The little known secret behind Danish happiness

Last week CNBC ran a program on why Danish and Nordic people are so happy.

They focused a lot on the work-life balance and the concept of well-being. For a long time I too wondered what made Danes seem so contented. It couldn’t be the food, weather or taxes, so why did they always seem so cheery?

Ask a Dane how they think the weather is when it is freezing, grey and raining outside, and they will unwittingly answer: “Well it’s a good thing I’m at work” or “Glad I am not on holiday” or “There isn’t bad weather, only bad clothing.”

Try to get them to focus on anything really negative and you might be surprised by the clever twist in their language and outlook.


Eternal optimists

Whilst researching for ‘The Danish Way of Parenting’, I discovered that the Danes are what psychologists would call ‘realistic optimists’. That is: they use ‘reframing’ to view almost every aspect of life. Reframing is the ability to see the big picture and focus on the less negative aspects of a situation while not negating the negative. Let me give an example.

Imagine you are in an art gallery looking at a painting. The mood is dark and sombre. You see a mean man and a helpless woman. You conclude that it is a negative picture and start to move on.

But the guide stops you to point out that there are other subtle details in the picture you hadn’t even noticed. There are jovial people arriving in the background bearing gifts. The man has dropped something on his foot, which is why he looks mean, and the woman feels bad for him. There is a sweet child giggling in the corner, and the light streaming through the window is extraordinary.

In the very same picture there are many other things to focus on that change your entire experience of the picture. With practice the ability to ‘reframe’ – to find these more positive storylines – becomes easier, and the key to finding them is you.


High resilience

Reframing has been strongly linked to resilience, and it has now become such a sought-after skill in the US that numerous organisations are training their staff in this invaluable skill.

Dean M Becker, the founder of resilience firm Adaptive Learning Systems, explains: “More than education, more than experience and more than training, a person’s level of resilience will determine who succeeds and who fails. That’s true in the cancer ward, that’s true in the Olympics and that’s true in the boardroom.”

Danes don’t have to train in reframing because it’s so engrained in their culture. They pass it on to their children who do it naturally as adults. This ability, I believe, is one of the little-known secrets to their happiness. It’s not only the work-life balance that matters, it’s how we choose to describe it.

If a picture paints a thousand words, then try to choose those words carefully. How you frame the pictures of your life could make all the difference to how you feel about it.

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