CBS’s Safer: U.S. Should Be More Like Denmark

On Sunday’s "60 Minutes," anchor Morley Safer did a segment on Demark being ranked the happiest country in world consistently for the past three decades and wondered: "What makes a Dane so happy? And why isn't he wallowing in misery and self doubt like so many of the rest of us?" Later in the segment, Safer discovered that low expectations of the Danish people was the key to their happiness and he concluded that:

Wanting it all is a bacterium that stays with us from youth to old age -- wanting a bigger house, fancier car, more stuff. And when we get more, there's always someone with even more stuff who's just as unhappy. Some suggest that the unhappiest zip codes in the country are the wealthiest, like the Upper East Side of New York.

It’s interesting that many liberal media figures reside in New York’s Upper East Side.

Safer began the segment by referring to the Declaration of Independence, just prior to touting Denmark’s socialism:

Tonight, we talk about happiness, that quirky, elusive emotion that the Declaration of Independence maintains we have every right to pursue...the main scientific survey of international happiness, carried out by Leicester University in England, ranks the U.S. a distant 23rd, well behind Canada and Costa Rica. But you'll be pleased to know we beat Iraq and Pakistan. And the winner is? Once again, Denmark.

Later, while talking to Danish professor Kaare Christiansen, Safer wondered if a nation’s power makes it unhappy: "Do you think there's some kind of inverse relationship between the more powerful you are, the more unhappy you are, and the weaker you are, the happier you are?"

Safer also talked to a group of Danish students and seemed impressed with how advanced Denmark’s welfare state has become:

SAFER: For example, no student loans hanging over their heads -- all education is free in Denmark, right on through university. And students can take as long as they like to complete their studies.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT B: And we get paid to go to school, actually. Instead of in the U.S., you pay to go to school, we get paid to go to school if we pass our exams.

SAFER: Americans watching this, particularly people your age, would be bowled over by the very idea that the government pays you to go to school.

STUDENT: I'm being paid right now for not going to school. I'm being paid for parenting.

SAFER: Oh, you're on paternity leave.

STUDENT: Yes, it's 100% paid for by the government for half a year.

SAFER: Denmark also provides free health care, subsidized child care and elder care, a social safety net spread the length and breadth of the country.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT C: I mean, we're pretty much free to do whatever we want. We're secure from the day we're born, for a Dane who lives in Denmark.

Of course Safer did note that a government "safety net" is not free:

SAFER: But in getting all of those wonderful gifts from the government, the Danes do pay a price. How much would a, sort of, middle-income person pay in taxes?

DR. CHRISTIANSEN: About 50... half.

SAFER: And that is one trade-off most Americans are not willing to make.

Safer then talked to Harvard psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar, who explained why Americans are so unhappy, we just expect too much:

In America, part of the ethos, part of the American dream, is that more is better, and the more is better usually applies to the material realm. And that doesn't pan out, that doesn't work, it doesn't make us happier...It is about having realistic expectations. It's... it's about not trying to fit in more... more than we can handle. We can't handle it all, we can't have it all, but we can have a lot.

At the end of the segment Safer asked one of the Danish students to offer Americans some advice. The student mimicked Shahar: "I have an advice. Don't... don't depend too much on the American dream. Yeah, I think you might get disappointed."

So if Americans just give up on their dreams, we would all be a lot happier.

Here is the full transcript of the segment:

MORLEY SAFER: Tonight, we talk about happiness, that quirky, elusive emotion that the Declaration of Independence maintains we have every right to pursue. And man, do we pursue it. We're suckers for an endless stream of self-help books that promise a carefree existence for a mere $24.95. Television hucksters of every kind claim they have the key to Nirvana. So the happiness business, at least, is one big smiley face. As for the rest of us, well, the main scientific survey of international happiness, carried out by Leicester University in England, ranks the U.S. a distant 23rd, well behind Canada and Costa Rica. But you'll be pleased to know we beat Iraq and Pakistan. And the winner is? Once again, Denmark. Over the past 30 years in survey after survey, this nation of 5.5 million people -- the land that produced Hans Christian Andersen, the people who consume herring by the ton-- consistently beat the rest of the world in the happiness stakes. It's hard to figure -- the weather is only so-so; they're heavy drinkers and smokers; their neighbors, the Norwegians, are richer, and their other neighbors, the Swedes, are healthier. So it's ironic or something that the unhappiest man in history, or at least literary history, was that Prince of Denmark, Hamlet, who lived in this gloomy rock pile at Elsinore. Of course, Hamlet had every right to be depressed. After all, his uncle murdered his father, seduced and married his mother, and was an all- around perfect scoundrel. But Hamlet aside, what makes a Dane so happy? And why isn't he wallowing in misery and self-doubt like so many of the rest of us? That's a question that also intrigued professor Kaare Christiansen at the University of Southern Denmark.

