What is happiness? This question is perhaps particularly relevant to Danes, Americans, and Danish Americans. After all, Denmark is consistently ranked the happiest nation in the world, and the inalienable right to pursue happiness is one of America’s core founding principles.
Furthermore, the question of happiness is becoming a more prominent one in public policy discussions. In the most recent United Nations World Happiness Report (2013), economist Jeffrey Sachs points to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron and South Korean President Park Geun-hye as examples of political leaders “talking about the importance of well-being as a guide for their nations and the world.”
A recent study by Eugenio Proto and Andrew Oswald at the University of Warwick suggests that Germany, Britain and South Korea may need to attract more Danish immigrants if they want to increase their happiness scores. The study found that “the greater the nation’s genetic distance from Denmark, the lower the reported well-being of that nation.” The research “adjusts for many other influences including Gross Domestic Product, culture, religion and the strength of the welfare state and geography.”
It turns out that Danes have the lowest frequency of a certain genetic mutation associated with “higher scores on neuroticism and lower life satisfaction.” In other words: Happiness is a part of the Danish DNA!
Interestingly, Proto and Oswald also compared the reported happiness of Americans with the origin of their ancestors. Result: The closer your ancestors are to Danes genetically, the happier you are likely to be.
What should we make of all this?
First, as a Danish American, I would like to think that a high capacity for happiness – and therefore a high level of sturdiness – is one of the key contributions of Danish immigrants to American culture. America tends to bring out the best in its immigrants and put their unique attributes to good use. And it required a high level of sturdiness to turn the prairies of the Midwest into some of the most productive farmland in the world, which is where the largest wave of the Danish immigrants made their mark.
Second, we should be skeptical when commentators tell us that Denmark is the happiest country in the world due to the country’s large welfare state. On the contrary, one might very well argue that the Danish capacity for happiness is, in fact, suppressed in an overprotected environment. Happiness in the face of worthy challenges is truly admirable; happiness without any effort or striving quickly turns into narcissism and naiveté.
In his 2009 Irving Kristol Lecture, The Happiness of the People, Charles Murray noted that the American Founders spoke of happiness “in its Aristotelian sense of lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole.” Murray went on to define “the institutions through which human beings achieve deep satisfactions in life” as “just four: family, community, vocation, and faith.” Crucially, Murray noted, “every time the government takes some of the trouble out of performing the functions of family, community, vocation, and faith, it also strips those institutions of some of their vitality.”
With strong American institutions and Danish genes, you can’t go wrong: The happiest Danes live in America!