Happiness is that quirky, elusive emotion that the Declaration of Independence maintains we have every right to pursue. And we do pursue it: we are suckers for an endless stream of self-help books that promise a carefree existence for a mere $24.95; and television hucksters of every kind claim they have the key to Nirvana. So the happiness business, at least, is one big smiley face.
As for the rest of us, as correspondent Morley Safer first reported last winter, the main scientific survey of international happiness carried out by Leicester University in England ranks the U.S. a distant 23rd, well behind Canada and Costa Rica. But you'll be pleased to know we beat Iraq and Pakistan.
And the winner, once again, is Denmark.
Over the past 30 years, in survey after survey, this nation of five and a half million people, the land that produced Hans Christian Andersen, the people who consume herring by the ton, consistently beat the rest of the world in the happiness stakes. It's hard to figure: the weather is only so-so, they are heavy drinkers and smokers, their neighbors, the Norwegians, are richer, and their other neighbors, the Swedes, are healthier.
So it's ironic or something that the unhappiest man in history, or at least literary history, was that Prince of Denmark, Hamlet.
Of course Hamlet had every right to be depressed. After all, his uncle murdered his father and seduced and married his mother and was an all around perfect scoundrel. But Hamlet aside, what makes a Dane so happy and why isn't he wallowing in misery and self-doubt like so many of the rest of us?
That's a question that also intrigued Professor Kaare Christensen at the University of Southern Denmark.
"If you ask people on the street where they think the happiest country in the world, they'll say, you know, like, tropical islands and nice places, like Italy or Spain. Places with nice weather and good food. But in Europe, they're actually the most unhappy people," Dr. Christensen explains.
So Christensen and a team of researchers tried to discover just why Denmark finds itself on top of the happiness heap.
"We made fun of it by suggesting it could be because blondes have more fun. But then we could prove that the Swedes have more blondes than the Danes, and they were not as happy. So we tested different hypotheses," Christensen says.
After careful study, Christensen thinks he isolated the key to Danish anti-depression. "What we basically figured out that although the Danes were very happy with their life, when we looked at their expectations they were pretty modest," he says.
By having low expectations, one is rarely disappointed.
Christensen's study was called "Why Danes Are Smug," and essentially his answer was it's because they're so glum and get happy when things turn out not quite as badly as they expected. "And I was thinking about, What if it was opposite? That Denmark made the worst, number 20, and another country was number one. I'm pretty sure the Danish television would have said, 'Well, number 20's not too bad. You know it's still in the top 25, that's not so bad,'" he says.
History may also play a role in the country's culture of low expectations. If you go to the government's own Web site, it proudly proclaims "the present configuration of the country is the result of 400 years of forced relinquishments of land, surrenders and lost battles."
Could it be that the true secret of happiness is a swift kick in the pants, or a large dose of humiliation?