KAARE CHRISTIANSEN: If you ask people on the street where they think the happiest country in the world is, they'll say, you know, like, tropical islands and, you know, nice places, you know, like, Italy or Spain-- you know, places with nice weather and good food. But, in Europe, they're actually the most unhappy people.

SAFER: So Dr. Christiansen and a team of researchers tried to discover just why Denmark finds itself on top of the happiness heap.

CHRISTIANSEN: We made fun of it by suggesting it could be because blondes have more fun. But then we could prove that the Swedes have more blondes than the Danes, and they were not as happy. So, we... we tested different hypothesis.

SAFER: So the result is, blondes don't necessarily have more fun.

CHRISTIANSEN: Exactly, so... but it doesn't hurt, either.

SAFER: After careful study, Dr. Christiansen thinks he isolated the key to Danish anti-depression.

CHRISTIANSEN: What we basically figured out that, although the Danes were very happy with their life, when we looked at their expectations, they were pretty modest.

SAFER: So, by having low expectations, you're rarely disappointed.

CHRISTIANSEN: Exactly.

SAFER: Dr. Christiansen's study was called 'Why Danes are Smug.' And, essentially, his answer was it's because they're so glum, and get happy when things turn out not quite so badly as they expected.

CHRISTIANSEN: And I was thinking about, what if it was opposite? That Denmark made the worse number 20, and another country was number one? I'm pretty sure the Danish television would have said, 'well, number 20's not too bad. You know, it's still in the top 25. You know, that's not too bad.'

SAFER: History may also play a role in the country's culture of low expectations. If you go to the government's own web site, it proudly proclaims: 'The present configuration of the country is the result of 400 years of forced relinquishments of land, surrenders, and lost battles.' Could it be that the true secret of happiness is a swift kick in the pants or a large dose of humiliation? Do you think there's some kind of inverse relationship between the more powerful you are, the more unhappy you are, and the weaker you are, the happier you are?

CHRISTIANSEN: Well, at least the pressure's off you, you know? And if you're doing pretty well, and once in a while, there's outstanding, you're very happy about it. But if your starting point is that you should be outstanding, that's not good.

SAFER: Do Danes like being slightly in the shadows?

CHRISTIANSEN: I think it's a little bit like in bicycle race-- you like to come from behind.

SAFER: Which is exactly what the underdog Danes did in the 1992 European Soccer Championship. Christiansen says it created such a state of euphoria that the country has not been the same since. But is the more to it? We asked Danish newspaper columnist Sebastian Dorset what he thought about Denmark's number one status.

SEBASTIAN DORSET: If you didn't tell me about the survey, I wouldn't believe that Denmark was the happiest place, because everybody complains all the time.

SAFER: But I find it fascinating that you... you say people complain. But there is a real sense of contentment here.

DORSET: Yeah.

SAFER: Dorset says that contentment may stem from the fact that Denmark is almost totally homogenous, there's no large disparities of wealth, and has had very little national turmoil for more than a half century.

DORSET: We have very little violence, we have very little murders, so people are... feel very safe.

SAFER: People feel secure.

DORSET: Yes. A knife stabbing makes... makes the front page every... every time. I don't think that happens in... in America very often.

SAFER: Happy as they may be, Dorset says Danes rarely show it.

DORSET: People are not looking very happy in the street. They don't talk very much.

SAFER: So people don't just strike up casual conversations on the train.

DORSET: No. No, never. I think, actually, there's a very highly developed body language. When... if you are stuck on the... on the window seat of a bus and wants to get out, and there's a person next to you on the aisle seat, then you don't say, excuse me, could I please get off? You start rattling your bags and... and make sort of a gesture saying, I'm about to get up, so please get up so I don't have to talk to you.

SAFER: Well, is it shyness or what?

DORSET: I don't know. It's sort of a... it's considered a right by Danish people not to be talked to.

SAFER: Danish students can fairly be described as utterly laid-back. Even so, they're surprised to be told they live in happiness-ville.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: When I go abroad, I usually see people look much more happy. For example, in southern Europe-- they go about in the streets laughing much more than we do. I think you could say maybe we are more content.

