Is Denmark Really the Happiest Place on Earth? An Informal Investigation

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Tivoli Gardens.
Tivoli Gardens.Photo: Elisa Vendramin

The world’s largest and most comprehensive conference on women’s global equality is happening this week in Copenhagen, Denmark. Women Deliver, which opened its fourth edition on Monday, is the largest meeting of advocates for women and girls in the world since its last occurrence in 2013. The conference is held every three years (the previous one took place in Malaysia), and it’s no coincidence that this year it found its home in Denmark, which was recently voted the best place in the world to be a woman. Must be nice.

I’m here as a fellow on behalf of the UN Foundation and an eager consumer of the panels, meetings, cultural events, and strategic sessions that focus on the empowerment and enlightenment of women across the globe. Each day, in addition to stories that come out of the meetings, the Cut will share a handful of details, sound bites, and pieces of valuable information that come to light during the course of the conference’s events. Here is a dispatch from day two. For yesterday’s dispatch, see here.

In the center of the touristy section of Copenhagen, there is an amusement park called Tivoli Gardens that inspired Walt Disney to build Disney World. It’s obvious from even the outside: old-world spires, tame and friendly rides, a contained space for entertainment in the middle of an already whimsical city. On the third day of Women Deliver, guests were invited to spend an evening in the magical amusement park, where local Danes talked to the international guests about what living in Denmark is really like.

It’s funny that Disney World has been coined the happiest place on Earth if it was inspired by Tivoli Gardens, which sits in a country that has also been named the happiest place on Earth. This year, to add to its accolades, a study found that it is also the best place to be a woman. With a flexible parental-leave policy and a day-care system that is priced based on women’s earnings, the Scandinavian lifestyle could have a profound impact on America’s women, if we were ready for it. But do women really have it as good there as everyone says? At Tivoli Gardens, and in a few other venues throughout the center of Copenhagen, I conducted an informal investigation.

I focused on teens and preteens: Going to the source seemed important for discovering where the seed for growing into a happy woman comes from. A group of middle-school-age kids, selected to present their perspective on their country at the Tivoli Gardens’ culture night, told me they love living in Denmark. When I asked if they think people are happy here, one young woman shrugged and said yes, of course. They showed me pictures of beaches and soccer teams and of their smiling friends. Like most seventh-graders, they were amused by the prospect that life could be bad or different elsewhere. I explained to one young girl that America is not a particularly nice place to be a woman because women are treated like second-class citizens. “Not in my country,” she said. “Men and women are treated mostly the same.” There is not very much discrimination, she said, and you would not ever think, as a woman, that something bad is going to happen to you.

Alma, a seventh-grader in Copenhagen, told me that her only — her only! — complaint about living in Denmark was that it was much too cold and much too dark. Where would she like to go instead? “I don’t know why, but I’d like to travel to Canada,” she said. I didn’t tell her that Canada is also dark and cold. Other places the teens were interested in included: Ukraine, Russia, university in London, and a trip to New York someday. But by and large the preteens asserted that Denmark was good enough, that there were lots of “parks and nice places” to go to, and the living was easy. A cab driver whom I spoke to on the way to a conference event said the same thing. Are Danes really the happiest people on Earth? “I think so, yes” he said. “The total tax in Denmark is about 55 percent, if you do tax on electronics, cars, VAT, nearly everything.” He told us while he didn’t really have savings, there was so little crime, so little danger, so little to worry about that his life was still happy.

Cecilie, a woman in her 20s working at a design store in central Copenhagen, told me that none of those reasons are the real answer to why so many people are happy. “It’s because cannabis is partly legalized,” she said. “I think that’s really it.” There are problems, too, she told me: Namely that the government has an antiquated tax on nuts, which she says has contributed to the recent spike in obesity in the country. But for women, she said, everything is great. When you’re a mother, she explained, it is encouraged and accepted to leave your baby outside of restaurants and cafés while you eat.

“Like, just leave your baby outside? In a stroller by itself?”

“Yes, of course!” she said. “The sun is good for it. It’s not a problem.”