Saturday, 20 August 2011

The Pursuit of Happiness

The Constitution only guarantees the American people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself. ~Author unknown, commonly attributed to Benjamin Franklin

I meant to write this a long time ago, and then I decided I wasn’t going to write it at all, and now I’ve decided that it doesn’t feel right to leave my blog “incomplete” so I will write this post, then lay my blog to rest.

Before I left, and even throughout my year, I got asked a lot why I chose Denmark. Most of the time I half laughed, and said, “Well, it’s the happiest country in the world.” And then left it at that. But the reasons behind my choice were so much bigger, and many times throughout my year I questioned my reasoning, but now, after being home nearly two months, I think I’ve come to peace with everything.

I chose Denmark because yes, it is the happiest country the world. But even bigger than that, I was so curious how they could possibly be happy living in small houses and driving fuel efficient cars and paying so much for everything. I wanted to find out what exactly makes a country happy. At the time of country selection, in January 2010, I was also itching for more than what I had. I went to a very small high school where most of the kids were pretty conservative, and I wanted more. So when I heard how much freedom Danish teenagers had, that appealed to me in a really big way. The Danish culture seemed like one I could see myself fitting into.

So what does make Denmark the happiest country in the world? I can’t officially answer that, but I can give my opinion. And because I’m sure some people won’t agree with me, I will clarify that again. It is my opinion based on what I observed and experienced throughout my year. Nobody has to agree with what I write.

Danes are content. They are not greedy, they are not always wishing for more. Most of them are very happy with the lives they have. In Canada, the wealthy have huge houses and fancy cars, the middle class have average houses in nice neighborhoods and drive one or two practical cars, and the lower class live in smaller houses in less desirable areas and maybe drive one lower end car. In Denmark, you can’t really look at someones house and car and immediately tell how much they make. Of course there are exceptions, but for the most part, everyone lives on basically the same level. This eliminates a lot of the competition and stress that North Americans face.

Imagine, if you weren’t always wishing for a better paying job, or a nicer house, or a fancier car, would you be happier?

Something I figured out about half way through the year though, is that while Danes are happy people, if you took a group of North Americans and plopped them down in Denmark, I don’t think they would be as happy. I imagine my family of four living in my last host families apartment. We would literally tear each other apart. Sharing one bathroom, Jackson and I sharing a bedroom, a kitchen the barely fits three people. Many Canadians are spoiled with the amount of space we have per person, and if we were all of a sudden crammed so close together, I don’t see us being as content as the Danes are. Even for me, I did not particularly enjoy living in such close quarters, and I had to keep reminding myself, “This is part of the experience, in three months you will be back in your own house where you have the entire basement to yourself.” Yes, this sounds bratty and spoiled, but it is how I’ve been raised. And it is how I hope to raise my kids if I am able to do so. I love my family, but I could never live somewhere where we are always running into each other. I’d feel like I couldn’t breath. But I guess this is one the reasons why Canadian’s are not as happy as Danes.

Another big thing, is that Danes are basically taken care of. They pay very high taxes, but they have free health care, university is free, and the elderly are taken care of. It’s not like here, where the rich are taken care of, and the poor are on their own. In Denmark people don’t have to stress about money in the same way we do here.

Furthermore, on the note of not stressing, Denmark is not nearly as competitive as Canada. Danish kids do not have to compete with their peers to get into university. And even more, Danes do not know the stress of figuring out a way to pay for university. Higher education is a given for them, and sitting here as a soon-to-be grade 12 who’s mind is full of getting into and then paying for university, if I didn’t have that stress, I can say I would be a much happier person.

Happiness is not shown in the way I imagined it would be, and I think you have to spend a fair amount of time in Denmark to really see it. Danes are really people, they have problems, they have bad days, and don’t get my wrong, they certainly do have stresses in their lives. But this being said, even with all of the day to day problems they might have, I do believe that it can be argued that they live better lives than we do here. But again, how happy you are in Denmark depends on how you’ve been raised and what you value in life.

