04/15/2009 10:58 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Danish Happiness...Does It All Come Down To A Green Commute?

Once again, the Danes come out on top in the 2008 World Values Survey's happiness statistics. How is it that this chilly, windy nation of five-and-a-half million souls has climbed to the top again and again during the survey's 27-year history?

The survey's creator, University of Michigan political scientist Ronald Inglehart says that democratic freedoms, gender equality, and a tolerant society as much as financial security are responsible for both the world's increasing happiness(!) and also Denmark's number one spot.

Ingelhart doesn't dispute that a certain level of economic prosperity translates into well-being for a society's citizens - you can't be happy if you are hungry - though continual financial increases don't continue to propel happiness upward. Particularly in richer societies, and especially if you've always enjoyed having your basic needs met, your social values shift a bit - you crave more tolerance and personal freedom, and you, Inglehart says, also begin to place more value on the environment.

That seems certainly true for the Danes. Of course there are a lot of factors that go into happiness. You can actually sense some of those factors when walking the fairly-clean streets of Copenhagen, or even Århus, the country's next largest city. People look like they have what they need (and know there's a social net for times of need); transport works; bicycles abound. And the sun, when it shines, shines on a rainbow-colored society where gender and race equality may not be perfect but are worked toward.

Photo credit spi516 @ flickr

How do we all get what the Danes have already got? It may not be just a question of striving toward a goal (though it's that, too) but a question of attitude. Some people have said the Danes are happy because they have low expectations, but the opposite seems true. Danes seem to expect their government will do the right thing. They seem to assume that bike lanes and bike safety will keep being improved, organic food will keep filling the grocery shelves, green spaces will be expanded.

That self-assurance - that good can and will happen - is an important part of happiness. Much of the environmental message of the last two decades has been non-stop doom-and-gloom, not unreasonably. But getting people to value a green future needs equal parts continuous improvement and sweeping green vision.

About the same time back in the '70s that Inglehart started making his surveys, the Danes decided that creeping traffic congestion had a better, and a happier solution than big roads and more cars. Through a combination of disincentives (sky-high car taxes) and incentives (great bike culture) they moved steadily toward the present, in which bike commuters overtook car commuters recently.

Lots and lots and lots of Danes don't have cars and never will - but they aren't unhappy, in fact they are happiness champs. Happiness may be nothing more or less than good food, a social safety net, and a green commute.

More from TreeHugger on Green Commuting
::In Copenhagen, Bicycles Overtake Cars
::Ride On: High Heels Are No Excuse
::Sexy Cycling NYC?
::Bikes Faster Than Subway or Car, Seven Years Running
::A Picture Is Worth...Danish Bike Paths