Happiest in the World?

We’ve heard on multiple occasions that Denmark has been rated the happiest country in the world. As our study tour group arrived this past Saturday, we walked around the cold and damp city of Copenhagen, which was eerily silent. The history, the architecture, and the cleanliness of the city are all to be marveled, but it made me think, where are all of these happy people?

After visiting Kronborg Castle (aka Hamlet’s Castle) in Helsingør, we learned of the great Danish kings of the 16th century, their unmatched wealth in the region, and the impressive empire they controlled in Northern Europe. We were told about the grandeur of the kings at the time and the subsequent battles and wars lost in Denmark in which over the course of less than a century, they lost most of their land-holdings in Northern Europe. The Danes’ fall from greatness was the start of what I would call “an acceptance of things being just okay, but not great.”

In our 3 company visits at Maersk, MindLab and Airtame, we learned about 3 very different businesses from the largest shipping company in the world to a small cross-governmental innovation unit, to a 3 year old tech start-up. All 3 organizations’ representatives talked about their companies with a certain level of humility and shyness uncommon in the American business world. The reps from Maersk and Airtame, in particular, discussed the difficulty in attracting talent to work in Denmark. Denmark’s small population and overall safety net created by the welfare state in some ways deincentivizes individuals to pursue the toughest educational tracks and enter high risk career paths like tech entrepreneurship. In Airtime alone, a company of just a couple dozen employees, they have 19 countries represented on their staff. The CEO admitted to the difficulties he faces around talent acquisition while also reflecting that Danish culture and Jante law can be a hindrance to entrepreneurial growth.

After reflecting on both the company visits and site-seeing around greater Copenhagen, I remembered a comment from one of our Danish speakers in the Study Tour Class this past February. He emphasized that although Danes are protected by the safety of the welfare state and have been deemed the happiest in the world, maybe they are only happy because they have low expectations. Despite Denmark’s beauty and rich history, this sentiment seems to be real. Moreover, the lack of skills and volumes of people needed to continue to support Danish society is a pertinent issue that Denmark is facing already. The Airtame CEO seems to think immigration is the solution, but also highlighted how hard it is for outsiders to integrate into Danish society.

We are leaving the quiet streets of Copenhagen today to travel onwards to Helsinki, and I am left thinking that Denmark has an important job to do to preserve this “happy society”…find more people to populate the quiet streets or the society as they know it may go away!

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