Thursday, May 30, 2013

Final Thoughts on the Danish Experience

After finally settling in back at St. Lawrence for summer research in economics, I've had time to reflect on my experience in Copenhagen in relation to human flourishing. Overall, the trip abroad challenged my previous intellectual dispositions and really showed me how people live in a culture with a different mindset and attitude toward everything they do.

One of my main interests in this trip was what the ramifications of the Danish welfare state and health care system on human flourishing there. A cursory analysis at the system shows that there are clear benefits to such a system - one's health care is largely paid for, there are no hanging burdens of debt after a college education, and the expenses for child care are heavily subsidized. However, the economist in me also emphasizes that while these are seen benefits, there are unseen costs to these state activities. As the economist Milton Friedman famously said, there is no such thing as a free lunch. The 25% Value Added Tax, 40%-50% income tax, and 180% tax on motor vehicles are just some of the examples of how the Danish government funds the welfare state.

The interesting difference between the United States and Denmark is not as much the welfare policies but more how people react to it. People living in Denmark are generally fine with paying higher taxes in exchange for state services in a way that people in the US are generally avoidant of. We therefore run into an interesting problem of correlation and causation - are the welfare policies of Denmark creating a sense of community that makes them okay with the taxes, or does the homogenous nature of the small European country explain why they are more tolerant of state interference? The answer is probably a bit of both. Either way, my general conclusion after experiencing the country first-hand is that the happiness exuded in Denmark is more a cause of the welfare policies than an effect of them.

The flourishing we saw in Denmark was a more stoic form of happiness that we generally don't think of when we think of the American 'pursuit of happiness'. Instead of attempting to find joy in material success or achievement, Danes find happiness in family, as represented in their period of hygge, or coziness. We saw this very well when the city closed down around us by 4:00pm, when everyone goes to their homes to spend time with family. As a result of this way of looking at happiness, Danes aren't as upset when things don't go their way, and can bounce back much easier than the American conception of happiness would afford us. Personally, this type of happiness really resonated with me and is something I'd like to strive for as a move forward in my life. To be fair, there can be drawbacks to this way of looking at happiness - it can be stifling and possibly unfulfilling to never have high expectations and experience the high highs and low lows brought about by them. If anything, the trip told me that trade-offs abound in different visions of happiness, and it takes a plurality of views to have a robust idea of what happiness actually entails.

I Can See My House From Here!

     On our last day in Copenhagen we were set free to pursue our own flourishing about the city, though only after meeting in our classroom one last time to discuss the sum of our experiences and what we have learned in our time here. To start, we made a list of some of the keys to the Danish model of flourishing that we have seen or been taught about. They were:

- homogeneity   - low expectations   - equality          - contentment
- security           - humility                - trust                - family (nuclear & national)
- socialization   - moderation            - togetherness   - sustainability

There is some overlap among ideas here, but these twelve terms do well outlining our (all too brief!) experiences of life in Denmark, and why it might so consistently be ranked among the happiest countries.
     When asked what we learned about Danish flourishing that we will carry back to the United States with us, one thing we discussed, which I believe highlights an important difference between Denmark and the U.S., was the Danish emphasis on family, or the idea of "hygge" that we have discussed in some of our posts here. Of course "family values" are still very much a part of our national and political discourse in the United States, but in Denmark they have a considerably different meaning. Particularly because the Danish population is so homogenous, it is easy to perceive the entire nation as a kind of family - or tribe, as the idea was explained to us in our welcome to DIS and in our lecture about the welfare state - with similar, rather than competing interests and an overarching idea that everyone has a responsibility to look out for everyone else.
     Where we tend to tack political significance onto the idea of family values, that's not really an issue in Denmark because everyone's values are pretty much aligned. While the size and diversity of the United States population might make this sort national cohesion seem unlikely, even among our own families and friends we saw room to improve the way we spend time together by simply being more conscientious, by valuing what we have.
       Our group agreed that, strict immigration regulations aside, we certainly felt we could be happy living in Denmark, but not in any way that was unattainable to us in the United States. Recognizing that we are all tremendously privileged to have been able to experience this past week and a half, and that in America that sort of capability is indicative of the individual success freedom our country posits as "flourishing," at an individual level there was nothing especially alien about the Danish people or culture. Certainly some things they accept as normal would seem "outlandish" in the United States (the freedom they afford their children, for example), but the personal outlook at the core of the Danish way of life (the philosophy!) seems, to me, utterly agreeable; indeed, any of the values listed above would surely be recognized as "good" in the U.S. as well.
     Following our discussion we went out into the city to try and do everything we hadn't been able to. We managed to accomplish a fair amount, including a climb up the spiral stairs outside the spire of the Church of Our Savior, which presented a beautiful panorama of the city and far beyond, and lunch at a hot dog stand which, apparently, are very popular in Copenhagen. Even though Garrett and I accidentally ended up with odd sausage burgers topped with cabbage and mayonnaise instead of hot dogs, our philosophical growth from here allowed us to appreciate their unique deliciousness all the same... Sort of.
     In a more applicable example of applied philosophy, we split up after lunch so that we would each have time to see and do what we wanted, accepting even our small group's diverse interests. I visited the beautiful (and free!) botanical garden, one of the many green spaces set amidst the cement and cobblestones of the city, and then took a brief visit to the National Museum (also free!) before we all met up with Dr. McCarthy and her family for our last dinner in Denmark.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Danish Children in the Classroom: "Little Adults" with Big Potential

