October 9, 2011
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Americans may be deeply divided about what ails our country, but there's no denying we're a nation of unhappy campers.
Danes, on the other hand, consistently rank as some of the happiest people in the world, a fact attributed at least in part to Denmark's legendary income equality and strong social safety net.
Forbes recently cited another possible factor; the Danes' "high levels of trust." They trust each other, they trust 'outsiders,' they even trust their government. 90% of Danes vote. Tea party types dismiss Denmark as a hotbed of socialism, but really, they're just practicing a more enlightened kind of capitalism.
In fact, as Richard Wilkinson, a British professor of social epidemiology, recently stated on PBS NewsHour, "if you want to live the American dream, you should move to Finland or Denmark, which have much higher social mobility."
While we debate whether climate change is real and a tax on unhealthy foods is nanny state social engineering, the Danish are actually trying to address these problems head on.
They can afford to, because they don't spend all their waking hours worrying about whether they're about to lose their job, or their house, or how they're going to pay their student loans, or their health insurance premiums.
Could Danish-style democracy catch on here at home? If the way to a nation's heart is through its stomach, there may be hope. After all, the hottest trend on the culinary horizon these days is the new Nordic Cuisine, "which seeks to turn the culinary dial back toward the natural world," as the New York Times reported a few weeks back.
One of the pioneers of this movement is the dynamic Danish chef and climate change activist Trine Hahnemann, whose latest book is The Nordic Diet. Trine has a genius for creating earthy, easy, elegant meals, but she's equally passionate about cooking up social change while she's at it. I had a chance to get her two cents on our respective cultures when she passed through NYC recently. Following is a condensed version of our conversation:
KT: The cover of your latest book declares that you can "Eat Your Way to Health and Happiness with The Nordic Diet." Americans are so stressed and depressed these days, we're more likely to Eat Our Way to Illness and Misery. And the worse we eat, the worse we feel. Any ideas on how to break out of this vicious cycle?
TH: To change the whole political system takes a long time, so, that's not my first suggestion. Cooking your own meals is essential to staying healthy, because that's the only way you can control your diet. And sharing meals with family and friends, having a sense of belonging, that's a very big part of happiness.
Your meal culture has been blown apart, it's a huge problem. I understand when people say "but I get off work at 8 o'clock and I have to shop and go home and cook," but it's a cycle that just goes around and around and nobody's breaking it. You have to start cooking your own food, and it is doable, even on a lower income.
Danes actually eat a lot of crap, a lot of frozen vegetables, but they cook at home every day and sit down and eat together. This is the main thing in our culture, because take-out and processed convenience foods are more expensive. Fruits and vegetables have to be the cheapest thing, cheaper than eating at McDonald's. It all comes down to economics.