“After staying in Copenhagen for three months, what do you think makes Denmark one of the happiest countries in the world?”, a friend of mine asked me last month.
Having lived in Hong Kong, one of the most fast-paced and stressful cities in the world, for more than 15 years, it is unsurprising to have seldom talked about the word “happiness”. I wonder if my counterparts in Hong Kong have ever thought about what happiness really means.
At least from my personal experience, happiness is such a weird vocabulary without much real meaning attached to it. People care a lot more about grades, income, number of houses owned, fame, career progression, wealth, recognitions etc., which all ultimately combine to define success. Success is the number one concern for Hong Kong people. Not happiness.
So, what exactly creates the sense of happiness for Danes? Sitting in front of my desk, I started to recall some of my memories from the past few months.
The bus stopped. Around 20 elderly hopped onto the bus. Slightly drunk but energetic. They were all dancing, singing and talking. Laughter and loud cheers one after another. Just like a group of high school kids. I have never seen such a scene back in Hong Kong. But I often experience it on a regular night in Copenhagen. Here in Denmark, having fun is everyone’s basic right.
When I first visited Copenhagen Business School, I was surprised to have found a bar on campus. I often see students bringing beers to lectures. No matter how cold the weather is, it is not rare to see Danes sitting outside cafes enjoying their coffee in a normal afternoon. No rush in life. Quality time with people is also highly valued. Danes from my cohort spend a lot of time with their families and friends every week. Gatherings are undoubtedly frequent – boardgame cafes are fully occupied even on weekdays!
It is the exact opposite in Hong Kong. Elementary school is not for fun, but to get you into a good middle school. Middle school is not for fun, but to prepare you for high school curriculum. High school is not for fun, but to help you get good grades in university entrance exams. University is not for fun, but to equip you with skills and knowledge for your career.
We were taught that only children have the right to have fun. Once we become older, we are no longer entitled to the fun parts of the world. The imbalance in learning and enjoyment is probably how we have lost our sensitivity towards happiness.
Perhaps it is the kind of future people are imagining that makes the difference. In Hong Kong, we grew up being taught to behave ourselves and hide personal wants at all times so as to become mature and mentally stable adults. Be responsible. Be considerate. Think about your family. Think about how you would impact others.
We are constantly reminded that doing what is deemed as correct and good for others is more important than doing what we want.
In Chinese culture, personal development is just a means to create an orderly social structure. Individual wellbeing is never the top priority. The ideal self for many youngsters in Hong Kong is simply to become socially recognized grown-ups - being socialized outweighs the importance of being who you are. On the contrary, in Western culture, self-actualization is oftentimes seen as the end goal of life.
It is true that the collectivistic beliefs in traditional Chinese value are less emphasized today than they used to be. Some educators begin to incorporate the idea of self-actualization into the education system, as reflected by the increasing opportunities for extra-curricular activities and diversified college curriculum offerings. Yet, there is a fundamental system failure in pushing forward this mindset change – we had never been given time to stop and think about what we really want and what makes us happy.
Starting from elementary school, there are always multiple tests and exams every week. During school breaks, almost every kid gets sent to either tutorial schools or is forced to complete piles of supplementary exercises at home. How is self-actualization even possible when students have no physical and mental capacity to explore new things in life? We are just continuously doing what society instructs us to do, without really thinking who we are.
To my surprise, most Danes from my cohort have taken a gap year before getting into college. Some spent their year in the military, some travelled around the world, some developed interests such as skiing. Unlike in Denmark, where college tuition is covered by the government and has a comprehensive welfare system, rarely do Hong Kong college students take gap years, as we often have the pressure to be financially independent as soon as possible. I also learnt that students in Denmark are not encouraged to do internship or part time jobs during summer vacation. Instead, the summer break is a perfect opportunity for them to think out of the box and do whatever they want.
It is the social norm that allows people in Denmark to stop for a while and freely explore who they want to become. I guess this is what makes Denmark a happier country compared to many parts of the world.
Oscar Sung, GLOBE-student