Lunchtime!  This girl prepares to set her place at the table. 
Rock and Roll... A wide selection of musical instruments free for children to use

Arts and Crafts... Children gather around their pædagog in one of the "creative" rooms

Three young girls stand outside the Huset by themselves

Although we have primarily focused on foreign aspects of Danish culture throughout our trip thus far, one fact of life here in Copenhagen is laughably familiar to us North Country folks: completely unpredictable weather.  Waking up to a chilly and grey Scandinavian “summer” this morning, I reluctantly put on long pants, long sleeves, a sweater, and raincoat.  It wasn’t long, however, before I was stuffing my layers back into my purse, and wishing I’d brought along sunglasses. 
Perhaps it could be attributed to ancient Viking ancestry, but Danes are a hardy, resilient bunch.  It might be lovely outside one minute, or a cold, downpour the next; snowing in the winter, or sunny in the spring; but no matter the elements in Copenhagen, there is a woman in heels somewhere, peddling her bicycle with a child in tow.  This kind of strength and positivity—the ability to resolve, overcome, or even repurpose challenges while maintaining a unique closeness with nature—is instilled in Danes from birth, then nurtured and maintained as the government demands, for the rest of one’s life. 
Today in class we discussed state-sponsored childcare institutions as well as the public school system in Denmark.  Maja Sbahi Biehl, the Program Director of Child Diversity and Development at DIS, explained to us how childcare and education programs reinforce the ideals I mentioned earlier, in social, creative, egalitarian environments.  Daycare for children ages 1-5, public (or, in some cases, private) schooling for 6-17 year olds, and finally, after-school clubs, mark mandatory transitional stages for Danish youths.  Different programs vary in length, but Maja gave an estimated “eight or nine o’clock a.m. to one or two o’clock p.m.” timeframe, for us to get the sense of a typical day for a child.   
To an American, it may seem a strange concept (at least, it did to me) that by default, from year one, a baby is essentially raised in an institution by caregivers, rather than at home with his/her parents.  This way of life is overwhelmingly accepted and glorified by Danes, though, as the best way to raise a happy and healthy family.  In fact, new, non-Danish migrants are greeted with so much skepticism regarding child-rearing, that foreigners are legally required to adhere to Danish standards of “the family unit,” regardless of their traditional notions.  For instance, homes must be of a certain square-footage relative to nuclear family size, to prevent extended relatives from moving in (as is customary in Muslim families, among other immigrant groups).  This presents one oppressive downside of Danish culture.
 In many ways, Denmark really is—if not the “best”—a wonderful place to raise children.  Early childhood caregivers are given four years of high-quality education (the same as any Danish schoolteacher) to ensure from the very beginning that babies are cared for properly.  Toddlers are treated as “young adults,” to emphasize equality, and every child is trusted to be responsible for his/her own actions.  Discipline is minimal in the pre-school and elementary/high school education systems, so that children are taught to solve conflicts amongst themselves.  Teachers intervene only when necessary (sometimes at the cost of bullying or disruptive behavior in the classroom), to instill life lessons in students through experience.   Maja told us that fighting is even taught in one Danish kindergarten, to address conflict and problem-solving tactics!  
The learning environment is very free, self-regulated, and creative, with a strong focus on outdoor activity.  For example, children as young as 3-years-old go on four-day-long group camping excursions to the woods with teachers (no parental contact allowed).  Again, this reiterates concepts of emancipation, independence, and sociability even at an early age. 
We visited the “Free-time Club” youth house, or “Huset,” this afternoon to witness this approach to child development firsthand.  We were greeted in the main office by Henriech, a “pædagog:” one who plays a very different role from a didactical school teacher (or “lærer”), for he or she is trained in psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc. (and potentially leadership, creativity, carpentry, and other skills) to specifically “enforce socialization.”  Although it is true that teachers do not much interfere with their students, this is not to say that any child’s behavior or relationships with others goes overlooked; pædagogs oversee and connect with children on a personal level.  They are trusted role models, sources of guidance, and in many cases, friend figures.
I can only most equivocate the Huset to a Boys and Girls Club in America—a cheerful, very active after-school environment for ages 10 to 17.  We were all extremely impressed with the quality and variety maintained by this Huset, and of course, with the amount of freedom allotted to youths.  Each room in the house was designated to a particular field of interest: from crafts, to leather-working, to computers, to “live action role play,” music, sports, video games, and dance, only to name a few.  There was seemingly unsupervised access to side-yard play areas, and even a full kitchen (cooking up a very aromatic “something” close to lunchtime…) for the kids to use themselves.  Henriech told us that older children at the Huset were permitted to choose the menu for an afternoon, shop for ingredients, and cook and distribute meals to the rest of the group (on breakable, ceramic plates, with glass cups, for a change).
Given all of this freedom and few limitations, we were all shocked by the overall civility of these 10 to 17-year-olds.  The house was calmer than most organized after-school programs I’ve been to.  Art projects that lined the walls were painted on actual canvases, indicating a level of competence and respect for materials.  The music room contained all rock-band essentials—instruments, equipment, and a recording studio—for kids Henriech described as “the real deal.”
The formation and evolution —“dannelseof one’s true, personal identity is recognized as a life-long process in Denmark, so the government provides (and mandates) programs to care for, educate, and empower citizens at every stage of life.  While there are certain drawbacks to these regulations, we found Danish children to be very well socially adjusted at the Huset.  That being said, initiatives to lengthen and intensify academic days in the Nordic school system are threatening to change the current Danish education philosophy. United States inspired standardized tests have already been administered to 15-year-old Danish students (who actually scored very low in comparison to the rest of the world).  Now in a time of major social reform, Denmark is faced with new standards regarding education: should students “shoot for the stars” and race to the top?  Or be content to flourish socially, and develop “life skills?”   
Our tenth and final day in Copenhagen creeps closer to the present, after which I will soon be thrown into an American childhood program myself—summer camp.  As the art teacher at a day camp in my hometown, I look forward to bringing parts of the Danish pedagogical approach to my work.  Summertime should be a time for kids to breathe, be creative, run around, and get grass stains; it is the vacation of all vacations, from a rigorous and competitive academic year.  Yes, Danish children are perceived as “Little adults,” but kids will still be kidsLet us all consider our own freedom as grown-ups, too, to be collaborative, adventurous, and explorative these next eight weeks. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Who's Your Daddy?

