Best Happiness Paper Ever: The Ready-to-Be-Disappointed Danes

The bar is extremely low, but this paper in the BMJ, “Why Danes Are Smug: Comparative Study of Life Satisfaction in the European Union,” is easily the funniest happiness research paper ever. Here are the concluding paragraphs:

Our analysis points to two explanatory factors. The Danish football triumph of 1992 has had a lasting impact. This victory arguably provided the biggest boost to the Danish psyche since the protracted history of Danish setbacks began with defeat in England in 1066, followed by the loss of Sweden, Norway, Northern Germany, the Danish West Indies, and Iceland. The satisfaction of the Danes, however, began well before 1992, albeit at a more moderate level. The key factor that explains this and that differentiates Danes from Swedes and Finns seems to be that Danes have consistently low (and indubitably realistic) expectations for the year to come. Year after year they are pleasantly surprised to find that not everything is getting more rotten in the state of Denmark.

This finding is supported by Danish news coverage of the 2005 pronouncement by Ruut Veenhoven, Dutch Professor of Social Conditions for Happiness and head of the World Database of Happiness, that Danes are the world’s happiest people. The headlines in Denmark ran: We’re the happiest “lige nu.” The phrase “lige nu,” which can be translated literally as “just now,” is a quintessentially Danish expression redolent, indeed reeking, of the sentiment “for the time being, but probably not for long and don’t have any expectations it will last.”

Luckily, I didn’t expect this paper to be any good.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center