Looking at Happiness from a Very Different Point of View


By Troy Headrick

This week’s blog was inspired by a couple of conversations I’ve had over the past several days.  The first exchange involved one I had with Snapdragon X, a regular contributor here at Pointless Overthinking.  She mentioned in her biographical blurb that it was her dream to live in Finland, and I responded by telling her that Denmark would be my country of choice if I were to leave America.  (By the way, my wife and I are making serious plans, at the moment of this writing, to leave the United States.)

The second exchange was a conversation I had this past weekend while I was in Georgetown, Texas, a lovely little town just up the highway from Austin, a city that could very credibly claim to be the Lone Star State’s grooviest metropolis.

The conversation I mentioned in the previous paragraph took place around the dinner table.  Of course, because I’m such a political person as is my father—I’ve written about him here—and stepmother, the subject of our talk gravitated toward the upcoming Democratic Party’s presidential primary in Texas.  Anyway, in the course of our discussion, I mentioned that I’d be voting for Bernie Sanders which prompted my stepmother to say that she “liked” him but that he also made her “nervous.”  When I asked her why, she said that the American healthcare system was broken but that she didn’t like “socialized medicine.”

That prompted me to mention Denmark, a country where everyone has equal access to high-quality medical care and how the country is always right at the top of every international happiness index.  I encouraged her to do a little research on Denmark and what the Danes have to say about why they are so untroubled.  To help her along, I found the following video and showed it to her.

My favorite part was hearing Mike Viking, the CEO of The Happiness Institute in Copenhagen, say, quite interestingly, that the Danes are incredibly happy because they are the “least unhappy” in the world.

His quote rocked me.  I’d always thought about happiness in a positive sense.  Happiness was the acquisition of a certain emotional state.  I’d never thought of defining felicity in negative terms, as being determined by the absence of those things that upset or sadden us.  Viking, in other words, had turned my understanding of happiness upside down.  It’s not so much something we get that makes us happy; it’s whether or not we are able to avoid negative influences in our lives.

This gets us back to the Danish welfare state.  Because the government works hard to remove the sort of obstacles that can keep its citizens from self-actualizing, many, in fact, are free to reach their full human potential which, in turn, provides them with the opportunity to live something akin to the perfect life.  This explains something else in the video—what true happiness feels like.  It’s not necessarily a kind of giddiness; it’s more a deep sense of contentment.

What do you think about all this?  I look forward to hearing what you have to say.

Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.

50 thoughts on “Looking at Happiness from a Very Different Point of View

  1. “…the Danes are incredibly happy because they are the “least unhappy” in the world.” That made me stop and think too. I like that. Thank you for this post.

    1. All this makes me wonder how much happier Americans would/could be if some of their greatest stressors were removed from their lives. This seems like the sort of thing government was created for, doesn’t it? Thank you very much for your comment!

  2. Unhappiness is often caused by unrealistic expectations and desires. One thing that causes unhappiness is looking around at other people’s lives and comparing what we each have and do. Expecting things like a perfect world can cause unhappiness. I love the Serenity Prayer. Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. Sadly, wisdom is not very widespread in politics. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lxD-gikpMs

    1. It seems to me that in a country that puts little value on the accumulation of material possessions (and the ostentatious showing off of those possessions) there would be no need to look around and make such comparisons. Because there is such wealth disparity in the US and because we celebrate celebrity and wealth, people look around and compare themselves to others in the way you described in your comment. Thus, we have to begin to change culture to increase happiness. Thank you so much for your comment. I’ll check out your video too.

  3. I have heard this about Denmark and I think most of Scandinavia is ranked highly in avoiding negative thinking. Can it be the acquired tolerance to lack of sunlight for half of the year? I do know Denmark and Sweden are two of the most natural, scenic, beautiful places I have ever seen. Being surrounded by natural beauty is pure happiness itself!

    1. I know what you mean about the gloom of some parts of Europe during wintertime because I lived in Poland for two years. Drawing a relationship between weather and attitudes/behaviors is interesting. The Poles did often seem gloomy and I often thought it had something to do with the gloomy skies. Who knows? Thanks so much for your comment.

  4. We aren’t Denmark.

    It isn’t our political system that is the problem. As a culture, we do not value happiness and like to administer “fun” in metered doses. Trace that back to the early days when all those puritans fled Europe to land here. As a religion, Puritans did not value happiness much. Life was supposed to be hard work and misery and obedience. If you were too happy, you were paying too much attention to Earthly things and not enough to Godly things.