"Gender Roles in Scandinavia" was the lecture for today, given by Helle Rytkønen, a very interesting woman who was born in Denmark and lived in the U.S. for 19 years before returning back to Copenhagen. To prepare for the lecture we had to read the following article, "Nordic Men on Parental Leave: Can the Welfare State Change Gender Relations" by: Johanna Lammi-Taskula that talked about parental leave and the involvement of fathers in child rearing once the kid is born. This article pointed out that while the rate of fathers taking parental leave is increasing, it is still not as high as it could be and that there are questions to consider when dealing with parental leave. Helle brought the ideas of this articles into discussion with her own discussion of gender roles within Denmark and how the way Denmark wants its citizens to be intrude on others' flourishing.

Helle asked two questions in relation with the article in which we debated. The first was "Are equal people happy or happier?" and the second questions was, "Does the politicizing of fatherhood change gender relations?" As to the answer to the first question that can be pretty debatable, but within Denmark, a country that prides themselves on equality, that equality can be a cause for unhappiness. The country might look happier if they are overall seen as all equal, but by trying to pursue equality some people's happiness is taking away. Moms who want to stay at home with their kids may not find equity within the system to be flourishing since they are forced to share an equal amount of time with their kids with the father. While this can be seen as an issue there is no doubt that the politicizing of fatherhood being a good thing. Getting fathers involved in the kids' lives is just as important as the mother being involved, as has been shown in psychology, but has it lead to a change in gender relations? While you will find more fathers on the streets of Copenhagen pushing strollers it has been seen that gender roles haven't necessarily changed. When fathers take care of their kids they are more likely to go on "adventures" and go exploring while the mother is more likely to stay in the home with the kid, and therefore is still seen as the one who does the chores around the house.

So you want to spend time with your kids? That's great! But you're in trouble if you want to do it too much. Society in Denmark has dictated through the culture norms that a mother will be looked on as a bad mother if she doesn't take care of her kid on leave, but then once the kid hits their first birthday the mother will also be looked down upon if she doesn't give the child to daycare. While the opportunities for stay home with the kids on paternal leave make people happy, the government has a lot of restrictions that make it difficult to fully appreciate the generosity of the parental leave system. In terms of immigrants, legislation has made it very difficult for them to lead their lives how they want to. While the immigrant population makes up only about 3-4% of Denmark's overall population, they are at the forefront of political discussions for they are seen as bad parents. The way in which they raise their children is all wrong and they are forced to follow the way the government tells them to raise their kids. The government is trying to break the bonds within immigrant families in order to bring in Denmark traditions to "help" them. Does this seem right? It seems harsh to force people to do things a certain way, but when it comes down to it they can always leave right? The problems with immigrants also bring up different issues in Denmark. There are strict laws around marriage that deal with not being able to bring one's spouse into Denmark to live if they are from another country (unless they are from Japan, New Zealand, Australia, or the U.S. since these are the ones Denmark is in a friendship agreement with). In the end, does all of this legislation Denmark imposes upon is citizens live up to their ideals of equality? Even if the legislation made everything equal, does true equality make people happier? Or flourish more?

Sorry for no pictures, there were no walking tours today, but that doesn't make what we did today any less fascinating. Revel in the wonderful thoughts presented in this post instead of getting lost in pretty pictures. I'm sure the pictures we will put up in our next posts will make up for the lack of pictures today.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Danish Health Care and the Philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard

Today was a packed day, focusing primarily on the Danish health care system and the life and philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard.

In the morning, we discussed the objectives and efficacy of the Danish health care system. Contrary to the 'negative' approach to health care that many in the United States espouse, the Danish health law prescribes a positive perspective of health: we must both alleviate sickness and pain while also actively promoting a state of physical, mental, and emotional well-being. There are several objectives following from this, including easy and equal access of health services, treatment of high quality, free choice, and easy access of information for patients.

Unlike some characterizations of Nordic health care models, Denmark's health care system is a decentralized model with the state delegating block grants and activity-based funding to regional and municipal authorities. This allows for those on the local level to delegate funding to those areas that they feel needs the most attention, which is appropriate given their knowledge of local affairs. There is also a separation of purchaser (the state who purchases health services) and provider (the health professionals and hospitals who actually provide health care) in order to create an 'internal market' and contract bidding. The idea here is that this will lead to more efficient and effective health outcomes and allocation of health services, while also keeping the goals of equality and universality in mind.

In terms of happiness, we were surprised to find out that the research shows Danes are just as likely as Americans to be depressed. This was surprising as we have heard many times that Denmark is one of the happiness nations in the world. What may explain this apparent discrepancy may be the fact that the Danes who are not depressed tend to be happier than the average American. Regardless, this discovery  reminded us that human flourishing is a difficult goal to accomplish regardless of the society - it requires work and due diligence in order to obtain and maintain.

The afternoon brought us an enlightening journey to the life and work of Søren Kierkegaard. Born in the early 19th century, Kierkegaard is considered to be the first Existentialist philosopher. His main task is Socratic - he aims to tear down our preconceived notions and assumptions and realize how ignorant we really are. While it is very difficult to nail down a summary of his extensive work (he published 40 books and 40 articles in one decade), his focus was on how the individual lives and acts in a world plagued by despair and discord between the finite aspects of the body (our mortality and physical limitations) and the infinite aspects of the mind (our imagination and capacity for conscious thought). Ultimately, Kierkegaard suggests for us to appreciate our lives and turn inward in order to fulfill ourselves as individuals.

We finished the afternoon by visiting his gravesite, which was a powerful experience. He is buried with his father and other siblings in the Assistens Cemetery in Nørrebro, Copenhagen. In the same cemetery lies his former fiancé Regine Olsen, whom he broke off an engagement with in order to pursue his lifelong calling of philosophy.  

The Gravesite of Søren Kierkegaard
We also visited various places affiliated with Kierkegaard, including the church his funeral was held, the place he wrote his most famous works, and the church of his baptism. He lived in the inner city for most of his life, and at the end of his life he ended up heavily criticizing the very church he gave sermons in years before. His emphasis on the individual having a relationship with God and Christ was at odds with the Church of Denmark, which for Kierkegaard symbolized corruption and human failure. Ironically, he ended up having his funeral at this same church.
Plaque dedicated to Kierkegaard's Former Place of Residence

Our discussion of both the Danish health care system and the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard presented to us a possible tension between the collective aspirations of the Danish people as contrasted with Kierkegaard's focus on the individual. Perhaps we can solve this dilemma by looking at Danish culture: Danes may have found the balance between finding an individualism that is sympathetic to notions of collective welfare. Rather than being in opposition to one another, connecting with our true selves requires us to take care of our fellow human beings.

The Group at the Grave of Søren Kierkegaard

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Human Scale in Danish Modern Architecture

Today we visited the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, and during this excursion we were able to experience first-hand how Danes incorporate a human scale to their buildings and artwork. When we first arrived in the museum, we immediately noticed this important aspect of the culture:

A lobby in Louisiana Museum of Modern Art 
The low-hanging ceilings provide the perfect scope for our natural viewpoint. We also see that there is plenty of window space for natural lighting, another aspect of the room that facilitates human livability and scale.  Another interesting characteristic of the room is the many plants growing around the framework of the building. Our philosophy of happiness course focused on how architecture 'speaks' to us about certain visions of happiness, and the emphasis on plant-life and the natural world tells us that people can't possibly flourish without a recognition of our fundamental connection with the nature. We see this again in the side view of the Louisiana Museum:
Side View, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art
The overgrown plants on the side of the Louisiana Museum façade reinforces the importance and ultimately the power of nature in our lives. Within the halls of the museum lies some very valuable artwork made by human beings, but we maintain a humble attitude about our accomplishments; nature is ready to overcome them at a moments notice.
Back View of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art
We continue to see the theme of human scale in the back of the building. The white portion of the museum was the original structure, and the brown portion was a later addition. The later addition blends into the surrounding landscape, which cements in our minds the importance of both humility (the natural world is overpowering here) and a focus on the individual. Inside the museum, one room stood out in particular in representing these themes:
Exhibit in the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

We see an elegant simplicity in the room, with its bare walls and brick floor. We see a lone figure peering out into the outside world, filled with trees and a pond. This figure calls for us to follow its lead and take notice of the natural environment. There is a single portrait on the wall to the left of the figure, which may be interpreted as showing the interplay between the natural and the man-made. The colors of both the portrait and the outside are similar, and as such we can find a little bit of both in each. The exhibit is not presenting a hard dichotomy between nature and manmade, but instead invites us to explore how each interact with one another and to find exactly where the edges bleed over.
Overall, our trip of the museum was enlightening and spoke further on the specific vision of happiness Danish architecture and design speaks to us. For the Danes, the ideas of human scale and dynamic interplay between nature and humanity cannot be separated from the lives they live within these spaces. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013


We decided to make the Malmöst of our first free day here by taking a train from Copenhagen Central Station across the Øresund Bridge to the Swedish city of Malmö, where we spent a pleasant afternoon walking about the city, its parks, and the museums in Malmöhus Castle. Because today was not technically part of our study of human flourishing in Denmark, we decided to make this post a little more inforMalmö by sharing some of the best Malmöments we captured on camera. Enjoy!

The Edge of Downtown 

Malmöhus Castle, with Malmöat

Malmö Museum of Natural History, sticks?? (front right)

In addition to the Museum of Natural History, Malmöhus Castle now houses 
a museum of Swedish art, and a small zoo!


A Windmill-mö, in one of Malmö's numerous, beautiful parks

A Malmöurishing Candy Store

 The Turning Torso, a residential building completed, is the tallest skyscraper in Scandinavia

Architecture, Malmöld and new.

Malmö Central Station, on our way back to Copenhagen!

Day 3...Livability in the Urban Environment

Unique design--a staircase inside of the Copenhagen Business School

"Hyperdrive"--Dr. McCarthy riding with us on the Metro!
The first car was designed so that passengers can look out the tunnel as they travel underground
Sightseeing--Jamie and I on a Strogarde, a "walking street"

Once we get back to the States, I would like to advise my family to move with me to Copenhagen.  Yes, my usual seven-hour commute from southern New York to St. Lawrence would grow slightly longer, most likely involve winding lines at customs, and possibly even a middle seat on the plane, but from what I’ve learned about this country just in the past two days, Denmark becomes more and more appealing.  Today was a particularly busy one for the four of us—from an invigorating classroom discussion on “Livability” (and what makes Copenhagen an urban space “conducive to comfortable living”), to a walking tour of the city (after which we all could attest to the saying, “when your feet hurt, you know you’re in Europe”).  On a sunny, sixteen-degree Celsius afternoon, though, we were too immersed in hygge to mind… 
The day began with a stimulating lecture by DIS professor Bianca Hermansen, an urban planner (and in many ways, philosopher).  She first presented to us the conditions, or “Livability Rankings,” that Copenhagen prides itself on: public transport, education, cultural outlets, low crime, hours of sunshine, global flight connections, tolerance, and concern for environmental issues.  Bianca went on to explain cities in general as “human habitats” that should address the broader question of our past semester: how, exactly, can cities promote human flourishing?  Ultimately, urban design (which we have also discussed in class, regarding Alain De Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness) has an impressive impact on the human psyche.  Our cities shape us, but more importantly, we shape our cities.
For example, Bianca (who was an extremely engaging and spunky speaker) raised the issue of “jay-waking.”  She called it a “natural human behavior.”  However, while it is dangerous and violates traffic laws, Bianca does not blame pedestrians for this “crime,” but rather city designers.  She argued that jay-walking is “a symptom of poor urban planning,” and it is her job as an urban planner to work with the people of Copenhagen so the city meets their needs. Bianca and other designers are constantly rearranging and trying to improve Copenhagen, in such a way that is beautiful, sustainable, and simply “more livable,” to facilitate human flourishing. 
The walking tour (led by a former American DIS student, Samur, who now lives in Denmark) illuminated today’s classroom experience.  Although the human population in Copenhagen is very homogenous, the landscape is visually eclectic.  Fifteenth century buildings stand across cobblestone streets from sleek Danish architecture.  Large open squares bustle with activity, as vast, interactive forums for Danes, international tourists, tented produce markets, cafes, bikers, performers, and many pigeons.  There is an interesting view from every angle to engage onlookers, for as Bianca and Samur mentioned, the human mind needs to be stimulated every four seconds.  That being said, while there is a lot to see in Copenhagen, the cityscape is on a human scale.  Strict codes limit the heights of buildings, so that structures do not overwhelm the presence of people.  Beautifully weathered church steeples are the tallest man-made objects to be seen.
By implementing this rule, Copenhagen essentially preserves a little bit more of humanity than most sky-scraping American cities.  Like the welfare state, the city itself exists purely “for the people.”  It’s been such an adventure to experience a new cultural mindset, and we look forward to bring this message of human flourishing back to campus.  Hooray for the week we have left!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Danish Flourishing, Human Flourishing

     My first post on our trip blog! I guess I'm a little behind everyone else, but now I have the chance to introduce myself (I'm Sam, nice to meet you) and write about our trip at the same time - "to catch two herring on the same hook" as they say here in Denmark. (No one says that.)
     I've been lucky enough to study abroad before with my class in high school, but those trips were not so focused on studying a specific aspect of a foreign culture as this is. They were more broadly interested in consuming as much history, culture, and architecture (and food!) as we could fit in during the course of our travels. Of course happiness is so nebulous a concept, and so intricately tied to so many aspects of life (it could be said of anything that we do, we do to make ourselves more "happy," be it in that particular moment or in the future) that studying happiness inevitably involves much Danish history, culture, and architecture (and food!) as we can fit into our 10 days here. To illustrate the breadth of happiness, look at this list of "14 reasons why everyone needs to move to Denmark immediately." It's a little silly, but it touches on a number of things we will be studying as well, from government to design, and shows what a variety of things can contribute to people's happiness.
   That's not to say we're just wandering about Copenhagen searching for smiling Danes - we have regular lectures from the faculty of the university hosting us, DIS, on aspects of life in Denmark that overlap with what we studied in class at Saint Lawrence to give us some context as well. I've taken a few government classes at Saint Lawrence, and I knew a little about social democracies in Scandinavia before coming here, so I found yesterday's lecture about the role of the welfare state in Denmark especially interesting (some details in Jamie's post below!). Suzanne, our lecturer, suggested that the welfare state was the "key to happiness" in Denmark as it provides Danish citizens with everything they need to live comfortably, and illustrates the Danish "obsession" with equality and their unique culture of trust. (For example, under some circumstances you can make more money off of unemployment benefits than most people make working as professors at DIS. They also don't check passengers' tickets on trains!)
    Suzanne also said that Danish history, a history of defeat and decline between the 16th and 20th centuries, also contributed to the development of social democracy here. The Danes learned to "replace outward losses with inward gains" and come together as a people, rather than "reaching for the stars" as we tend to do in the United States.
     While what we learned about the welfare state made a lot of sense to me from a political perspective, there is a darker side to the benefits of Danish living as well, and I'm not talking about the high taxes. Part of coming together as a culture means excluding outsiders, and Denmark (and the rest of Scandinavia) have remarkably homogenous populations. While there may be 14 reasons why everyone needs to move to Denmark immediately, the fact is that not everyone is welcome here, at least not to stay. It is easy to construe Denmark as a Land of Milk & Honey, and for the most part I believe that they have a lot of things "right" (or left, perhaps...) politically. But as we fill this blog with testaments of flourishing Danes keep in mind - and we will try to as well! - that Denmark has made sacrifices to get here, just like any other country.
     While Denmark might be the happiest country on Earth, it is still on Earth (though I'm not so sure about Iceland after flying over), and its "happiness" is only worth anything in comparison to the much more profound misery that may be experienced (or learned about) the world over. The best reason I can think of for everyone to move to Denmark isn't pastries or government benefits, but that it might succeed in bringing us - Danes included! - closer together.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Amazing Race and High Taxes

