What Exactly Makes Denmark One Of The Happiest Countries? I Went To Find Out
In her Bucket List column, Lindsay Tigar, travel journalist for National Geographic, Travel + Leisure, and Vogue will introduce Glam to a new destination dotted around the globe. Follow her journeys across dozens of countries and countless cities.
Throughout most of my 20s, I was painfully single. I had a few short stints here and there, but nothing stuck. Or, perhaps more to the point: I wasn’t willing to settle on just-good-enough when I knew, somewhere out there, great was a possibility. What I couldn’t have predicted all of those years was that my future partner was actually rather far away from my Manhattan zip code… in Denmark.
As fate would have it, he moved to Boston for graduate school while I was building my home and career in New York. He landed a job and stayed, and I stored everything I owned to travel the world for 18 months — and go freelance. Exactly 23 countries and countless cities later, I returned to my family’s home in North Carolina to collect myself and figure out my next move. Intrigued by opposite ends of the country where my friends had clustered, I decided to spend a month in California and another in Boston.
To get myself excited — and well, to see what was out there after taking quite the dating hiatus — I paid $10 on Tinder to browse in both locations. And sitting in my childhood bedroom that was still painted purple, three months to the day of my 30th birthday, I swiped right on my boyfriend. After seven weeks of FaceTiming, phone calls, and text messages, we finally met. Seven months later, we packed our bags for a month-long adventure abroad, including two weeks in his hometown of Copenhagen.
Though I had ventured to this region of Scandinavia before, it was in the dead of winter, with long, dark days and cloudy skies. It was also when I was a newbie to traveling, and long before I had learned the tricks of the trade or how to sleep on an airplane (spoiler: collect points and fly business). Even though Denmark technically wasn’t a new country to check off my “been there” list, it was an opportunity to see the so-called happiest place through the eyes of someone I love, a native.
So, what exactly makes Danish people so happy? Of course, there are its policies focused on social equality, including tuition-free education and no-fee public healthcare, and a relatively high level of safety. But what else is so special about Danish society? Here’s what I learned — and swooned over — in this small slice of the globe.
Hygge isn’t a trend — it’s a tradition
Since we started dating, I’ve haphazardly tried to learn some phrases from his native country. In fact, I repeated ‘Nice to meet you’ in Danish over-and-over as I walked to meet him for our first date. He scrunched up his face and smiled, appreciating my effort — and letting me know I kind of butchered it. Thanks to Duolingo, I’ve clung to some words I find fun but one that I can never, ever pronounce correctly is ‘hygge.’ A quick Google search of this term and you’ll find plenty of articles discussing the “trend” that encourages self-care and quiet, shared moments with pals.
And though it may be a new-ish concept in America, it’s a long-standing tradition and way of life for the Danes. Every apartment we visited in Denmark was ripe with candles, blankets, and hidden nooks to page a book, drink a cup of tea or enjoy the serenity. My partner’s family home had more candles than I could count and soft lighting to ease stress. The same mood is felt once you exit the front door, too: Even in the heat of a busy season, the streets still felt calm yet vibrant — a long cry from the push-and-shove of East Coast Metropolitans.
Homes are thoughtful in Denmark
Though we were lucky one of his friends was off celebrating their honeymoon the second week we were in town and needed plant sitters, we had an additional seven nights of accommodations to figure out. We eventually discovered Love Home Swap and stayed at this gorgeous apartment, overlooking one of the many lakes of Copenhagen. After lugging our heavy suitcases up five flights of stairs (womp), we quickly forgot about our sore legs when we looked around the room. While this specific address was definitely luxurious, what I found fascinating about all Danish abodes was how purposeful and thoughtful they are in terms of design. While you’re certainly see similar lamps and chairs throughout every budget, you won’t notice excess, which has been linked to unhappiness.
As my partner explained to me, accessibility to services like Amazon Prime or bulk stores like Costco isn’t a reality for city-dwellers in Denmark. However, supermarkets on nearly every corner is, so shopping for one meal at a time is normal. Also, as you probably have heard, Scandaniva isn’t exactly cheap in terms of dining out or booze, so many locals cook at home. This means their kitchen has to be functional — with every knife, bowl, salt dish, and bread basket in its place. Unlike many of the apartments I’m used to in the states, including my own, I found the minimalist, yet thoughtful ethos calming. Home felt like home — even though it wasn’t mine.