    The influx to America did two things. It set a pattern and social patterns are not easily disrupted. The new people coming in have to conform to what is there and they in turn propagate this to the next wave of youngsters and immigrants. So we were pre-loaded with the “worldly happiness is not important” and the “Puritan work ethic” memes.

    It also depleted western Europe of those people. That may actually be much more important. The lack of the Puritans and other ultra-fundamentalist elements allowed Europe friendlier to a more liberal versions of Protestantism and Catholicism, a more socially liberal religion to start with, to become even more so.

    What happens when science and technology frees us from the practical need to toil in the fields and factories and chastity to prevent pregnancy and even the need for God to explain the world and life – yet the cultural imperative continues to exist?

    You get the US today.

    1. “allowed Europe friendlier to a more liberal versions of Protestantism…”

      allowed Europe to become friendlier to a more liberal version of Protestantism and allowed Catholicism to become even more liberal.

    2. I think you’re on to something here. Certainly, as you very clearly discuss, there is a kind of strict “Puritanical” outlook that is alive and well in America. But I also believe the valuing of rugged individualism–a cultural notion that is very compatible with a kind of dog-eat-dog capitalism–has been a catalyst for the loss of any sort of understanding of the “common good.” Without a feeling that we are all in this together, we are willing to allow a few to be wildly “successful” (in an economic sense) at the expense of the many. Thus, the huge wealth disparity in the US. This makes most of us feel like “losers” and society reinforces this idea because we haven’t “made it.” In a society where most feel like losers there is bound to be tons of unhappiness. What do you think about this explanation. I’m curious because you seem like an intelligent person. By the way, thanks so much for your insightful comment.

      1. Rugged individualism has two requirements. One is to be individualistic. In my lexicon that means living one’s life independent of prevailing custom. Doing so will bring you into conflict with conformists who occupy most positions of power. The rugged part is in withstanding or avoiding the artificial consequences for your actions that society invokes and accepting the natural consequences of your actions.

        The curse of the individualist is to never belong. Most never prosper unless they have exceptional talent. Dog eat dog is something I associate with extreme competition within a system while a rugged individualist tends to stand outside of the system, usually not welcome to be in it.

        Thoreau makes a good example of one.

  5. That is a great perspective, indeed – the absence of saddening things for us to be happy. That is something to think about, ain’t it?

  6. Happiness is indeed about contentment. If you are continually searching for it, you won’t find it. Sit still, in the moment, there you’ll find contentment.

    1. You sound like a Taoist. (I did an extensive study of Taoism several years ago.) Yes, we often try too hard. Forcing ourselves sometimes produces a forced outcome. I think you and I share some similarities in our outlook. Thanks for your comment.

      1. I haven’t studied Taoism, though life has been a good teacher. Thank you Troy, I appreciate your posts and your perspective.

      2. Good point Troy. An open mind as you travel and live abroad is definitely a great education. Regards, Shelley

  7. I completely agree. If happiness depended on getting things (physical or otherwise), the rich would invariably be happy. But they seem to be just as discontented as everyone else. On the other hand, a life of peace and tranquility, a life absent hardships, is something I would relish and I bet most people would be truly happy under those circumstances.

    1. I think most would. If you take away stressors, you take away those things that make like difficult. If you take away limitations, you provide people with the opportunity to grow big, to soar, to reach farther. This is what the Danes have learned. Thanks for your comment.

  8. This is a great piece thanks Tony. I must say I had never thought of happiness in that way either, it’s interesting. This sounds weird but I have never really thought much about happiness at all because it is an elusive concept. It has varying degrees. I was happy when I gave birth to my daughters and they have made me happy ever since. But overall if I feel contented I regard that as being happy enough.

    1. It’s possible that our understanding of happiness (what it feels like) changes over time. When we’re young, we have this very romanticized view of what happiness is. We equate it with giddiness. Then, as we age, our expectations moderate. Thanks so much for your comment.

  9. As always, I enjoyed your post. I have heard that making anything over $55,000 a year doesn’t increase “happiness” in our modern thinking. I have found trying to live in the present, and living in a constant state of gratefulness is magical. It is impossible to feel anger, or fear, when you are enveloped in gratefulness. Since I have been practicing this, my happiness factor has increased, and oddly enough, blessings come to me out of the blue. Have a wonderful weekend. Deb

    1. Thanks, Deb. I always enjoy reading your wise words. The older I get, the more I believe in the notion that being happy is very much about deciding to be happy. It’s about seeing the silver lining rather than the dark cloud. Simply being aware, of taking notice of the beauty and magic all around us, can produce a deep feeling of peace which is, for all intents and purposes, happiness.

  10. Yes a very interesting way of looking at things. I think that having a sense of security, safety and mindfulness does indeed lead to a feeling of contentment.

    1. I am in total agreement. I fully embrace the Danish notion that happiness has little to do with giddiness and more to do with contentment. Thanks so much for your comment.

  11. Loved your blog but wanted to mention Denmark population is approx 5 million people as opposed to 330 million Americans and like a Dane I happen to be friends with told me “ your country is to populated to provide what Denmark provides for its people . He also mentioned “ you can’t just come to our country and plan on reaping the rewards our government would not allow that” so I’m not sure about moving there . The Danes have been perfecting their system for several hundred years . But maybe we can learn a thing or two from them. Thanks for your great blog I love it

  12. Living in LA, working full time between writing and substitute teaching, cleaning house, caring for my mom, carving out time for my hubby and running my teenagers everywhere is exhausting. I’d be depressed with the load if it weren’t for what I find to make me happy always: gratitude. I have really developed a practice of it. But that said, there is toooo much going on now. I don’t rest enough. I know it. I crave a life more. Denmark sounds good about now!

  13. 30 comments here and the most common theme is being grateful for what you have more than ungrateful with what you don’t. It is sometimes tough to do that…and i think in our highly media influenced world, many have come to expect more than what they actually need. On that note, there is often debate here about socialism and high tax rates…which i believe are two separate entities if one takes the time to truly educate themselves:)

  14. “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”… I think in many instances we’ve lost track of what that can mean. Happiness isn’t something you grasp in your hands, it’s something that you make decisions about, and look for ways to make it work.
    Would I be upset about a 60% income tax? Well, I’m accustomed to being in the level of paying taxes, maybe getting a refund, and not being able to hire some tax wizard to bypass my fair share – so no, I don’t think I’d be all that twisted about it. The benefits of free healthcare, free education, and programs designed to help people reach their full potential are far more of interest to me than having a Cadillac or a gold plated i-Phone. Oftentimes, I feel that Americans have focused so long and hard on “keeping up with the Jonses” that we’ve lost sight of the really good things around us.
    What we’ve lost here is a work, life balance. We’ve lost compassion, and we’ve lost the understanding of what is important. Having “stuff” isn’t important. I’m reminded of George Carlin’s bit on “stuff” and how it escalates. It’s a good laugh, although a bit close to home.
    If we had the opportunity, I’d be packing ourselves up, and making a run for a different place – one where it’s possible to get good healthcare and focus on small treasures without the external pressures to be someone else. Until i get that chance, I’m going to keep on making the most of my wee silver linings.
    Thank you for another terrific and thought provoking piece.

  15. True, if I need to leave my hometown I would be choose Denmark, Danish people are the happiest. Have you read the book “The little book of hygge” by Meik Wiking? that’s a good book about the Danish secrets to happy living.

  16. Bernie Sanders’ political views and policies do not possess the ability to change the United States’ economics and politics to be akin to Denmark’s because – let’s get the facts straight – Denmark is NOT a “socialist country.”
    Please see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzEPKrHalaY

    Please let me know if Sanders mentioned no minimum wage and less red tape restrictions for businesses to ensure the market economy is strong. Strong socialist programs REQUIRE a lot of money, and evidently market economies are the only ones who can generate the most wealth most efficiently, right? I don’t recall the Danes denying this fact in their history.

    Reality check for the US: we have massive national and government debts, we already have large welfare programs, and our economy is slowly recovering due to Trump and the Republicans’ economic reforms. I don’t see how realistically we can achieve the “Denmark ideal” that Bernie goes on about, when he doesn’t realize how the Denmark system works in the first place.

    So what are the chances that the US will end up like Denmark under Bernie’s socialist policies when 1) Denmark is NOT a socialist country – it’s a capitalist economy with a large welfare government, much like the US, and 2) when actual socialism/communism in all of human history has failed miserably for the people? (Prime examples: Venezuela, Cuba, China, USSR). I value the individual liberty and trust the individual conscience infinitely more than an oligarchy that acts under the illusion of “democracy” and “common welfare.” (Yes, we have the oligarchy in the US as well, but individuals have more freedom and therefore more ability/power to fight it. If we give all our freedoms to a Collective, they will in name be entrusted with our money/liberty but in reality is bound to sink into deep and unchallenged corruption.)

    Also, I think Danes possess a worldview that highlights “less selfishness,” which is a worldview that many traditional/conservative Americans possess due to Christianity. Americans, due to our market economy system, “Gave $410.02 Billion to Charity in 2017, Crossing the $400 Billion Mark for the First Time” (GivingUSA.com). When Americans fall away from our traditional standards and become less self-disciplined, our people and society will be less happy and efficient.

