Denmark’s winning formula – for happiness

Applauded Nordic: Four of Denmark’s greatest creations.

Is Denmark the best country in the world? As its football team prepares to face England today, here are 10 things that make it a remarkable, exciting and enviable place to live.

1. World-beating happiness. Denmark regularly features near the top of the World Happiness Report: in 2020 it was second only to Finland. It has a high standard of living, free healthcare and a commitment to women’s and minority rights. The proportion of people living below the poverty line – 6% – is tiny compared to most countries.

2. Island escapes. The country consists of a peninsula, Jutland, and an archipelago of 443 islands. As only 74 of these are inhabited, all you need is a boat to get away from it all.

3. Independent spirit. Denmark includes Greenland and the Faroe Islands, both of which have home rule and decided against joining the EU. Denmark voted against accepting the euro and retains the krone as its currency. In 2019 President Trump cancelled a state visit to Denmark after prime minister Mette Frederiksen refused to sell Greenland to the US.

4. Bearded bravery. The Danish Vikings were extraordinary warriors and seafarers. Between 1013 and 1042, four of them were kings of England: Sweyn Forkbeard, Canute, Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut. Danes today have a more enlightened foreign policy, with the country giving an unusually high proportion of its gross national income – 0.85% – to overseas aid.

5. Secret writing. Up until the 14th Century, Denmark had a completely different alphabet from the Roman one we use: runes, which look like an arrangement of sticks. They appear in JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

6. Extended Christmas. The country’s Jul festivities start at the beginning of December and culminate in dinner on Christmas Eve. Finding a tree to decorate is easy: in one year, Denmark sold over 14 million.

7. Voluntary exams. Students do not have to take final examinations when they leave school unless they want to go to university (which is free). But the school system is excellent: almost every Danish adult is literate.

8. Cool design. Denmark has a strong tradition of cutting-edge but comforting furniture and architecture, with Arne Jacobsen and Hans Wegner among its leading designers. The world-famous Sydney Opera House was designed by a Dane, Jørn Utzon.

9. Riveting stories. Hans Christian Andersen was responsible for some of the world’s most famous fairy tales, including The Snow Queen, The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Ugly Duckling. The recent TV series, The Killing, is recognised as a landmark in Scandi noir and has been sold in over 120 countries.

10. Green leader. Denmark has set some of the world’s most ambitious environmental targets, including a 70% reduction of carbon emissions by 2030. Much of its electricity comes from wind power, and it has stopped issuing new licences for gas and oil extraction.

Is Denmark the best country in the world?

Scandi dandy

Some say yes: it is a very equal, fair, peaceful country whose citizens are well looked after – and it is a world leader in combating climate change. People are happy because they believe in modesty rather than trying to prove their superiority to others: the concept of “Janteloven” asserts that no one is better than anybody else, so you should never boast or show off.

Others argue that it is less idyllic than it seems: Scandi noir novels and TV dramas are successful precisely because they show the corruption below the surface. A few years ago the Christmas tree industry was rocked by a price-fixing scandal. Denmark is far from welcoming to immigrants, with a policy of forcibly relocating ethnic minorities. And its social services come at the cost of high taxes.

You Decide

  1. What should be the most important thing in measuring a country’s happiness?
  2. Can we learn anything from fairy stories?


  1. In pairs, study the runic alphabet and write a message in it for the England football team.
  2. Make a map of the territory ruled by Sweyn Forkbeard and Canute.

Some People Say...

“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”

Søren Kierkegaard (1813 - 1855), Danish philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that Denmark was one of the pioneers of the democratic welfare state. The 1933 Kanslergade Agreement ensured that services such as health care were affordable, improved workers’ rights and provided state subsidies for farmers. In creating a “grand compromise” between employers and trade unions, it solved many of the industrial problems which bedevilled other countries. Today it has one of the lowest levels of income inequality in the world.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether the Vikings were thugs or the creators of an admirable civilisation. They were certainly brutal in their overseas raids and deserved their reputation for pillage, rape and enslaving their victims. But they were also courageous explorers, sailing as far as North America and to parts of modern Russia and Turkey, and trading in jewels, precious metals and textiles. Their surviving vessels, such as the Oseberg Ship, show beautiful ornamental craftsmanship.

Word Watch

World Happiness Report
Produced by the United Nations, it is based on people’s rating of their own lives. Afghanistan is currently the least happy country in the world.
A piece of land almost surrounded by water. The term comes from two Latin words meaning nearly and island.
A group of islands. The term comes from two Greek words meaning chief and sea.
The name means crown. The plural is kroner.
Mette Frederiksen
Born in 1977, she is Denmark’s youngest ever prime minister, and the second woman to hold the position.
Sweyn Forkbeard
He was proclaimed king of England on Christmas Day 1013, but died five weeks later.
The English word yule derives from it.


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