Work and life balance is a priority
When we were in town, we enjoyed meals with many of my partner’s closest friends and family members. Like him, they were gregarious and easy to talk to, full of interesting stories from their childhoods in Denmark, as well as a thorough investment in modern Danish culture. What’s vastly different about this country vs. the U.S. is what is prioritized. Here, you won’t get a promotion for working overtime and being available all hours of the night. Rather, the equal-opportunity mindset means everyone begins on the same playing field, and often moves at the same speed. Though it isn’t quite like chasing the American dream that rewards diligent, hard work, it does make the balance between work and life easier.
One of his friends was able to take over a year off of work after having a child — most of which, will be paid. Another is taking vacation for three weeks, without a second glance from their employer. Family duties and the attitude toward marriage is much more partnership based and equal in Denmark, rather than determined by sex. Couples may have children and buy a home before they say ‘I do’ — if they choose to marry at all. Even so, the commitment is still present, and Danish men tend to respect their wife's career on a more meaningful, holistic level. Taxes are higher, sure, but more time with those we value means happier levels of job satisfaction and overall health.
Food is impressive, especially the peas
While much of my travel writing is geared toward overall experiences, my partner is a foodie to his core. He’s the first one to notice hard-to-detect ingredients and often encourages me to worry less about the price tag — and more about the sheer joy of challenging my palette. Though I’m sure you can find some bad food in Copenhagen, every bite I had was well, incredible. From the fast-food kebab and pizza to tasting menus that touched every sense, we ate our way through the neighborhoods.
One standout was Marchal, a Michelin-star restaurant inside of the iconic D’Angleterre Hotel in Denmark. Here, you’ll expect the full French experience: white tablecloths, attentive service and of course, lots of butter. Our favorites included the capriccio, a creative variety of mouthwatering oysters, truffle pasta, and the monkfish. For a more Danish-inspired meal — that isn’t quite as pricey as the legendary Noma — consider Höst and Amass. Both utilize fresh, local, and vibrant ingredients that leave you satisfied but not overly full. For brunch, Nimb Hotel’s spread can’t be missed — especially if you are an amusement park lover. How come? You overlook Tivoli Gardens, and if you book your stay at the hotel, your entrance is free.
But sometimes, they can be coffee snobs
In my tenure as a traveler, I’ve had to come up with many ways to describe my go-to coffee drink: iced Americanos. Nope, not iced coffee or cold brew. Not a blended concoction with milk. Just: two shots of espresso, some ice and some water, please — err, tak. In certain countries, I would order the ingredients separately, while in others I would use Google translate. Denmark is lined with many English-speaking artisan coffee shops, as well as white-walled and succulent-rich cafes for reading and working. Under strict instructions to not order my morning Joe from Starbucks, my partner and I made our way to various spots he knew or wanted to try.
While I did expect some confusion for my very American order (it’s even in the name), I didn’t think I’d be told ‘no.’ That’s right, some places flat-out refused to make my order and offered something else that was more suitable. Sometimes I took them up on it and tried a new drink, like iced nitro coffee (yum!) while other times, when they suggested espresso, milk and um, blueberries… I kindly passed. But overall, the coffee was good, and the coffee shops really reflected the idea of enjoying the simple delights of life.
Biking builds confidence
In the weeks that led up to our trip, I kept telling my boyfriend how excited I was to go biking in Copenhagen. Though he owns a bike in Boston to commute to work or to his climbing gym, I’m definitely too chicken to test out the chaotic streets with unpredictable drivers. Since this Danish capital has more folks who commute via two wheels than four, the city infrastructure is built for bikes, making it less scary — and well, fun! Though it took me a few days to get the hang of it (and to choose the right shoes), by the end, I was sad to give up my loaner bike to head back home. Just a note of caution: Seven glasses of wine and a bike ride home isn’t exactly the best idea… but I survived to tell the story.
Any place is better with the right person
Is Denmark the happiest country? I think it could be. But mostly, I can stay confidently, my experience was made better thanks to having found a Dane of my own. I sort of hate myself for becoming one of those people who posts about her boyfriend on Instagram, especially after I spend so many years envious — and judgmental — of my friends who did the same. But the truth is, when you’ve found your travel buddy who you can survive four weeks of non-stop travel with — you’re excited to tell the world. And of course, to get back out there in it, forever in the pursuit of a new adventure.
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