February 2, 2022
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the most recent issue of Finance & Development.
By her own count, Cordelia Chesnutt has taken at least 32 COVID tests. A negative test was a requirement each time she wanted to pursue her side passion of playing badminton once Denmark lifted its lockdowns.
The tests, free and easy to schedule, were a small price to pay, she said, for ensuring the safety of others and, especially, maintaining a bit of happiness during the pandemic. It was also, to a large extent, an example of how many people in Denmark see their actions as a part of a collective effort.
Whether it’s based in enlightened self-interest or pure altruism, social trust is paramount in Denmark. Citizens trust that the government will enact policies in the public’s interest. Government trusts that citizens will maintain the social fabric. People trust that their fellow Danes will do what is required for the greater good. This social phenomenon played out during the pandemic, leading to a remarkably successful effort at stemming the virus at a relatively low human cost.
“It’s that I want to be safe, and it requires that everyone else follows the same rules and we trust that our government won’t go too far,” says Chesnutt, a 36-year-old Dane who works as a consultant on refugee issues.
Researchers often point to trust as the most important cultural trait when explaining Denmark’s consistent top rankings on various measures of happiness and contentment. Rooted within society’s trust is the country’s robust social welfare system, providing generous unemployment, free health care and higher education, and heavily subsidized childcare.
“Essentially with all the social support from the government, you’re redistributing a lot of money to strangers, and we know people are not likely to vote for that kind of system if they don’t have at least some degree of trust in strangers,” says Christian Bjørnskov, a professor of economics at Denmark’s Aarhus University.
Bjørnskov, who recently published a book called Happiness in the Nordic World, said the cultural trait of trust is almost unique to Danish and other Nordic societies. But he argues that it’s not necessarily the extensive social welfare that makes Danes content or happy but rather a combination of trust, tolerance, strong institutions, a long history of economic development, and a resilient democracy.
Happiness and trust
In at least one Danish town, officials have used happiness as a measure for setting an agenda. In 2014, the council of the picturesque fishing village of Dragør, near the capital city of Copenhagen, acted on a survey of its residents.
“We wanted to see what our community’s priorities are, what are their dreams and, basically, what makes them happy,” says Eik Dahl Bidstrup, who was mayor at the time.
The study, done in conjunction with the Denmark-based Happiness Research Institute, found the town’s citizens wanted better infrastructure for their leisure time. The research resulted in the construction of a new indoor swimming center, improvements to the town’s sports facilities, more programming for senior citizens, and improvements to public space in the town’s historic center and harbor.
“It’s a lot about work-life balance. Work is very important to us, but our free time is just as important. It’s an important priority for the community leaders to make sure there are good facilities, good possibilities for people to use their spare time,” says Bidstrup, now the chairman of Krifa, a Danish labor union.
A lack of corruption is also key to a high level of trust.
“We don’t have a corrupt political system. Most people have confidence in the political system,” says Mogens Lykketoft, a member of the Danish Parliament who in the 1990s oversaw major tax and labor reforms as the country’s longest-serving finance minister.
It is this lack of corruption, a long tradition of consensus building (no single party has held a majority since the early 1900s), and general efficiency of government services that allow most people in Denmark to accept high tax rates, he said.
“There is also underlying understanding of the fact that what the government provides in services for education, childcare, old-age care, health is more or less a contribution either to the efficiency of the business community or to the efficiency of the labor market,” Lykketoft says.
Still, the system faces challenges. Difficulties integrating immigrants and refugees into the labor market and the perceived strain on the social welfare system have been an argument for reducing social benefits, Lykketoft concedes. Although the government has put in place initiatives to address this challenge, the resulting debate over immigration has eroded trust in some corners of society.
During the pandemic, however, the country remained united, and policies to contain the virus averted the politicization that plagued many other democracies.
Michael Bang Petersen, a professor of political science at Aarhus University, led alooking at how democracies reacted and coped with the pandemic. The project surveyed more than 400,000 people in Denmark and seven other countries. It showed that high and stable trust in Denmark’s health authorities was a key reason for the country’s success. More than 75 percent of eligible citizens as of late October were fully vaccinated. At the height of the pandemic, more than 60 percent of the adult population was being tested each week.
“I was a little bit worried when the test system was being rolled out. Is this something that people will see as an infringement on their rights?” Petersen says. “People instead saw it as something you did for each other. I’m being tested not because the state says that I need to be tested, but I am being tested so that I protect you, so that we can get back to a normal way of life much faster.”
The experience from the pandemic has only reinforced the country’s overall high levels of trust both in terms of people trusting the government (the survey found over 90 percent of Danes trust national health authorities) and vice versa.
“There is increasing evidence that there is a tight relationship between the functioning of political institutions and social trust,” says Petersen. “Essentially you come to trust your fellow citizens when you know the political institutions in your country have your back if something goes wrong.”
Adam Behsudi is on the staff of Finance & Development.
Read the entire Winter 2021 health issue of Finance & Development.