In the deep darkness of a winter night, there are lights in windows of homes across Copenhagen.
These lights are welcoming beacons, warming the coldness of winter and creating light in the darkness. This is only one action of many that create ‘lykke’ or a level of happiness that has Denmark leading the United Nations annual happiness index.
I recently travelled to this Nordic country and on my journey read The Little Book of Lykke by Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. The book describes how Danish people create a culture of happiness, in their homes, in their communities and, in the case of Denmark, in their country.
The Little Book of Lykke is an interesting read. Not only does it provide a statistical analysis of why happiness is important but it looks at key ingredients that can influence happiness including: togetherness; money; health; freedom; trust and kindness. Each chapter dissects these ingredients and their relationship to engendering happiness. Wiking identifies that a country which invests in togetherness, promotes health and wellbeing, economic equality, and solidarity is a country where citizens are more engaged and increasingly happier. The book also includes happiness tips which are ways of thinking and acting to improve your life, the life of your neighbourhood and your country. He creates a narrative about Denmark that is compelling and one I wanted to confirm on my trip. Did the country really radiate the Lykke described in the book?
The answer is both yes and no. On the surface, Denmark is a welcoming and inviting country. Although my experience was limited to the City of Copenhagen, everyone I met, from colleagues to strangers, were helpful, warm and welcoming. There seemed to be a sense of togetherness with families out in the streets on a cold, January Saturday afternoon. The restaurants and cafes were full of people engaged in conversation. The meetings I attended over the week always included food and drinks and began with time spent allowing everyone to connect with each other. Everyone greeted each other with a big hug.
Denmark, as a country, is well-known for its social democratic spirit which has been their foundation to creating a more equal society. University is free to everyone and students receive a stipend so that they can learn and live at the same time. Health care is also free and social supports are evident. Trains run on time and people move through Copenhagen on a wide variety of bicycles and a smaller number of cars.
It does seem that Denmark has cornered the market on Lykke and there is much that we could learn from their experience. But every positive narrative can also create a shadow narrative. The individuals I met with shared some of the dilemmas they face in community change work. Not everyone feels Lykke and like so many other countries, some citizens are facing more hardship than others. The current conservative government is pulling back on some of the investments in people that had been made by previous governments which is creating a social divide between people.
These sometimes-subtle shifts create schisms between people and their connectedness. They are appearing in Denmark but they are also global trends. As community change leaders, how can we begin to work differently to combat the schisms that are appearing around us?
Paul Born, in the book Deepening Community, calls upon us to know our neighbours, listen to their stories, have fun together and work together for a better world. In many ways, investing in Deepening Community is about building togetherness, trust, and Lykke (happiness). We can learn both from Born and Wiking that simple actions between individuals can create happiness and connectedness but we also must tackle these challenges on a larger scale. The small schisms can easily become wide gulfs.
The UK government recently announced the appointment of a Minister of Loneliness to respond to an emerging trend in that country. Other countries are researching loneliness and disconnection. Perhaps the answer is already evident in countries like Denmark, where citizens are active, engaged and express happiness in daily actions.
We need to shine a light into the darkness and create beacons that welcome our neighbours. We need to uncover the shadows and the schisms that have emerged in the darkness in our communities. Building and rebuilding community is the path forward.