people use any excuse to bring ‘cake’ into the office! On that note I just want to point out ‘kage’ means cake in Danish, but it’s used a bit like the word ‘pudding’ in the UK – it just means dessert.
On the flip side, I’ve heard many people say “nothing gets done” or “decided” at work because of the working environment (and on account of everyone being considered equals) or that they struggle to climb the professional ladder in such lax settings. I don’t know how true that is, but from a personal point of view I will say it is very relaxed if you come from a place with a demanding working culture (I come from South Korea for heaven’s sake..). Everyone keeps telling me that I am some kind of workaholic whereas I really feel the opposite – I almost feel too relaxed at work! But maybe that’s part of me unlearning the unhealthy competitive spirit that’s been instilled into me ever since I started university in the UK.
Childcare. I can’t personally speak for this as I don’t have children, but my understanding is that family matters are very much prioritised in Denmark and that daycare/childcare subsidies make it very affordable to have a balanced family/work life.
No student debt. Hello free education! Every Danish student, I believe, can study for free under certain conditions for a fixed amount of time before their education fees actually come out of pocket. There are also student subsidies you receive on top of that. It’s almost so good that I’ve been told people will look for reasons to be a student for longer so they can maximise this. Also, I would do a PhD in Denmark if I could go back – you get an actual salary, not a stipend, and it’s certainly not peanuts! So I would definitely consider/recommend doing tertiary education in Denmark – I’ve also heard that university life is a lot more chilled out compared to the UK 🙂
Overall, Denmark is a place that provides adequate social services to its residents, with a good level of trust between the state and its citizens, and is also a relatively peaceful and small country with nowhere near the kind of tensions you hear about in the news in other places – I’d say that does a lot of the work in terms of why people are happy and content here! Honestly getting used to the ‘Danish’ standard of complaint is an actual thing – like when Danes from the countryside complain of the “traffic” in Copenhagen (meanwhile I’m thinking I live in the countryside compared to places like London) 😉
If you live/have you’ve ever lived in Denmark I’d be curious to hear about what your impressions were or if you agree with my assessment. Hope you have a great day!