How happy are Denmark's internationals?



According to the World Happiness Report, Denmark has once again ranked as one of the world's happiest countries. The International investigates whether or not the report is representative of Denmark's large international community. It turns out the details are in the data.


Photograph: iStock

Text: Sarah Redohl


Denmark has once again ranked among the world's happiest countries, according to the 2021 World Happiness Report (released 20 March 2021). This year, coming in at #3 is no surprise since Denmark has ranked within the top three every year since the report's inception in 2012.


Denmark's happiness ranking was one of the few facts I knew about Denmark when my partner was offered a job here last year. I was intrigued. Why were the Danes so happy? And, would I share in this experience?


"When I mentioned the report to fellow internationals, their eyes would often glaze as if I had just described something as hygge - A Danish cliché from the new girl. "I don't think they ask Denmark's internationals when they put together that report."

When I mentioned the report to fellow internationals, their eyes would often glaze as if I had just described something as hygge - A Danish cliché from the new girl. "I don't think they ask Denmark's internationals when they put together that report," one experienced expat said.


I wanted it to be true - for the Danes, for internationals, and for me - but to understand how representative the World Happiness Report is of Denmark's large international community, I had to dig into the data.


The World Happiness Report explained

The World Happiness Report, a publication of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Solutions Network, sources its data from the Gallup World Poll. Gallup has been performing international surveys in general since 1938 and the Gallup World Poll in specific since 2005. The Poll tracks worldwide issues ranging from food access and employment to leadership and wellbeing in more than 160 countries.


In countries like Denmark, Gallup gathers this data via phone surveys with around 1000 residents. The samples are probability-based and aim to be nationally representative of at least 80 percent of the population aged 15 or older. Gallup also weights its final samples to match the national demographics of each selected country. Basically, they do a lot to try to get a representative sample of each country's residents.


According to Statistics Denmark, the central authority on Danish statistics, Denmark's foreign population is 817,438. Three quarters of people listed as foreign by Statistics Denmark are foreign-born; the remaining 25 percent were born in Denmark to parents, neither of whom are Danish. Depending on how you slice that data, that means that internationals account for 10 to 14 percent of Denmark's total population of 5.84 million.


So, internationals should account for 100 to 140 respondents to Gallup's World Survey, right? Not necessarily. I needed to look deeper, so I reviewed Gallup World Poll's data set details. The data used for the 2021 World Happiness Report was collected in Denmark between 14 September 2020, and 10 October 2020, when precisely 1000 people were surveyed by mobile telephone. In Danish.


Denmark's official language

Although I struggled to find statistics about the proportion of internationals who speak Danish, my instincts, experiences, and conversations with other expats lead me to believe it isn't too high - a statement with which most internationals probably won't quibble. If I'm wrong, that's actually a good thing, and the survey probably represents us pretty well!


But if my premise is correct and a significant number of us haven't learned Danish well enough to participate in a telephone survey, Denmark's internationals probably aren't particularly well-represented in the World Happiness Report's dataset.


Gallup World Poll generally conducts surveys in each country's official language(s). For example, in Finland - ranked #1 in the 2021 report - the survey is administered in the country's two official languages: Finnish and Swedish.


In countries with unique circumstances, Gallup employs the most commonly spoken languages. For example, it conducts the survey in English and Spanish in my home country of the United States (which does not have an official language). According to U.S Census Bureau data, roughly 12.4 percent of the total U.S. population primarily speaks Spanish at home.


"Internationals may account for 10 to 14 percent of Denmark's population, but Danish is Denmark's official language, so that is the language in which Gallup conducts its World Poll here."

Internationals may account for 10 to 14 percent of Denmark's population, but Danish is Denmark's official language, so that is the language in which Gallup conducts its World Poll here. That's also the case in other countries with high proportions of foreigners. The survey is administered in Spanish in Spain (comprising 12.5 percent foreign-born immigrants, according to the World Economic Forum), German in Germany (12.3 percent foreign-born immigrants), and French in France (11.8 percent foreign-born immigrants).


Internationals, under-represented?