Basically, in conclusion, I did see a bit of what makes them so happy, and I have learnt a fair bit about how I can live a “happier” life, but a lot of what I saw I cannot apply to my life here in Canada. Sadly it just doesn’t work like that. I am still doomed to suffer the same stressed and worries and that everyone before me did, but I least I know what a simpler life looks like, and am confident that if I choose to be happy, then despite all of the bumps in the road, then I will be happy.

My second “pull” to Denmark, was the freedom. And that did not disappoint. I loved being treated like an adult. I loved how adults talked to me like I was an equal. In North American adults talk down to kids, whether they notice it or not. I also loved how 16 year olds pretty much had the same freedom as 18 year olds. I could go out to bars in Copenhagen and come strolling in a sunrise and no one ever said anything. It was a great way to live. I also loved the trust people had in me. I loved that at school parties were are allowed to drink and they trusted us not abuse the privilege, and for the most part no one did. It is something that would just not work in Canada.

I went to Denmark in the pursuit of happiness, and maybe I didn't find it in the way that I thought I would, but I certainly did find it in all the friends I made, and the families I lived with, and the amazing life that I was so lucky to live. The happiness I felt in Denmark was something I had never felt in Canada. It was a cozy content-ness. I found happiness in drinking tea with my host family, sitting in the park with my friends, watching movies with Simone, hugs from my Danish mom and counsellor. I discovered happiness in the the warmth of the sun after 5 long months of darkness, and looking over the ocean at the coast of Sweden. At going to Rotary meetings and the days I spent with Candice. It was the little things that made me happy, and I hope I can continue living like that, finding happiness and content-ness in the little things in life. It is just an amazing way to live. You see things in such a different light when you are not constantly wanting more, and you take notice in all of the little, but still amazing, things in your life.

Denmark is an amazing country, and despite some of the parts of the culture that I didn’t like, I overall fell in love with the country. I would go back in a heartbeat. And I plan to, someday.

So what is next for me? I start school in a little under two weeks. I have decided to start at a new school for Grade 12, for a variety of reasons. I’m hoping to graduate in June, but there is the chance it won’t happen until next December. Who knows, and ultimately, who cares.

As for travel, who knows? Exchange was such a huge part of my life for so many years now, and now that it’s over and done with, I’m not entirely sure what to do next. I want to go back to Denmark at some point. I’m hoping to au pair there next year, if I finish school in time. I fell in love with the country and most of the culture and just in general with the Danish way of life, not to mention I love my Danish family so much, and I miss them more than I ever thought I could miss someone I’d only know for eleven months. I miss my counsellor and her no bullshit advice and awesome personality. And I miss all of my friends and the amazing times we had together. It took traveling half way around the world to find what I always felt was missing, and to meet people who I connected to in such a deep way.

This adventure is over now though, and it’s time to focus on my next task, nailing Grade 12.

And then who knows. Maybe in the Spring I will do a post about where I am then. University? Traveling? Au pairing? Or something entirely different?

I’m off to Boston in November to visit Emma, and then I can only hope that next fall is Denmark.

So now I am ready to officially put this piece of exchange to rest. Thanks so much to everyone who followed my journey, and if you have any questions or anything, please feel free to email me.

If you are my Danish family or friends reading this, please know I love you so much and miss you so much and hope that you stay a part of my life forever. You guys mean far too much to me to ever lose.

If you are an exchange student, have the time of your life. Exchange will change you in ways you can’t even imagine.

And if you are someone else, thanks for following my adventure and I hope you maybe learnt a bit about Denmark through my posts.

Lots of love from somewhere between Canada and Denmark,



  1. <3. don't really know what else to say. i guess we talked eachothers ears off about this for a week so i don't have to say much haha. besides that you should be a writer.

  2. really good post :D i love that you love Denmark :)

    -Laura from Denmark ;)