Fact check: Denmark is among world’s happiest countries, but it’s not No. 1
The claim: Denmark is ranked the happiest country in the world; 33 hours work in a week, $20 minimum wages, free university, medical and child care
Every year ahead of the United Nations’ World Happiness Day, on March 20, a report is released that ranks 156 countries on their happiness based on income, life expectancy, freedom, social support, trust and generosity.
According to one social media post, Denmark has turned up at the top of list.
“Denmark is ranked as the happiest country in the world with 33 hours work in a week, $20 minimum wages, free universities and medical care, free child care and low level of Corruption,” reads a Dec. 30 Facebook post to the group Mysterious Facts which has since been deleted. The user who posted it did not have a way to be contacted.
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Nordic countries ranked high in reports, but Denmark isn’t first now
This year, the Gallup 2020 World Happiness Report rated Finland as the world’s happiest country for the third year in a row, with Denmark in second and Switzerland third.
The report rates the countries based on different aspects of social environment, such as having someone to count on, having a sense of freedom to make key life decisions, generosity and trust.
Considered risks are ill-health, discrimination, low income, unemployment, separation, divorce or widowhood and safety in the street. The “happiness costs of these risks are very large,” according to the report.
The meme provides no source of information or date; it is possible the first claim could have been true at the time the meme was created, as Denmark has been previously ranked first in World Happiness Reports.
A search of the text included in the post results in a blog post with an almost identical version of the claim from 2016, a year when Denmark was ranked first. Denmark also made the top of the list in 2012 and 2013.
Nordic countries, including Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland, have appeared on the top 10 of the World Happiness Report since it started publishing its annual rankings in 2012. In 2017, 2018 and 2019, Nordic countries occupied the top three spots.
The report found that Nordic citizens are exceptionally satisfied with their lives because of reliable and extensive welfare benefits, low corruption, well-functioning democracy and state institutions and small population.
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Work hours, university, medical and child care
Beyond overall happiness, the post makes claims — some true — about why Danes might be so happy.
While the post states an average workweek in Denmark is 33 hours, a full-time workweek in Denmark is typically 37 hours distributed over five days, according to the city of Copenhagen. It/ notes that workweeks can be longer for those in a managerial position or self-employed.
Staying extra hours is discouraged, and most employees leave the office around 4 p.m. to pick up their children and begin preparing for dinner, according to the official website of Denmark. In the last weeks of July, offices are shut down as Danes take time off to enjoy a short summer and every employee is legally entitled to five weeks of paid vacation per year.
Employees are also not allowed to work more than 48 hours per week on an average of a four month period due to the EU’s Working Time Directive, which was implemented in Denmark’s Working Enviornment Act in 2017.
The post states the nation’s minimum wage is $20 an hour. But Denmark lacks a federally mandated minimum wage, according to Investopedia. However, trade unions work to ensure that workers are paid a reasonable rate and try to keep the average minimum wage at $20 per hour. As of 2020, minimum wages in the country hover around $16.60 per hour, according to Check In Price.
Minimum-wage.org, says Denmark’s average minimum wage is $18 per hour and annual minimum wage is $44,252.00. A November 2020 article from Market Watch says wages in Scandinavia are among the highest in the world at $17.69 per hour.
Schooling is largely free, as the post claims. Higher education in Denmark is free for students from the European Union or European University Association and for students in exchange programs, according to the Danish Agency for Higher Education and Science. Education is also free for students who have a permanent residence, a temporary residence with possibility of obtaining permanent residence or a resident permit.
It is also worth noting that every Danish student receives a rough estimate of $900 per month, the Washington Post reported.
In Denmark, the health care system is financed through an income tax of 8% and provides universal access to citizens and legal residents, USA TODAY reported. So while the post states medical care is free, it lacks the context that taxpayers do cover the cost.
The public child care system in Denmark is based on a partially free system, and some day care institutions have waiting lists. However, most guarantee a place for children from the age of 1, according to Work in Denmark. The child care facilities receive financial support from the state and the most payable out of pocket amount by parents is 30% of the cost. Child care is not free, as claimed.
The reason Denmark can afford to provide these services is because it has one of the highest tax rates in the world, with the average Dane paying a total of 45% in income taxes, according to BBC. In fact, most Scandinavian countries offer higher education, child and medical care, and parental leave due to their high levels of taxation. In 2018, Denmark’s tax-to-GDP ratio was 44.9%, Norway’s was 39% and Sweden’s 43.9%, which compares to a ratio of 24.3% in the U.S., according to the Tax Foundation.
The post is accurate in claiming that Denmark has low corruption. The 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Denmark as the least corrupt country in the world for the fifth year in a row due to its degree of press freedom, access to information, independent judicial systems and strong standards of integrity for public officials.
In 2018, New Zealand and Denmark were both ranked as the least corrupt, according to World Population Review, which notes that there is no exact way to measure corruption but many use the Corruption Perceptions Index published by Transparency International.
Our ruling: Partly False
The claim that Denmark is ranked the happiest country in the world due to its short workweeks, high minimum wage, and free university and health and child care is rated PARTLY FALSE, based on our research. Finland has been ranked the happiest country in the world for the last three consecutive years, with Denmark holding a spot in the top three. Denmark also has 37-hour workweeks, not 33, and there is no minimum wage. Services of higher education, child and medical care and parental leave are available due to their high levels of taxation; they’re not offered for free.
Our fact-check sources:
- World Happiness Report, March 20, “Cities and Happiness: A Global Ranking and Analysis“
- World Happiness Report, March 20, “The Nordic Exceptionalism: What Explains Why the Nordic Countries Are Constantly Among the Happiest in the World“
- World Happiness Report 2016
- World Happiness Report 2012
- World Happiness Report 2013
- World Happiness Report 2015
- Social Panic, March 17, 2016, “DENMARK FAIRY TALES: IS DENMARK THE HAPPIEST COUNTRY BECAUSE OF THIS? NO.“
- City of Copenhagen, “How many hours make up a standard working week?“
- Denmark.dk, Work-life balance
- Investopedia, April 9, 5 Developed Countries without Minimum Wages
- Check in Price, Feb. 10, Average and Minimum Salary in Copenhagen, Denmark
- Minimum-wage.org, Denmark minimum wage
- Market Watch, Nov. 25, The U.K. is increasing the minimum wage. How does it compare with the U.S. and rest of the world?
- Studyindenmark.dk, Tuition Fees & Scholarships
- Washington Post, Feb. 4, 2015, Why Danish students are paid to go to college
- USA TODAY, April 11, 2019, “U.S. leads among countries that spend the most on public health care“
- Workindenmark.dk, Childcare in Denmark
- BBC, Dec. 30, 2016, “Can Denmark’s generous childcare system survive?“
- Tax Foundation, Feb. 24, “Insights into the Tax Systems of Scandinavian Countries“
- Corruption Perceptions Index 2016
- World Population Review, Least Corrupt Countries 2020