The 2020 Mazda CX-30 is the ideal car to explore Denmark, the country that is showing the rest of the world how to be happy

Story Graham Hope / Photography Rama Knight

In a world that seems more divided than ever, there is one goal that unites people everywhere, regardless of faith, culture, or location—the pursuit of happiness. Everyone has their own idea of exactly how happiness can be achieved, but there is no doubt a sense of joy and contentment makes us better equipped to deal with the stresses and strains of daily life.

One country that seems to have found the answer to happiness is the Scandinavian nation of Denmark. European Commission research found the northern outpost of Aalborg and the capital, Copenhagen, to be the two happiest cities in Europe, while the second biggest city, Aarhus, is known as the “City of Smiles.”

In addition, Denmark finished second in the United Nations’ 2019 World Happiness Report (with first place held by another Nordic nation, Finland) and is responsible for bringing the phenomenon of hygge—essentially a feeling of cozy well-being—to global attention.

Darting around Copenhagen in our Mazda CX-30, it’s easy to see why the locals have reason to be pleased with their lives. There’s little of the big-city frenzy you might associate with other capitals; the pace of the place is constant but unhurried. There’s an obvious feeling of mutual trust, too. We respectfully share road space with thousands of cyclists in designated lanes—it’s widely claimed there are more bicycles than people in the city—and a significant number of e-scooters.

However, perhaps a more surprising example of the level of social trust is the number of babies in cargo trikes and strollers left outside bakeries and cafés while their parents enjoy the country’s signature pastries (wienerbrød) and coffee (kaffe) inside. It is hard to imagine this scenario in other major cities, but the Copenhageners’ faith in their fellow citizens makes it a common sight.

“in Copenhagen there is little of the frenzy of other capital cities; the pace is unhurried”

We are en route to meet Meik Wiking, founder and CEO of the Happiness Research Institute, a body that looks at happiness from a scientific perspective in an attempt to answer three key questions: How can happiness or the good life be measured? Why are some people happier than others? And how can quality of life be improved? Hailed by The Times of London newspaper as “probably the world’s happiest man,” Meik seemed to be the ideal person to kick off our quest to discover what the Danes are doing right.

Over the course of a fascinating hour-long discussion, Meik explains the socioeconomic and political factors that determine why some countries are happy and others less so. He rattles off six in quick succession: GDP per capita (or wealth), a healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life decisions, freedom from corruption, the level of generosity in society, and social support.

“Hygge is about everyday happiness, little moments of pleasure and comfort. Maybe if you have a culture where that is the norm, then it can also contribute to high levels of satisfaction with life”

Meik Wiking 

But there is, of course, more to it than that. While the state can provide the necessary infrastructure—and it does in Denmark, with free health care and education, courtesy of a high taxation model—individuals’ lifestyles also contribute. “Whether we look at sense of purpose, satisfaction with life or our daily mood, one of the few factors that impacts all three dimensions is relationships,” explains Meik. “One of the most consistent patterns that we see across different studies and data is that human interaction is a factor.”

In Denmark, this manifests itself in hygge, which Meik wrote about to great acclaim in The Little Book of Hygge in 2016. He explains: “Hygge is the art of creating a nice atmosphere—moments where we experience comfort, relaxation, togetherness and happiness. This happens everywhere, but what is uniquely Danish is that we have a word that describes that situation and also our belief that it is part of our national culture and identity.”

It’s an interesting point to ponder as we take the Mazda CX-30 to our next Copenhagen destination, Christianshavn, a charming mix of brightly colored houses, canalside cafés, and docked boats that provides the perfect spot to enjoy a spot of lunch—Denmark’s famous smørrebrød, or open sandwich. There’s a vast choice of tempting savory toppings, but my selection of locally sourced filleted fish adorned with crayfish salad is delicious.

Erik Frandsen has owned the Christianshavns Færgecafé for six years and cites one very simple reason why Danes are so content: a sensible work/life balance. The recommended workweek in Denmark is 37.5 hours. Not everyone adheres to it, but it sets the tone for an outlook where people work to live rather than live to work. “This is a major contributor to the sense of well-being,” Erik says. “It allows people to socialize more and spend more time doing the things they enjoy doing.”

