Denmark, Happiness, and Leaving the Car at Home (Most of the Time)

Move Forward
Jan 9, 2018 · 4 min read

Written by Edmund Sandoval

Why are people in Denmark — a small Scandinavian country of six million inhabitants — so happy? And not just subjectively happy. Denmark is ranked year after year at or near the top of the happiest countries in the world by the United Nations’ World Happiness Report, an exhaustive study that covers 155 countries.

While Danish happiness probably can’t be attributed to the climate-Denmark experiences rainy days about 50% of the year-there are a number of quantifiable aspects of Danish living that contribute to a population-wide contentedness: access to free healthcare and education, one of the highest income-equality rates and lowest poverty rates of any Westernized nation.

Beyond the quantifiable, Denmark has also become known the world over for hygge, the Scandinavian word for a mood of coziness and comfortable conviviality with feelings of wellness and contentment. That led Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute (which, unsurprisingly, is based in Copenhagen) to say, “You can say we are the happiest country in the world… I like to say, we’re the least unhappy.”

Thinking of all these elements led us, naturally, to our favorite topic of conversation: transportation. Denmark has committed to what the majority of Americans consider to be alternative modes of mobility at an astounding nationwide level. Could it be possible that Denmark’s attitude toward transportation contributes to its overall contentedness?

Mobility by Bus:

Perhaps it’s the fact that just hopping on a bus creates benefits to your health that have been recorded across the world. According to a joint study by the Victoria Institute and the American Public Transportation Association, public transportation use is tied to a more active, less stressful life. It also coincides with being both more cost-effective and less of a strain on the environment. The Danes got this a long time ago.

Mobility by Bike:

On a daily basis, Copenhagen residents alone cycle a collective 1.15 million miles. With the city’s state-of-the-art bicycle infrastructure, getting around by bike is simple.

Yet does having access to user-friendly bike lanes automatically equate to increased bliss? According to the Happiness Research Institute’s Isabella Arendt, it’s all about committing to common-sense activities that are known to contribute to happiness, like the tried and true combination of biking and exercise. Even when convenience isn’t readily apparent, taking the extra step to get outside and increase the heart rate is taken seriously.

Says Arendt: “If you live twenty-five kilometers from your workplace, then driving might be the only option. But we know that biking, running or walking contribute to happiness. For example, I know people who will take their car [to work] in the morning and then bike home, then bike to work the next day, then drive home, and so on. This is a simple way of making transportation a happy thing to do,” rather than a chore. And as proven by study after study, when you ride, you get a boost in neurochemicals like serotonin and dopamine that relieve pain and improve mood.

Reducing Commuting by Car Matters

Back in 1982, motorists spent an average of 16 hours a year sitting in traffic jams. These days (in the United States, at least) the average American urban commuter can expect to sit in traffic jams 42 hours a year, while bidding adieu to $1400 from idling away gas. That translates to a collective 6.9 billion hours sitting in traffic, $160 billion in wasted time and fuel, and a nearly incalculable volume of incremental carbon added to our already outsized footprint.

It’s expensive, exhausting, and worst, of all, terrible for our health. With much of the globe trending toward a more and more sedentary lifestyle, sitting in traffic is only contributing to already high stress levels.

Sure, the American economy has stabilized and improved in the preceding ten years, but that prosperity, while linked to an increase in car purchases, hasn’t carried over to American happiness. This year, the United States ranked as the 14th happiest country in the world, and has never cracked the top ten, despite its booming economy and resources.

It’s almost as though money can’t buy happiness — something Danes have been saying, in their own way, for years. Consider this food for thought from the Happiness Research Institute’s Isabella Arendt: “Happiness is something that can be found for free for anybody. Just think about transport and when you’re considering a new job. Maybe the less-paying job closer (to home) is actually a better investment in the long run than the job that pays more, where you have to spend an hour and a half in traffic every day.

“Money is not the direct way to happiness unless you spend that money investing in good times with people around you.”


Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.

Move Forward Blog

Working with cities to create a world without traffic jams.

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