Friday, October 03, 2008


The ubiquitous Danish flag - Dannebrog - stuck in some incredible Danish dessert.

A view of the flat landscape of south Denmark from Skamlingsbanken.

When a Danish acquaintance asked me where Baghdad was, I had to quickly return my mandible from the depths of disbelief. Demark is not exactly at the edge of the world but some of its small towns can feel incredibly disconnected. Life here is regimented and everything happens at the appointed hour. How boring? Guess what? The Danes love it. In fact they are so pleased, they keep turning up in different surveys as the happiest people on Earth.

These findings have surprised many Danes themselves but after a 30 day vacation, I can see why they have plenty to cheer about. Steering clear of Copenhagen, I looked in three Viking nooks - the small towns of Haderslev, GrĂ¥sten and Odense. No trampling hordes of San Marco or Champs Elysees here and perfect for a ‘smell the roses’ kind of stay.

My investigations into Danish happiness yielded clues everywhere. To begin with, the Danes have done an excellent housekeeping job in their country. It is very clean and environmentally progressive. As if for proof, we packed a picnic basket of sandwiches and soda and drove to Skamlingsbanken - the second highest point in Denmark - from where you get a sweeping view of the flat landscape of the south. It is green and dotted with gigantic wind turbines that supply nearly a quarter of Denmark’s electricity needs. The Danes were thinking about global warming long before Al Gore.

The towns are equally well-planned and structured. A cathedral or church usually forms the centre of the town around which commerce begins with little shops and offices lining the streets and beyond that the houses start.

In Denmark it is as important to see the indoors as it is to see the outdoors because everything in the Danish home is geared towards creating the warm, fuzzy, ‘snug-as-a-bug’ feeling. They even have a word for it called - hygge (Hoo-ga). I understood what exactly hygge is when Niels and Kirsten Kvist invited me to their home for dinner. Like most hosts here, the Kvists directed the small group to their appointed place at the table and laid out a vast array of breads, salads and meats. However, the course to wait for, is always the last one. The desserts are worth all of Solomon’s gold. After dinner, the lights were dimmed and candles were lit. There was cognac, wine, laughter and singing. Kirsten took her place at the piano and everyone joined in for the Danish folk songs. It was hygge.

Back in the outdoors, walking and cycling are the best ways to explore. Even the queen does it. The Danish royals have a summer home in the town of GrĂ¥sten and Margrethe II, the queen regnant, is often seen bicycling around town. Some people even claimed to have run into her at the local grocery store! There are few monarchs on two wheels buying broccoli today, reflecting Denmark’s strong egalitarian tradition and in turn, a strong sense of collective identity. A University of Leicester study listed it as one of the primary causes of the country’s high happiness quotient.

This collective identity finds several expressions. For example, the national flag, the Dannebrog is used extensively and in various ways. Little Dannebrogs are stuck on birthday cakes, souvenir stores are full of Dannebrog pens, magnets and stickers and of course the Dannebrog is hoisted on a pole outside every home and especially so on a birthday or wedding anniversary. Protocol however dictates that it must be brought down before sunset and this is taken very seriously, almost as seriously as the Danes take their fairy-tales.

In Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen is adored. At Odense, on the island of Funen, scores of pilgrims beat the path to the home of the man who changed childhood forever with his tales of the ugly duckling who became a swan and the princess who despite many mattresses could detect a pea.

The Lego creations in Billund, the statues across Odense and, of course, the Little Mermaid, regularly vandalized in Copenhagen, all bear witness to Hans Christian Andersen’s continuing hold on public imagination.

Towards the end of my 30 days I was beginning to see why Danes can make legitimate claims to being so happy. With this collective identity, bung in free health care, free education, a green country and Carlsberg beer and you can see why the Danes are up there on the Happiness Index.

All is not perfect of course. Xenophobia and divorce rates are going up and some young people feel the welfare state and high taxes suffocate creativity and entrepreneurship.

In fact, if an old Viking ancestor were to suddenly pop around in the 21st century he might even nod gravely and tut-tut at the contentment of his descendents. While he may have been out on the wild and choppy sea exploring the world beyond, today’s Danes have eaten dinner at 6 and are in bed by 10. If the intrepid Viking looked restlessly outwards about 1000 years ago, today’s small-town life moves at a steady, predictable trot and is very inward-looking.

But apparently, as various surveys show, the Danes are perfectly happy with this arrangement. Writing just after the Great Depression, a visitor to Denmark observed, “There are few countries in the world which give the foreigner the impression, if not of actual wealth, at any rate of universal happiness and content.”

It sounds true even 70 years later. Baghdad may as well belong on another planet.

Published in the Hindu BusinessLine on 3rd October 2008.

1 comment:


Very nice - the simple joy of living and the resultant contentment is it really necessary for us to know where Baghdad is? Ignorance can well be bliss.