Jan. 8, 2007— -- Disney World claims the distinction of being "the happiest place on earth," but if you're really in search of human bliss, you'd be surprised where you'll find it.
Is there a place where people facing the daily grind of life are somehow nudged by their surroundings or their values or their government into being the happiest people on the planet?
You might expect that place would be a tropical paradise with warm sand and soft breezes. Or a Mediterranean village with sun-kissed vineyards. Or the United States -- land of the free and home of the brave. But if you use social science techniques, you'll find some surprises. A paradise like Fiji comes in more than 50 spots below Iceland in happiness rankings. For all its style and cuisine, France and Italy rank well below Canada. And while the United States may be the richest and most powerful country, when it comes to happiness, it is only No. 23.
For the past decade, social scientists and pollsters have given elaborate questionnaires to hundreds of thousands of people around the globe. Two of the largest studies that rank the happiness of countries around the world are the World Map of Happiness from the University of Leiscester and the World Database of Happiness from Ruut Veenhoven of Erasmus University Rotterdam. All the happiness surveys ask people basically the same question: How happy are you?
"The answer you get is not only how they feel right now, but also how they feel about their entire life," explained Dan Buettner, who has studied happiness and longevity around the world through his Blue Zones project Buettner said that if you mine all the databases of universities and research centers, you'll find that the happiest place on earth is ? Denmark. Cold, dreary, unspectacular Denmark.
Denmark is a place where stoic locals wear sensible shoes and snack on herring sandwiches. Sure, they produce the occasional supermodel, but its most famous countryman may be the late entertainer Victor Borge.
Could the Danes really be the happiest people in the world? When ABC News anchor Bill Weir traveled there to find out, he asked random Danes to rate themselves in terms of happiness, on a scale of one to 10. Many people rated themselves at least an eight, and there were several nines and 10s. Finally, one grouchy Dane came along who said she didn't believe Danes were so happy. But then she quickly conceded that she herself felt rather content with her life, and said Danes in general had very little to complain about.
Danes do have one potential complaint: high taxes. The happiest people in the world pay some of the highest taxes in the world -- between 50 percent and 70 percent of their incomes. In exchange, the government covers all health care and education, and spends more on children and the elderly than any country in the world per capita. With just 5.5 million people, the system is efficient, and people feel "tryghed" -- the Danish word for "tucked in" -- like a snug child.
Those high taxes have another effect. Since a banker can end up taking home as much money as an artist, people don't chose careers based on income or status. "They have this thing called 'Jante-lov,' which essentially says, 'You're no better then anybody else,'" said Buettner. "A garbage man can live in a middle-class neighborhood and hold his head high."
Indeed, garbage man Jan Dion says he's an eight out of 10 in terms of happiness. He said he doesn't mind collecting garbage for a living, because he works just five hours in the morning and then can spend the rest of the day at home with family or coaching his daughter's handball team. Dion says no one judges his choice of career, and he actually loves what he does because he has many friends along his route. It makes him happy when he sees the children who wave to him and the old ladies who bring him cups of coffee.
Josef Bourbon, a carpenter's apprentice, is also happy with his choice of career and enjoys the work. "I think it's about building something, seeing what you've worked on the whole day -- you can see what you've done," he said. On weekends he likes fish and hunt or play with his new puppy.
Bourbon is another example of Denmark's unusual social structure, because he happens to be a prince. Descended from a Danish king and related to the royal houses of both Spain and France, Bourbon has chosen to be a carpenter's apprentice, and he rarely discusses his lineage with anyone. Not even with potential dates when he's out on the town.
In all likelihood, Bourbon will probably just keep up his current cozy social life, hanging around with friends and family who live nearby. Danes even have a name for these kind of gatherings, calling these intimate and spontaneous get-togethers 'hygge' (pronounced "hoogey").
Hanging out with other Danes just may be their happiness secret. Ninety-two percent of Danes belong to some kind of social club, dancing, singing, even practicing laughing with other Danes. Get a few people together who enjoy model train building, for example, and the government will pay for it. In Denmark, even friendship is subsidized.
And Denmark is what is called a "post consumerist" society. People have nice things, but shopping and consuming is not a top priority. Even the advertising is often understated. Along with less emphasis on "stuff," and a strong social fabric, Danes also display an amazing level of trust in each other, and their government. A University of Cambridge happiness study found that both kinds of trust were higher in happier places.
In Denmark, you can see trust in action all around you. Vegetable stands run on the honor system, mothers leave babies unattended in strollers outside cafés, and most bicycles are left unlocked.
And perhaps the bicycle is the best symbol of Danish happiness. Danes can all afford cars, but they choose bikes -- simple, economical, nonpolluting machines that show no status and help keep people fit.