    Please let me know what you think 🙂

  17. I’d be very willing to try Medicare for all. Our current system not only keeps proper medical care unaffordable for many — which is bad enough — it also is incredibly inefficient. So much is spent on advertising and duplication by insurance companies. Doctors are incensed to order expensive tests, drugs, and procedures that have questionable benefits to the patient — but profits to the involved companies. All the cross-talk, duplication, finger-pointing, etc. of our system also makes it more difficult to respond coherently to something like coronavirus. I really don’t think “profit” should be the main concern of health care. BTW, I loved visiting Denmark a few times.

  18. I would love to move out of the States. My challenge is that I’m older and don’t have valid skills. Can I work a non skilled job and pay rent? I’m so used to this country where the poor are designed to stay that way.

  19. Your post and all the comments make for great reading and appreciation of different experiences and perspectives.
    Mine is that no matter the external environment, as this will be in constant motion from country to country, your happiness/contentment is your life’s work.. once acknowledged you are on a journey and that in its self will bring learning to what it is that works for you… the formula set by prior generations, especially of the 20th century has, in my opinion really catapulted many to question what it’s all about…
    And the environment, a more natural and less commercial one, can serve to assist with tranquility, for the individual and the community. Why is it that most of us want vacations with natural settings…
    Anyway, good to meet you and your blogging.

  20. Very cool way of thinking! And I guess in many ways very true. But to play the devil’s advocate a little: would happiness exist without unhappiness?

    I actually went to a Psychology congress in Denmark last year with the theme happiness and we’ve never figured out the ultimate answer, so I look forward to keep on searching!

  21. I very much enjoyed this. I need to do some research on Denmark. I’ve been having medical issues and dishing out some serious money just to get treatment (I write about this in my blog). And truly I’ve been thinking of one day leaving this country. Bernie sanders is my guy as well, but I don’t know if America is ready for him, unfortunately. I will definitely be following you.

  22. I can’t help but think of many of these types of conundrums through the lens of the free will debate.

    If we don’t have free will then it all boils down to luck. The genes, being in place, one’s frame of mind, intelligence, education, parents, etc.

    If we do have free will, then people will have to explain how they have escaped the casual chain. Self made people in deed and thought.

  23. I think Finland would be more to my taste. Or Sweden or Norway. Too much population density in Denmark. But there’s the issue of the long winter nights. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real thing. So maybe overwinter in New Zealand.

    Statistics on happiness are silly. Ask questions differently and you’ll get different answers.

  24. A friend and I have agreed back in college that happiness and contentment are not the same thing. She wants to find contentment, I want to find happiness. She sees happiness as “wanting to be here now despite” while I see happiness as “wanting to be here now because.” My friend and I have a difference in perspective, and the lenses through which we look at life are colored by our individual experiences. My friend has gone through hell and back while I’ve lived a pretty uneventful life, at least compared to hers. Applying that to a bigger scale, a country or culture’s point of view is colored by it’s history. I admit I don’t know anything about Denmark’s history, but I’m confident it’s not as chaotic and war-ridden as the US or any of the unhappy countries on the list. Of course, our experiences/history is just one of many factors affecting our happiness scale as individuals and as countries.

  25. Hi there!
    From my personal point of view, absolutely worth going to live in Denmark, Copenhagen especially! and here’s why:
    1- I’ve seen it myself, the country has high taxes and incredible public services. It is gorgeous and functional. You can have kids without starving, have a job without compromising your integrity or personal life, the pay is decent for most jobs and the government provides help for the ones in need, you pay only with a credit card, which means that there’s no tax evasion!
    2- a dear friend, Italian, works for the office of tourism of Copenhagen: upon request they provided a special super expensive lamp that gives the UV that we need in case of lack of sun light, also they provided a super expensive table so he doesn’t destroy his back at work… in Italy, at most, the bosses would’ve provided an ope door and a boot in the butt.
    3 – another friend left 2years ago, from Italy, to live in Copenhagen and she bought a house decided to be a single mom (which is a choice that can be done in a country that values people and help them succeed as humans), has a gorgeous life and doesn’t even slightly think of going back to Italy!!!
    I hope I helped! 🙂

  26. I agree with the viewpoint of the interviewee. I’m always saying that all I want is an uneventful life. By that, I don’t mean boring or lacking events. I mean a life without all the events that bring trauma, stress, and other negative emotionally and physically unhealthy states. Simple is at the top of my list. A simple life where my daily choices won’t rock my world; that, to me, is true happiness.

Leave a Reply