SAFER: What's the distinction you make between happiness and contentedness?

STUDENT: Well, if you're... if you're content, you don't have so much to worry about. That's what I think.

SAFER: For example, no student loans hanging over their heads -- all education is free in Denmark, right on through university. And students can take as long as they like to complete their studies.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT B: And we get paid to go to school, actually. Instead of in the U.S., you pay to go to school, we get paid to go to school if we pass our exams.

SAFER: Americans watching this, particularly people your age, would be bowled over by the very idea that the government pays you to go to school.

STUDENT: I'm being paid right now for not going to school. I'm being paid for parenting.

SAFER: Oh, you're on paternity leave.

STUDENT: Yes, it's 100% paid for by the government for half a year.

SAFER: Denmark also provides free health care, subsidized child care and elder care, a social safety net spread the length and breadth of the country.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT C: I mean, we're pretty much free to do whatever we want. We're secure from the day we're born, for a Dane who lives in Denmark.

SAFER: Fish and beer-a-holics they may be, but work-a-holics, they are not. In Denmark, the average work week is, what?

CHRISTIANSEN: 37.

SAFER: 37 hours. And how much vacation?

CHRISTIANSEN: Six weeks.

SAFER: There are billionaires in the United States who don't get six weeks vacations.

CHRISTIANSEN: Maybe they should.

SAFER: But in getting all of those wonderful gifts from the government, the Danes do pay a price. How much would a, sort of, middle-income person pay in taxes?

CHRISTIANSEN: About 50... half.

SAFER: And that is one trade-off most Americans are not willing to make. According to Harvard psychology lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar, Americans want it all.

TAL BEN-SHAHAR: In America, part of the ethos, part of the American dream, is that more is better, and the more is better usually applies to the material realm. And that doesn't pan out, that doesn't work, it doesn't make us happier.

SAFER: Ben-Shahar teaches a course at Harvard called 'Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness.' He began the class four years ago, and it became the most popular course on campus, enrolling 1,400 students. In the U.S., The quest for happiness begins in what's alleged to be the happiest years of our lives.

SHAHAR: There's a lot of unhappiness on college campuses, and it's not just at Harvard. Over 94% of college students nationwide are stressed and overwhelmed, and students are paying a very high price for this pressure.

SAFER: That pressure is a result of high expectations. Wanting it all is a bacterium that stays with us from youth to old age -- wanting a bigger house, fancier car, more stuff. And when we get more, there's always someone with even more stuff who's just as unhappy. Some suggest that the unhappiest zip codes in the country are the wealthiest, like the Upper East Side of New York.

SHAHAR: The number one predictor of well-being is close friendships and close relationships, in general, which includes, of course, family relationships. Much better predictor of well-being than... than affluence is.

SAFER: Ben-Shahar says Americans could learn a lot about happiness from the Danes.

SHAHAR: It is about having realistic expectations. It's... it's about not trying to fit in more... more than we can handle. We can't handle it all, we can't have it all, but we can have a lot.

SAFER: You've lived in the States, you visited the States.

STUDENT C: Yes.

SAFER: Would you live there?

STUDENT C: It's got a grandness to it that you can never imagine here in Denmark, because it's on a much larger scale. And the differences are much, much bigger. But I wouldn't... I wouldn't want my children to grow up there.

SAFER: Just describe for me the qualities that a successful person would have in this country.

STUDENT: Well, in order to see myself as a... as a success I would... I want to be happy and have a lot of time with my family, I think that's very important to me, and the money is not that important.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT D: It is more about the... the softer values, such as not being stressed and... and feeling passionate about what I'm doing. And maybe this job is not going to pay me a lot of money, but I'm going to love getting up and doing it every day.

SAFER: Do you think that you can equate money with happiness?

STUDENT C: No. If you have a sufficient amount of money, then I don't think it will make you a lot happier to get really rich. And we are already at a good level here in Denmark. So, I don't think we'll be happier if... if we increase our wealth.

SAFER: But these un-melancholy Danes, as laid back as they are, do not lack ambition.

STUDENT: I think that we have very high hopes, just like any other people do; we just don't get so disappointed when they don't -- we don't see them through.

SAFER: What would you advise Americans to do?

STUDENT: I have an advice. Don't... don't depend too much on the American dream. Yeah, I think you might get disappointed.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC