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.

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