I just returned from a journey through Scandinavia, and the trek was very enlightening.

As I worked my way through the region, I was struck by the overt competition between neighboring Norway and Denmark. Was it about trade? Was it about productivity or about highest standard of living? No, rather the two countries vie for the highest ranking as Happiest Country on Earth. And, believe me, you can feel it!

The UN creates an annual World Happiness Report, a yearly list of “happiest countries on earth” This is a badge of honor that people from both societies refer to frequently with a great deal of pride (or angst when Denmark lost its status). When it switched from Denmark to Norway, the Danes I met were very concerned and assured me that Denmark would once again claim the title very soon.

So, you may be wondering, as one of my Danish colleagues put it, “What makes us so damn happy?” Really? What are the elements that would make you say you were delighted with your country?

While we may think of this a whimsical notion, they take it seriously because happiness is not a superficial notion to them (and since the first Report in 2012, governments and other organizations have been using these indicators to help with policy decisions). Happiness is deeply interwoven with their cultural values of Group orientation and Egalitarianism.

If you’re not familiar with CultureWizard’s dimensions of Group and Egalitarianism, here is a quick rundown of them both:

Group orientation refers to the source of a person’s identity and loyalty. Do they view their community or team involvement as equally or more important than their individual rights? What are a person’s roles and responsibilities people to their community? Their team? Their family?

Egalitarianism refers to the way people view power and authority. Do they feel entitled to express themselves freely to others, regardless of their stature in society or are there prescribed levels of status with defined ways of approaching others?

While we know that all individuals are unique and would have various interpretations of why they’re happy, it’s fascinating to contemplate this aspect of our lives. Talk with both Norwegians and Danes and they’ll tell you that they are “content” because crucial aspects of their lives are less stressful than in other countries. It’s what we might call “safety nets” and their societies have strong ones. Health care, free education, adequate job protection if they have family emergencies, and a clean environment all combine to make people feel as if the government is able to provide for many of their basic needs. In other words, they feel safe because basic needs are being met.

Of course, as we all know, Norway and Denmark have relatively high tax rates (38.5%--down from 41.9%--and 55.8%, respectively) and I suspect that Norwegians and Danes are well aware that it’s their neighbors, their colleagues, their fellow citizens, who, in combination, all pay for these services; every member of the society is responsible for the high standard of living they enjoy.

Are people smiling all the time? Well, of course not, but nevertheless, you can feel the sense of well-being. It’s in the abundant, green spaces—communal parks and verdant areas here and there; in the clean streets and obvious care for the environment. Believe me, I was smiling and happy. The notion of a happy culture had never really occurred to me because I don’t think of my country or my culture in that context. I now wonder what would I answer if someone asked me, “What would make your culture move up on the Happiness index?”

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