For my second week in Denmark, I’ve chosen to immerse myself in the urban life of the everyday Danish citizen. Visiting the great cities of Copenhagen and Aarhus, I’ve fulfilled the happiness actions of connecting with friendly locals, continuing my learning with several museum visits, being active via bike exploration and as a result taking more notice of each cities hidden intricacies.
Reflecting on this eventful week, there are so many insights to be drawn, the first has to be the Danish passion for cycling! Stepping outside of Copenhagen central station I was overwhelmed by how many cyclists were on the road. People who were young, old, in a suit or sportswear — streamed past me in both directions. I later found out that more people now officially cycle than drive in Copenhagen.
Comparing this to the UK, cyclists tend to be seen as a hinderance on the roads, however in Denmark the situation is completely flipped on its head. They are very much the dominating presence wherever you go and as a result have real authority on the roads.
I found it refreshing to see so many people active, which is one of the main insights to be drawn from the Danish passion for cycling. This is because it’s well documented that regular exercise is directly linked to personal wellbeing.
From my own experience — I found it to be both liberating and energising. By choosing to cycle around the city, I was out in the fresh air, taking in all the intricacies of the cities and exploring what they had to offer. As opposed to taking a hot stuffy subway system from one tourist destination to the next, or even worse being stuck in traffic! In short, I discovered by cycling the Danes always take the scenic route to their destinations…
From a different perspective, I think the choice to cycle also ties into the ‘Jante’ philosophy I learnt about whilst mingling with locals. The idea that everyone is equal, material things hold no status and bragging about ones possessions is very much looked down upon. For example, with the majority of people riding bikes, it essentially puts people on the same ‘level’ and the increasingly important ‘status’ element of, for example driving a particular car is completely removed. From a broader perspective this Danish philosophy can reduce envy (the enemy of happiness) and encourage people to be content with what they have, instead of continually seeking more.
Another observation that quickly became apparent, was the colourful nature of the cities. This was most noticeable on a local tour of Copenhagen arranged via ‘Showaround’. This app connects visitors with locals, who essentially give their own unique tours of their cities. On short notice I arranged an evening meet up with Kristine, a graduate whose lived in Copenhagen her whole life. We first grabbed some street food from the bustling Papirøen, took a stroll past the vibrant Nyhavn buildings and then went on to visit several local parks. On the tour we passed tonnes of buildings which wore different hues of red, orange, blue and yellow, with different shades of green provided by the sheer abundance of local parks. This element of green also translated to different parts of the city, where buildings were dressed in vines from head to toe.
Drawing upon the ideology of semiotics, these bright and natural colours are associated with an array of positive ideas or thoughts, such as fun, safety, peace, romance and of course happiness. Following on from this, the ubiquitous presence of green spaces and incorporated nature has been heavily linked with reduced stress levels, increased perception of life quality and increasing the effect of physical activity — which links back to the earlier insight on the Danish being so active.
Another insight to be drawn off my own experience, was the pure sense of safety I felt in roaming through the silent streets and pitch black parks at 12am. I recall during my secondary school years, regularly having to make the decision whether to risk walking through the beautiful Handsworth park to get a shortcut home. The majority of the time I would take the risk and as a result, was robbed there and have been chased out several times. Considering these occurrences happened in the day, I would never picture myself going to a dark foreign forested park at night, yet here I was casually strolling with my very expensive camera and tripod in hand feeling as safe as I’ve ever been. Baffled by it all, I asked Kristine about the general safety here and she shared Denmark is so safe, there’s a tradition where mothers regularly leave their children in prams outside whilst they shop or grab a coffee!
I think this sense of safety and genuine trust in society naturally helps alleviate worry/stress and ultimately creates a strong platform for happiness.
Finally, throughout my time in Denmark, there seemed to be a special atmosphere or buzz around the summer here. This feeling was best epitomised by Tivoli gardens, the amusement park situated in the heart of Copenhagen. With an abundance of rides, free concerts, shops, gardens, theatres, lakes and arcades to indulge in, I unintentionally ended up spending a whole day here. I found it possesses this magical ability to make you feel like a child again, which was definitely reflected in the diversity of people and age range.
In addition to this, Tivoli is the 2nd oldest amusement park in the world, with the oldest also situated just north of Copenhagen. This piece of history supports the view several locals held, that great importance is placed on both leisure and family time within Danish values. This is further emphasised or even symbolically represented by the strange location of the park at the heart of the city — making it very accessible for all city dwellers.
When taking into consideration both the city insight and the aforementioned countryside insights, it becomes easier to comprehend why the Danish are consistently some of the happiest people in the world.
I’m now off to Norway, which according to the UN report, is the happiest country in the world for 2017. I’ll be delving deep into their culture to create unique insights, but also comparing and contrasting my experience to Denmark to get a better understanding of sustained Nordic happiness.