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Why Danes Are So Much Happier Than Americans

Danish happiness has been attributed to their legendary income equality -- but there's more to it than that.
 
 
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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.

So, we're not these 'holy people' who can manage everything, we just have different ethics. We don't subsidize corn like you do, and also, there is a 25% VAT. And it's socially acceptable to leave work at around 4 or 5 o'clock and pick up your kids from school, go home, share a family meal. From a management point of view, if people have a nice family life, they'll be more productive.

KT: Denmark is famous for having so much less income inequality; do kitchen workers in Danish restuarants make a decent salary?

TH: Yes, a dishwasher in Denmark gets $25 an hour.

KT: Do they get sick days and benefits, too?

TH: Yes, and a pension, and health care, and maternity leave. To me, the more equal your society is, the better it is for everybody. It's not right for a country as rich as yours to have so many poor people. This thing with Americans and taxes, I don't understand it.

I make quite a lot of money, I pay 67% tax on much of it, and I don't mind. I like the idea that the girl who's sitting next to my daughter, whose mother is a cleaning lady, has exactly the same opportunity to get an education that my daughter has. I don't think that's socialism. To me, that's human decency. That girl didn't choose her parents, why shouldn't she have the same opportunities?

KT: The government of Denmark has a very ambitious agenda to eliminate your country's dependence on fossil fuels by 2050. The Danes are early adopters when it comes to conservation and renewable energy.

But Denmark's a relatively small country with a temperate climate, and a homogenous population that doesn't doubt the science on climate change. What lessons do you think the U.S., with all its diversity and division, could learn from your example?

TH: We can't change the world. We're only five million people, but as you say, we're homogenous. Danes trust their government. Over 90% of our population votes. Our news is not as polarized as yours. We're a good place to try out a model.

And cities around the world can draw from our experience. If we don't adapt, there's not going to be water, there's not going to be electricity, why not find solutions now?

KT: How does your role as a climate change activist influence the way you cook?

TH: I use a lot of whole grains, I cut down on meat, I eat very seasonally. In my company, Hahnemann's Køkken, we have a very seasonal profile, our food waste is really low, we use everything that gets into the kitchen.

And I'm working with some engineers to design an energy-efficient professional kitchen. We hope to convince people to buy new equipment. They say, "oh no, it's so expensive," but then you show them how much they could save over ten years on their electricity bill. There are so many old fridges out there that cost a fortune to run.

We need government guaranteed loans to buy new equipment, there are some very interesting models. There's a baker in Germany who has so much leftover bread because people come in at 6 o'clock and demand the same variety he has at 1 o'clock -- that's ridiculous! But he'll lose business if he doesn't cater to that, so all the bread that's left everyday goes into his energy system. He burns it, and that runs the ovens for the next day.

KT: So it's like a kind of biofuel? Does it smell like burned toast?

TH: (laughs) I don't know!

KT: In The Nordic Diet, you note that folks in Denmark bicycle everywhere, to get to work, to go shopping -- entire families routinely go bicycling together, and you don't let lousy weather stop you. You quote the Danish saying, "There is no such thing as bad weather, only wrong clothing."

But even when the weather's fine, you might work up a sweat and get windblown biking around. Here in the U.S., our surgeon general got in hot water when she noted that too many American women don't exercise because they don't want to mess up their hair.

So, is it socially acceptable in Denmark to arrive at one's destination looking like a sweaty, dishevelled mess?

TH: We don't have an obsession with hair like you have over here, we don't have that hair that sits in one place; that's never been in fashion. But if you bicycle ten miles to work on a racing bike, let's say, you'll have your regular clothes in a bag and most work places in Denmark provide a shower and a changing room.

KT: And what about the time that it takes to get changed into your work clothes, are you on the clock? Is it like taking a lunch break?

TH: Yeah, but Danes are like the Swiss, we're always on time. Danes are not late -- being on time is a big part of the culture.

KT: So, it's acceptable to show up with messy hair, but not to be late?

TH: Yes.

KT: How did you feel about the Copenhagen Climate Change talks, and where do you see the climate change movement heading?

TH: I was so disappointed. I was in tears. Our politicians failed us gravely. America and China came with nothing. And Saudi Arabia was working behind the scenes, I'm told, to sabotage it.

It's a shame people aren't more disappointed with the politicians. I am. I'm really disappointed that they can't step up and do the right thing. Why aren't we doing more? I'm not even satisfied with what we're doing in Denmark. I love that we have these goals and I will help to work towards them through the things I can do as a chef and a responsible citizen.

But I think it will have to get much worse before people realize how bad it is. It's potentially just as catastrophic as terrorism -- or worse -- but nobody's paying attention. Everybody's just hoping it will go away.

On the food side, I'm more optimistic, I see a lot of changes, a lot of goodwill, people wanting to cook and eat more ecologically.

We've got to change the way we eat, we've got to change the way we source, we've got to change the way we waste. For me, first of all, it's cutting back on the meat. Eating meat everyday has only been part of our diet since World War II. No matter what, only eat meat twice a week.

And everyone should get a composting bucket, so they can see how much they waste. You could save $2,000 a year if you stopped wasting food. Our grandmothers would never have wasted all that food.

We have to take that older mentality and new technologies and put them together for new solutions. I agree with Food, Inc. director Robert Kenner when he says, "Every time you shop, you vote." That's the best thing you can do as an individual who doesn't hold political office.

 

Kerry Trueman is the co-founder of EatingLiberally.org. You can follow her on Twitter.
 
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