Is Aarhus the happiest city in the world?
Denmark took the top spot on the United Nations World Happiness Report in both 2013 and 2014 and came in third for 2015. It has also been judged as happy in research done by Gallup, the World Values Survey, and the European Social Survey.
As the Happiness Research Institute explains, “Denmark is among the world’s happiest countries. This is in part due to the existence of a strong civil society, a well-functioning democracy, a high degree of security, trust, freedom, and prosperity, together with good working conditions that allow room for a balanced life.”
Denmark’s youngest population
In Aarhus, there’s a rainbow on top of an art museum. The historical village has a 1970s neighborhood that celebrates the good life of that time, complete with a hair salon where you can check the mirror to see if that beehive hairstyle really does suit you. Oh, and it’s also known as “The City of Smiles.”
Located on the eastern shore of the Jutland peninsula, Aarhus is Denmark’s second largest city. Thanks to Aarhus University, it also has the country’s highest concentration of students, and that makes it the city with the youngest population. In 2017, Aarhus will be the European Capital of Culture and will organize events around the theme RETHINK. The aim is to establish a cultural laboratory and progressive mindset where innovation and alternative solutions can flourish.
For a city of 300,000, Aarhus has a large variety of restaurants, from Michelin-starred to those featuring both traditional and trendy Nordic cuisine. I ate Danish smørrebrød, Latin American empanadas, Nordic tapas, Mexican finger food, vegetarian salads, and the best hamburger I’ve had in a long time.
It all sounds just a bit too perfect, doesn’t it?
Flying into the airport, you see perfectly manicured and lush green fields filled with wheat and cows beside pine forests. Entering the city center, you can’t help but see that rainbow. It’s actually a work of art called “Your Rainbow Panorama” on top of ARoS, the Aarhus Art Museum. It was created specifically for the museum by the Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson.
The rainbow isn’t just eye candy for the city skyline, though. It’s a 15-meter-round glass walkway done in all of the colors of the spectrum. That means you can walk inside the rainbow, under it, and even look out over the city through rainbow-colored eyes.
On the day I visited, school kids were running through the rainbow, taking selfies, pressing themselves against the glass to look straight down to the ground, and laughing. It was so good that I came back the next day to admire it all over again.
While we were still on a happy roll from the museum, we went to see Den Gamle By, or the Old Town. This open-air museum has a collection of Danish buildings dating from 1597 onward that were brought together into a village where you can eat, drink, and in general sneak a peek into what life was like in the past.
It’s all very educational and interesting, but what gives this museum a bit of an attitude is the 1974 neighborhood where you can get your groove on and see what the latest albums were at the record shop or try out the hair salon.
“Closeness to the sea and the forest makes us happy”
Something nice kept happening in Aarhus. People were smiling and friendly and approached us to help. When puzzling over what our Nordic tapas were at lunch, a woman at a neighboring table came over to explain what everything was.
And it wasn’t just her. We kept witnessing this concern for others.
At newly opened Kaffe 8, co-owner Karina Roermand Jensen explained her motivation for opening the small restaurant: “We wanted to create a less expensive place for families to go out. Here in Aarhus, we are a big small city. We know each other and are concerned about our neighbors.”
No matter who I talked to, I got a similar story. Everyone said they were happy because they were close to the sea and the forest.
Did they all take the same happy pill and follow the instructions: take one a day, be nice to your neighbors, visit the sea, walk in the woods, and smile?
Happiness is in the culture
For detailed local insight into happiness, I met with Aarhus native Mads Munk, founder and owner of Aarhus M2 Film with offices in Aarhus, Copenhagen, London, and Bangkok. M2Film is a film, TV, advertising, and animation company that creates commercials and creative content for such companies as LEGO, Coca-Cola, and Samsung.
In his two-story office space with panoramic views of the water, there is a mix of modern Danishdesigner tables with vintage couches and chairs. LEGO planes, rockets, and dinosaurs perch on desks, and a full-size Star Wars storm trooper welcomes you, too. There’s also a video room with a bar and beer on tap and even a loft space where you can take a nap.
In short, it’s a place you want to hang out in. The office space oozes creativity as well as that fashionable Danish coolness.
“It’s hard to say exactly how you build a happy office,” Munk says. “For one thing, the details matter. If you’re here, I will make the coffee first thing. I want to make it nice for you".
“Happiness here is in the culture. When one designer is late with his work and one is finished, it’s very natural for the other to come over to ask, ‘Can I help you’ and then stay an extra hour or two to help. That kind of responsibility between human beings is very respectful."
“Another part of the culture is when a client has a problem, we think about solving the problem, and that is so appreciated. We must be doing something right as we’ve had almost the same clients for the last eight years.”