How best to view the city and get a lay-out of the land? The Great Amazing Race! Of course St. Lawrence won... well who knows if we actually did but we made it to every destination and even had time for lunch before our first lecture! We traveled all over the city to four different destinations and one special place for a free marshmallow dessert treat, very delicious. Our destinations were Danish Parliament (Christianborg Slotplads), The King's Garden in front of his summer palace (Rosenborg Slot) since the five minute walk into downtown was too disgusting at the time, the Queen's palace (Amalienborg, she wasn't home but her two sons were in their own little palaces of their own right next door), and finally the New Harbor (Nyhavn). We stopped by The Student House (Studenterhuset) for our chocolate covered marshmallows on a graham-like cracker. There was no way to get to know the city better and ourselves... I learned that I am terrible at reading a map, who knew? After that and some wonderful folded pizza-to-go for lunch, we had our first lecture. Saying time flew by would be a great understatement. We spent an hour and a half talking about everything and only got half-way through the Power Point and we didn't even notice that five minutes had passed. In order to not take up so much of your time if you are hopefully reading this, here is a (short) list of everything we learned pretty condensed:

- Taxes are anywhere from 50-60% of one's income, and unlike the U.S. no one complains! Also, if you want to buy a car that'll be a lovely 180% tax on it... but it isn't like it matters since most people bike.

- For anyone watching Fox news and wants to throw out that U.S. curse word "socialists" the Danes are not that as they have a full-fledged market economy, but you might still use that word since the government helps a lot. It isn't only financially that they help out though but supportively too, for example new mothers get matched up with others to form a strong support system.

-Harold Bluetooth, a Viking that integrated his people into Christianity is the namesake of the Bluetooth phone systems we all know very well.

- EQUALITY- probably the best word to describe Denmark and what their whole system is based on and something that has been the focus throughout history especially through the Enlightenment period.

- The Danish Welfare State is mostly symbolized by a bonfire because there are a limit to how many people can be in the circle before one stops feeling the heat.

- Danish kids have it made! They get money to go to school and then some. Also, adults get payed for things like having kids (Bornepenge with a slash through the o, I apologize for not knowing how to do that).

- Minimum wage is about 110 kr. or about $20 per hour

- While this all seems great there are issues like the fact that one could get more money from the State by being unemployed than if they had a job.

- Also, there is the problem of having a hard time with other cultures assimilating.

So, enough of that, if you want to know more you should travel here yourself, it is definitely worth it!!!

To end it, the WORD OF THE DAY!!!!
Today's word is hygge which is togetherness/coziness, an important part of Danish culture. The Americans who run around and never eat a meal with their families could learn a thing or two from this. We might all be happier if we take the time to really be together, relish in our relationships.

Here's to more adventures getting intentionally lost,

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Danish Path to Human Flourishing

Just hours before boarding a plane to Copenhagen, Denmark, I sit here reminiscing on my experience in the one philosophy course I took last semester at St. Lawrence, Human Flourishing in Contemporary Society. We analyzed what it means to flourish in the modern world from a variety of perspectives, including classical Western approaches, insights from traditions in the East such as Buddhism and Yogic philosophy, the discoveries of contemporary positive psychology, and an analysis of how architecture shapes our visions of happiness.

As an economics and philosophy double major at SLU, I come to this trip particularly interested in how public policy and the institutions of civil society shape the particular vision of happiness seen in Denmark. Scandinavian nations are well-known for their social safety nets and solidarity for one another, which may play a vital role in how much happier they are relative to other Western nations such as the United States.

Their societies are much different from the one I am used to: a small, culturally homogenous nation with a high communitarian aura is the near opposite of what  the United States exemplifies. How these different societal characteristics at the macro level influence the individual's understanding of happiness 'on the ground' will be of great interest to me on the trip ahead. I am hoping to find out if the common stereotypes of Danish society really hold as well. I am already aware that the idea that Denmark is some socialist paradise is suspect - Denmark actually ranks above the United States in economic freedom, despite its higher tax rates. While it is probably true that the Danish people do not hold to the same rampant individualistic mindset as their American counterparts, it will be interesting to find out exactly how the Danes fit themselves into their broader society and how that shapes their flourishing.

I also hope to discover ways in which I can improve my own flourishing at the personal level. Some of my initial pre-trip research on Denmark's secret to happiness found that low expectations is the key to finding a happy and fulfilled life. We saw connections to this in our coursework - many of the Stoic and existentialist philosophers stress the need to mitigate desire and find happiness in the moment. I will find out if this point actually manifests itself in the way people live everyday, and how much it explains the differences in happiness between my home country and Denmark.

