Until the summer of 2017, Denmark was considered the happiest country in the world. It was only recently dethroned of this title by Norway, but just barely. In fact, Scandinavian countries occupy the top six spots on this list, with Canada and New Zealand trailing just behind them. You might think that happiness is a difficult thing to measure and rank, but The UN has found a way. The World Happiness Report uses six different metrics to help rank the happiest countries in the world: GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and trust. According to this report, Danes are generally considered happy people because they live in a country where most of their needs are met. We decided that we wanted to hear firsthand what makes Denmark the happiest country in the world, so we asked some Danish students what happiness meant to them.
“Danish people are confident, reasonably happy, and there’s a sense of trust in society,” explains Pastor Niels Eriksen. “These things are good, and a blessing... but [they] also disguise the fragility and vulnerability of human life."
One word you’re bound to hear when talking about the happiness of Danes is “hygge” (pronounced hoo-guh). “Hygge is doing small things in your everyday life to make it more enjoyable,” explains Nermeen, a Communications and IT student at the University of Copenhagen. “Like drinking hot cocoa and talking with friends, it’s taking time to make life more cosy and comfortable.”
Oliver is another student at the University of Copenhagen, and says that for him happiness comes from a lack of stress in your life. “If I lose my job, I’m not going to have to leave my home immediately. I have several factors that can help me. That’s a big part of it.”
“People are very secure,” explains Jacob, another student at the University of Copenhagen. “I think it’s great that I can study whatever I want without having to pay for it. I don’t believe in purpose or meaning in life in a spiritual way -- just in doing whatever you enjoy and not being stressed.”
The most common sentiment was that friends, family, security, and a lack of stress are the biggest factors that contributed towards the happiness of Danes. If health, happiness, and hygge is all they need, is there any room left for Jesus?
"Are we helping them to really consider the fragility of their lives and the fact that they’re going to die and meet their God, or giving them a deep gratitude for what they have received from God?”
The historic roots of Christianity run very deep in Denmark, which in part explains why a secular country is so reluctant to ditch Christianity. The seventy to eighty per cent of Danes that belong to the church voluntarily pay them a portion of their taxes despite a resistance to the central doctrines of Christianity. And though Danes are resistant to the core beliefs of the church, you’re unlikely to find them combative or antagonistic when it comes to faith.
“Danes are generally reasonably polite people,” says Eriksen. “There may be an element of fascination,” he explains when asked how people respond to what Christians believe. “Like, ‘Wow, how can you believe that in this world and in our time.’”
"There’s a lot of work to be done in our country to bridge the gap and communicate a Christian faith in God as a creator in relation to the scientific narrative of the development of life.”
Particularly in neighbourhoods like Vesterbro, where Apostelkirken is located, doctrines are not popular. The neighbourhood is composed mainly of young actors, artists, painters, filmmakers, and creative types in general. Eriksen notes that while this demographic can appreciate some of the beauty in the stories of Christianity, they don’t see them as anything more than that.
Eriksen recounted a conversation he had with someone with a theatre background who wanted to get baptised because he loved the myth of Christianity.
“I asked, ‘What do you mean myth?’ He said ‘You know, all about the man dying and rising again. It’s beautiful! It’s like spring. Things die and rise up again.’ So I said to him ‘Listen, there is a historical element to our faith and the resurrection. It’s not just a myth… It’s something that actually happened. And if [the resurrection] didn’t happen, it is no longer Christianity.’ He asked me, ‘Do you really want me to believe that this is actually true? If I don’t believe that, can I not be a Christian?’ I said ‘If you can’t believe in the resurrection, then I don’t think you can [be a Christian].’”
During this conversation Eriksen could see the sincerity in the man’s eyes, and the pain it caused him that he could not accept the resurrection as truth. “But that was the moment when I realized just how difficult it is for people living in this kind of spiritual atmosphere to really take in the gospel. There’s a lot of work to be done in our country to bridge the gap and communicate a Christian faith in God as a creator in relation to the scientific narrative of the development of life.”
The challenges of evangelism in Denmark is something churches regularly experience, but it can be even more jarring to a student flying in for a week as part of a mission trip. In fact, Eriksen believes that short-term missions trips to Denmark won’t work unless there is partnership with the local churches and fellowship, and a desire to invest long-term in relationships with Danes.
“I think this is the one of the characteristics of the Danish population, that they don’t want to be preached to,” Eriksen notes. There is the belief that “whoever comes and wants me [to] believe what they believe, they are imposing themselves on me and we don’t like that. I think [it] is surprising for foreigners coming to Denmark trying to evangelise because very often they feel rejected.”
But Eriksen disagrees with the notion that this experience means the spiritual climate in Denmark is particularly bad, because that is not the whole truth. What is needed is an attitude of cultural sensitivity, and the understanding that patience is the key word when it comes to evangelism in Denmark. When someone comes on a short-term mission trip, the hope is that a long-term vision for the country is caught, and that the short-term experience inspires people to pray about how they can invest more deeply in helping Danish students discover Jesus.
Churches like Apostelkirken have realized that Danes are particularly receptive to engaging with faith when there are opportunities to give practical help to those in need.
“If you go back 10 years ago, there would be an attendance of about 50 people or probably less in this church. Then we [developed] this ministry that was focused on prisoners, ex-parishioners and asylum seekers and refugees, and we saw Danes start coming in greater numbers…” says Eriksen. “It becomes more easy for Danes... they feel it’s easier to come sit here on the same bench as an asylum seeker. If a fellowship is inclusive for vulnerable people, it also by default becomes inclusive for the Danish people as well.”
For more on Power to Change - Students, Denmark, and our other international partnerships please visit:
Author: Patrick Erskine
Reporting by: Erin Ford, Alexandria Ramoutar
Photography by: Mark Christy, Bowen Lu, Benjamin Ng, Danielle Sum, Adrian Tamminga, Gabriel Ting, Deborah W
Designer: Deborah W
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