Even if language weren't an issue, Denmark's internationals are still likely to be statistically under-represented. According to a 2017 OECD report, around one third of internationals in Denmark live in just two municipalities: Copenhagen and Aarhus. These two municipalities account for around one fifth of Denmark's total population, so a sample size that resembled the geographic distribution of Denmark's residents wouldn't necessarily be representative of us.


All that aside, I am in no way disparaging Gallup's method of data collection. I don't see how they could conduct the survey in such a way to be linguistically inclusive while also being consistent across borders. I admit my experience with statistics and surveys amounts to a grand total of three university courses (Stats 101, Media Research, and Statistics for Journalists), but I distinctly recall Professor Bentley declaring that consistency is key. Going by official languages to the extent possible is probably Gallup's best bet.


Furthermore, even without a single international in Denmark, I imagine the Gallup World Poll achieves its goal of being nationally representative of at least 80 percent of the population. We are, after all, 14 percent of the population at most. After all that research, though, my question remained unanswered.


So...how happy ARE internationals?

To figure out how happy internationals in Denmark actually are, I conducted an informal survey through social media, expat WhatsApp groups, and conversations with my fellow foreign friends.


Although my informal methods required a lot less math, significantly fewer respondents, and no efforts to re-balance responses for representation, respondents generally rated their happiness higher (8.38 out of 10) than the average happiness in Denmark, according to the 2021 World Happiness Report (7.515). They also averaged higher happiness levels in Denmark than in their home countries (7.15 out of 10).


Although the number of respondents was too small to draw significant conclusions, I did notice a couple of trends. People from countries that rank high on the World Happiness Report (within the top 25) were more likely to report similar or reduced happiness levels in Denmark. People from countries ranking lower on the World Happiness Report were more likely to rate their happiness as higher here than in their home countries. For example, one woman reported that feeling safer in Denmark than in Pakistan (rated #105) has contributed to her overall happiness. A respondent from India (#139) cited less pollution, less chaos, and better climate; one from Hong Kong (#77) cited better work/life balance and political freedom; and a respondent from Jordan (#127) cited Denmark's friendliness towards the LGBTQ+ community, among other benefits including its food scene and access to travel.


I also noticed that 70 percent of all respondents to my little survey live in Denmark's three largest cities (Copenhagen, Aarhus and Aalborg). Internationals living in urban areas were slightly more likely to rate their happiness higher than in their home countries. Those living in more provincial settings were slightly more likely to rate their happiness the same or lower, one of whom cited a lack of job and educational opportunities and a feeling of not belonging, among other reasons.


"Home is where the heart is. I'm happy wherever I am. But in Denmark, you have to work a little harder."

Ultimately, what the survey tells me is something I already kind of knew. Although where we live can impact our happiness, happiness isn't exclusively determined by where we live. One respondent, who rated their happiness a perfect 10 - back home and here - summarized it well: "Home is where the heart is. I'm happy wherever I am. But in Denmark, you have to work a little harder."


Find your happy here

Even if Denmark's international set may be somewhat left out of the World Happiness Reports' dataset, that doesn't mean we are excluded from finding happiness here in Denmark. In fact, many of us report feeling very happy here. This makes sense. The World Happiness Report is based on several factors, many of which are accessible to non-Danes in Denmark: freedom to make life choices, healthy life expectancy, social support, GDP per capita, perceptions of corruption, and generosity.


I, for one, have enjoyed a number of these benefits, from participating in a healthier biking lifestyle to asking complete strangers to watch my belongings at a cafe. An area in which I've struggled, compared to Danes, is in the category of social support. Here's the question by which this category is gauged: "If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them, or not?"


"Having moved here at the height of COVID, developing a social network is taking some time and effort."

Many of us internationals may struggle to establish our social networks here in Denmark; we may be far from friends and family. Having moved here at the height of COVID, developing a social network is taking some time and effort. But I'm working on it: I'm engaging with the expat community, I've made a couple of friends, and I've even started to learn some Danish!


If you were to ask me if I have relatives or friends I can count on here, I'd probably offer a tentative 'yes'. But if you were to ask me if I'm happy here, I wouldn't hesitate. If Gallup ever calls my number - provided my Danish is good enough - I'm liable to give Denmark a very high score.

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