I close with one of my favorite quotes in philosophy, from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus:

"Remember that you ought to behave in life as you would at a banquet. As something is being passed around it comes to you; stretch out your hand, take a portion of it politely. It passes on; do not detain it."
This quote not only reinforces the need for low expectations, but also represents how I want to take on this trip: the banquet of life has brought me this opportunity, and I will make the best of it while it lasts. And once it passes on, it will be with a happy demeanor that I had the opportunity to cultivate a different view of happiness.

My bags are packed, and my mind is ready...Denmark tomorrow!

I ran into one of my favorite former teachers today in my hometown middle school parking lot. I had just dropped off my brother at lacrosse practice and was making my way out of the carpool lane when I saw his familiar, smiling face—a goofy grin from my eighth grade English instructor that I hadn't seen in years, signaling me over from the clogged flock of Honda Odysseys.  Immediately, I heeded his gesture, put the car in park, and was greeted by the warm hug of an old friend. 

“Catching up” initially began with the “usual” topics of conversation one asks a college student: How was your year? Have you decided on a major? What are your plans for this summer? Calling upon my regular arsenal of small-talk, I had certain answers already prepared to address the first two questions.  However, when I considered my response to my teacher’s third proposal, the imminence of a completely atypical and exciting reality set in: “Well, tomorrow I am off to Denmark...”

This past semester at St. Lawrence I studied "Human Flourishing in Contemporary Society," or (as I simply explained it to my peers who were not enrolled in the course), "The Philosophy of Happiness." I looked forward to every Monday/Wednesday meeting at Piskor Hall, where our intimate group of ten (approx.) students and Professor Erin McCarthy discussed, argued, connected (and, of course, sometimes confused...) various philosophical considerations of "the good life."  We started and ended each day "with a bow," to ensure that even the most difficult-to-grasp concepts were explored in a place of unified open-mindedness and respect—so that the environment where we contemplated "human flourishing" was directly conducive to our own flourishing as learners.

By the end of spring semester, our philosophy class had already grown quite close.  Tomorrow, I look forward to solidifying further friendships with each of my three other peers, as well as Erin and her family, who will be departing with me to Denmark.  Over the next ten days of SLU's "Human Flourishing in Contemporary Society" travel program, I am eager to apply what we have learned about happiness this year in a classroom in Canton, to the streets of Copenhagenone of the "happiest" cities in the world.  It seems like only a week ago that I was back at St. Lawrence, scrambling to finish finals…because that is true.  In fact it has only just hit me that in 24 hours I will actually be on a red-eye flight to Copenhagen.  My bags are packed, though, my mind is ready, and I am SO excited for the adventure that lies ahead! 
-Kelsey Smith 
 SLU '15

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Up Up and Away

Two days until Denmark! I couldn't be more excited, although I might be getting a rude awakening once the plane lands. As I write this post I am sitting in my house which is on 10 acres of land with a barn and a couple of horses. There are a couple of cars driving by as well as the occasional manure spreader making the rounds through the fields that aren't enclosed by fencing, but other than that there isn't much happening on this lazy Sunday. I enjoy this tranquility in my small town that doesn't even have a single traffic light. Will I like Denmark? Of course I except to find myself in awe when I arrive, but will it be too much for me? Will I be overwhelmed by the people, the culture, and/or the difficulty of finding my way? My town of Waitsfield, Vermont holds around 1,700 people while Copenhagen has a population of roughly 558,000 people. That means that you could fit a little more than 328 Waitsfields in Copenhagen. While that is something interesting to think about, I'm sure I will handle the change in pace that Denmark will be for me. Throughout the last semester Phil 347, the course that is taking us to Denmark, has taken a look into happiness, what it means to be happy, and how one can work on becoming happy. Throughout the semester we broke down readings from a broad spectrum of philosophers. From more well known philosophers such as Plato, Nietzsche, and Hobbes to readings from Buddhism and Yoga, more contemporary philosophies from Alain de Botton and Sara Ahmed, and even a focus on positive psychology and the concept of Flow the students of the "happiness" course were able to discuss how these philosophies may or may not be applicable to our daily lives. Of course Denmark is different from the United States in many aspects, but what about happiness? Supposedly Denmark is the happiest place on Earth and I am looking forward to trying to figure out if that is true, and if it is, why? Well I can't figure that out by being staying in my little town. The next post I write will be from Copenhagen!

And now time for the word of the day. Each post I will insert a Danish word within the theme of happiness. The word for this post is:

blomstrende = flourishing

Human flourishing is the name of the course as well as what we are studying within Copenhagen. To flourish is to thrive, grow, and develop. Since we are about to study happiness and how people flourish in Denmark I find flourishing to be a good choice for the first word of the day. 

Cheers to overcoming jet lag,