Why the Danish Mermaid is happier than the Merlion

Why the Danish Mermaid is happier than the Merlion

SINGAPORE - Earlier this month, the World Happiness Report once again ranked cold and unspectacular Denmark the happiest nation in the world. Singapore is in 30th place, though it can boast to be the happiest in Asia (excluding the Middle East).

The standard of living in both countries is high. Singapore is 4th in the world in GDP per capita. Denmark is 16th. Singapore has about 5.3 million inhabitants, slightly less than the 5.6 million Danes.

But when you look at the level of income inequality, Denmark's is among the lowest in the world and Singapore's one of the highest among the advanced economies.

In my journeys to the land of Lego, the Ugly Duckling, the Little Mermaid and "probably the best beer in the world", I have observed some unique traits that may indicate what makes the Danes happy.


Danes tend to focus on what they have rather than what they don't have. They don't expect to get happier by buying a bigger house or the latest Louis Vuitton. They are happy with their small homes and bikes.

Spending money and time with people they care about and creating rich memories are more important to Danes.

An egalitarian society (Janteloven)

Danes believe in the principle that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities. The term Janteloven means "You are not better than me (so be humble and don't show off)".

From the bus driver to the corporate CEO, everyone takes pride in their work and does not feel inferior.

Practising Janteloven releases the pressure to acquire more and more materialistic symbols of success.

Danes do not have "Tiger moms" who push their kids to choose professions that seem more respectable. This allows people to make their passion in life their profession regardless of how well it pays.


It is an irony that in cold Denmark, people display warmth to strangers while in tropical Singapore, people often avoid connection.

The Danes are super friendly people. They greet you when you establish eye contact with them.

In Singapore, people often look the other way or at their mobile devices, trying to avoid any exchange of smiles and greetings, depriving themselves of the emotional health benefits of making social connections.

Welfare system

Denmark has a strong social safety net that gives people a sense of security and peace of mind. It's not surprising that the nation's stress levels are low.

Although they pay one of the highest tax rates worldwide, the Danes are entitled to free quality education, medical services and elder care. Unemployment benefits are also good.


The Danes believe that, in general, most people can be trusted. Shopkeepers can display merchandise outside the shop without fear of it being stolen.

To the astonishment of tourists, Danish parents feel secure in leaving their children outside in a carriage while mum and dad enjoy delicious Danish pastries and cappuccino inside the cafe.


One of the things I adore most about the Danes is Hygge, a fundamental aspect of their culture which literally means cosiness, but is so much more than that.

It is the art of creating intimacy, allowing friendship and camaraderie to bloom.

It's about being fully present, connected and content, and involves relaxing with good friends and loved ones around the dinner table or in the living room.


This is the Danish word for happiness at work. The Danes know that being happy in your work has positive benefits for everyone. People expect and take part in making the workplace a fun place to spend time in.

Available time and hobbies

The Danes recognise the need for free time and hobbies. They do not work and shop round the clock. They make time to get outside, enjoy nature, pursue hobbies and be involved in associations. On weekends, kids do not go for extra tuition.

So what can the Merlion learn from the Mermaid?

The Danes teach us to be content with what we have, to count our blessings and accept reality.

It's about striving to be the best we can be, and enjoying the journey along the way without tormenting ourselves about what we could have been or could have done.

The Danes show us that happiness comes from feeling equal, having freedom of choice, being connected, loved and welcome. And that when we are contributing and giving to others, we feel happier.

They tell us to be part of building a "happiness at work" culture.

Most of all, they teach us what a lot of research has confirmed - that investing in experiences, giving and relationships, rather than material goods, makes humans happier.

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