‘Here in Aarhus, we are a big small city. We know each other and are concerned about our neighbors’
But how do you cultivate this kind of atmosphere?
“‘Treat everyone as if they matter’ is something my mother says, and I try to do just that. I talk to anyone from the queen to the garbage man in the same way. You have to be a good example for how to treat other people.
“I would say we have an honest environment here. We make mistakes and hopefully learn from them. It’s also about taking things to the next step and not just accepting them as they are.”
Does creativity play a part in your happiness?
“Having a culture of creativity breeds happiness,” he continues. “To have a creative space, there needs to be a ‘why not’ attitude. Go wild on the tables and boring on the chairs. You need the boring to challenge the design as well as your eye and soul.
“When you are from the outside, it’s easier to create this kind of environment. We are not going to beat the world, but we are going to show the world that the sky’s the limit.”
Is there something special about happiness in Denmark?
“I think Scandinavia is happy in general. As for Denmark, maybe it is a little bit freer and more accepting socially.
“This is where I was born and raised, and I love it here,” Munk says. “I don’t even complain about the taxes.”
The expert’s view
To get a more scientific view, I consulted Christian Bjørnskov, professor of economics at Aarhus University. Bjørnskov is a happiness expert and even wrote his dissertation on the subject.
“Research show that what makes the Danes so happy is that they are very trusting of people they don’t know,” he says. “Trust helps make people happy. Also just as importantly, Danes feel empowered to be able to change something in their life if they don’t like it.
“I think trust translates into a deeper satisfaction both because it means that there are worries that people don’t need to have, and because it changes the way they interact with each other. In particular, if you trust people as much as the Danes – or Swedes and Norwegians – do, relations with strangers are uncomplicated and easy. It also translates into wanting to help others. The reason is quite simply that you expect others to help you if you’re in need of help.
“The great thing about Danish society is that it doesn’t judge other people’s lives. It allows them to choose the kind of life they want to live, which is sometimes not always possible in other countries, so this helps add to the overall satisfaction of people living here.”
I decided to check out the suggestions from the locals on what to do in town. So I went to the opening day of Sculpture by the Sea, an outdoor art exhibition that is set up on a three-kilometer-long stretch of coastline every other year.
About 60 unique sculptures from around the world in various shapes, sizes, and materials were on the beach, in the sea, on the water’s edge, and in the forest. The exhibit was free, and you could visit it any time during the day or night for a month.
The day I visited was a holiday and the sun was shining, so people were picnicking, walking, jogging, and just hanging out with the sculptures. Depending on the piece and if you were allowed to, people were sitting and climbing on and under the sculptures and even kissing one.
Modeled on a concept from Australia that started in Sydney in 1997, Danish Crown Princess Mary, who is from Australia, brought the idea to Denmark together with her husband, Crown Prince Frederik. While not every sculpture was to my taste, it was one of the better art exhibits I’ve been to in a long time, both thought-provoking and fun.
By happy accident, there was also a travel, shopping, and culture festival going on, and the theme of the event was “Explore the World with Aarhus.” Basically, it was a giant street party concentrated on the pedestrian shopping street, Strøget.
There was an Italian market, Spanish dancing, and performers singing opera, rock, blues, and even gospel music. Stores were open until midnight and had tables and racks of sale goods, and there was even a man building a LEGO version of Graceland in a store window.
Not surprisingly, both events were fun.
From Bjørnskov I learned that the “city of smiles” term was actually coined by the local tourist association in 1938. “At the time, people thought it was a bit ridiculous, but it caught on,” he says.
“I think the specific view of Aarhus as a happy place is mainly an advertisement phenomenon. However, Aarhus is a very ‘livable’ city – there’s plenty of culture for its size, and the city center is both nice and sufficiently varied. On the other hand, there’s no evidence that nature and proximity to forests and the sea are important.
“Finally, I think it’s extremely difficult to create a culture of happiness,” Bjørnskov says. “It’s not difficult to destroy cultures, but creating something that was not there in the first place has proved almost impossible. You can make sure that the environment is there in terms of good institutions – independent courts, police, and so on – but you can’t force people to like it.”
As for me, I learned that the Danes, much like their Scandinavian counterparts, do many things right in terms of happiness, and there’s a fundamental satisfaction with life in this part of the world. We did meet a lot of happy, friendly people in Aarhus.
But it was a long holiday weekend and the sun was shining, so I couldn’t help but wonder how the Danes stay happy when it gets cold and dark. I asked Munk about how he maintains the happy life in the winter.
“Well, I do like the rest of Scandinavia and take a trip somewhere warm.”
Text: Sandra Carpenter
Published: August 20, 2015
Last edited: February 11, 2016