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Why Denmark is considered one of the happiest places in the world

National Geographic's Dan Buettner travelled to Copenhagen to learn the characteristics of why Denmark is one of the world's happiest places.
/ Source: TODAY

In Denmark, finding happiness can be as easy as riding a bike.

When TODAY correspondent Cynthia McFadden and National Geographic author and explorer Dan Buettner ventured to the Danish city of Copenhagen to find out why it has ranked as one of the happiest places on earth for 40 years, they found a place full of two-wheeled transportation.

Half the city gets around via bicycle, and that plays a role in the general good feelings of its citizens.

"It’s not a coincidence that people are happy here," Buettner said on TODAY Monday. "The happiest people in the world are interacting face to face six to seven hours a day. You can’t do that when you’re in a car."

Personal interaction is just one of the reasons for happiness that Buettner has found in his travels around the world for National Geographic.

"When I think of happiness, I think of three qualities,'' he said. "How much pleasure you have in your life, how much pride you have with your life, and living with a sense of purpose."

Buettner and McFadden found the embodiment of those qualities in Alan Christensen, a garbage man in Copenhagen who works five hours a day but earns the same as a school teacher.

Read National Geographic's full report: The World's Happiest Places

They even watched as another truck got in his way, and he calmly got out of his own truck and asked the person to move instead of the usual road rage found in many cities.

"I feel happy,'' Christensen said. "I have a nice life. (On a 1-10 scale of happiness) I would probably say (I'm) an 8."

"He's a garbage man. He's also gay. But he's also completely accepted,'' Buettner said. "He said not once in his life has he ever been made to feel bad about his profession or sexual orientation.

"And one of the key elements of happiness, no matter where you go and find happy people, is a place where people can live out their values no matter what their values are. Here is a place where you can be gay and a garbage man and be celebrated."

The average work week in Denmark is 37 hours, compared to studies that show more than 50 is the norm in America.

"In Denmark, ambition is not celebrated as it would be for example in Los Angeles,'' Buettner said. "No matter what you’re doing, you’re no better than anybody else. This is a place where people can pursue things they enjoy about without letting the rat race suck them in."

Other staples of life in Denmark include a year off with pay for new mothers, free healthcare, free education through college and a comfortable retirement. The taxes are very high, but there is a strong trust in the government.

"Where you find happy places it's not just a coincidence,'' Buettner said. "There's always a genesis. And it's usually between 100 and 150 years ago some enlightened leaders made some decisions which set off an upward spiral chain of events that has created a happy population today.

"Most of the time these enlightened leaders have taken the focus off of just economic growth and focused on, number one, education, and, number two, public health."

Denmark also features co-housing communities called bofelleskap, where large communal dinners happen frequently and neighbors keep an eye out for one another.

"I think it's arguably one of the best ways to live because I believe they can count on this support (from each other),'' Buettner said. "Trust is even more important than wealth when it comes to happiness. And there’s a feeling here in Denmark that nothing too bad will ever happen to you."

The Blue Zones of Happiness: Lessons from the World's Happiest People, $17, Amazon

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