erik lundegaard

Monday February 18, 2008

Hamlet Notwithstanding

“60 Minutes” ran a piece last night called “And the happiest place on earth is...” A British study determined (how we're not really sure) that this magical place is ... drumroll ... Denmark! My peeps! The country I'm one generation removed from.

So as Morley Safer's story began, I kept wondering why we ever left. Even after they mentioned that herring was the national dish, I wondered. Then Morley & Co. gave me a bit of an answer as to why the Danes are happy; it also helped answer, maybe not why we left, but why it wasn't necessarily a bad idea.

Apparently the happiness there is less a matter of bright sunshine than low wattage. It's a culture of low expectations. If things turn out fine, great, but if they don't, well, who thought they would anyway? At least we won the UEFA futbol championship in '92. Now eat your herring.

There's more to the answer, of course, and the piece seemed designed less to talk up Denmark's happiness than the U.S. lack of. Danes are protected from birth to death by a large social safety net. There's no great disparity between rich and poor. Even middle-income wage earners pay 50 percent in taxes, and all of that money goes to cover health care, free education, maternity and paternity leaves, etc., throughout your life. As opposed to the U.S. with its shrinking social safety net and grandiose ambitions (and accompanying stress, and accompanying disappointment) for everyone involved.

Denmark's social safety net is fine; it's the low wattage that concerns me. The lack of casual conversations. The highly developed body language. The right not to be talked to. Danes go to southern climates and everyone seems happier: people are out in the streets, making noise, having fun. In a cultural sense anyway, I think I'd rather have the ups and downs, the blue skies and thunderstorms, than the overcast skies with a constant chance of drizzle.

So can you have a strong social safety net and grandiose ambitions? Or does a thick social safety net inevitably impinge upon ambition by handing you what you would otherwise strive for?

I do know this: I want to visit Denmark soon. Not to get all Alex Haley on everybody but it seems a shame I've never been.

Posted at 12:09 PM on Monday February 18, 2008 in category Culture  
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