To judge by the diners flocking onto Færgecafé’s beautiful Christianshavner ferry, an old fireman’s boat from 1880 that is berthed on the Wilders Kanal, enjoying a leisurely lunch with colleagues to break up the workday is a popular way of spending time. But we take our cue to head back into the CX-30 and seek out a different perspective.

One eye-opener as we travel through the Canal District towards our next destination is the sight of locals enjoying a refreshing dip alongside canoeists in what, I imagine, must be bracingly cold water. The surprise is not that the Danes are hardy enough to embrace outdoor swimming—it is a common pastime across the country—but that the water is clean enough to safely do so.

Throughout our time in Denmark, a procession of locals is eager to tell us how much the thrill of the chill of water on their skin makes them feel more alive. As someone who grew up in a coastal town in Scotland and braved the freezing North Sea once—and only once—it’s a positivity I can’t help but admire. I admire it from a distance, though; there’s zero chance I’ll be putting the therapeutic benefits of outdoor swimming to the test. For an alternative take on Danish happiness, we pick up English expatriate Oscar Haven and his friends in the CX-30 and enjoy a leisurely drive around one of the many parks in the suburbs of Copenhagen.

“DENMARK’S 37.5 HOUR WORKWEEK is a major contributor to the sense of well-being. it allows people to socialiZe more and spend more time doing the things they enjoy doing”

Erik Frandsen

Oscar is a success manager in a company that provides software that analyzes human behavior and he agrees the Danes’ outlook on work contributes to the sense of contentment. He explains: “I think they do prioritize well-being more in work life and that is represented by how much vacation, and maternity and paternity leave they get. Danes are very good at taking time out to appreciate life when it is actually happening.”

One thing that is slightly puzzling, though, is that there is little obvious joie de vivre on show from the locals. On first acquaintance they’re simply not as outgoing as people you might meet in other parts of the world. Oscar’s housemate Lieke Homminga, from the Netherlands, has a theory why it can seem so hard for outsiders to get to know the Danes. “They spend a lot of time with longtime friends. There is a real focus on relationships and you won’t be their friend in a day. But break through that barrier and you have a friend for life.”

Of course a capital can only tell you so much about a country and our next destination is Aarhus, the nation’s second most populous city. It’s a three-and-a-half hour journey, mainly via highway and the dramatic 11-mile Storebælt Bridge that links east and west Denmark. For the most part the landscape is flat and punctuated by wind turbines being given a good workout by ferocious gales (accompanied by horizontal rain). It’s a challenging combination, although it serves to highlight the superb noise insulation and refinement of our CX-30.

The weather calms down by the time we reach Aarhus, Europe’s Capital of Culture in 2017 and a city whose character is strongly defined by the 40,000 students who live there. As we comfortably navigate the CX-30 through the tight streets of the Latin Quarter, a captivating mishmash of bars, restaurants, and boutiques, it’s impossible not to notice the relative youth of those enjoying some late-summer alfresco drinking and dining.

“the thrill of the chill of water on their skin makes many danes feel more alive”

Ready to meet us is Marina Myslyaeva Famme, owner of Aarhuscityguide.info, which provides tailored tours of a city rich in the arts. Born in Russia’s Ural Mountains and having previously lived in Qatar, Marina is now married to a Dane and proud to call the country her home. She believes Denmark’s status as the world’s happiest country is “dependent on what you call happiness. In my country, Russia, it is an explosion of joy.

But you can’t prolong it; it is a spark. Here it is something that lasts. Danish people feel satisfied, pleased, relaxed because the future is not frightening.” There’s no escaping the fact that this security is partially funded by the high taxation model, but Marina has personal experience of its benefits: one of her three children has had three operations in just six years, paid for by the state, to address his heart problems. “There is no way I can thank Denmark enough for this,” she reflects.

This enriched quality of life is complemented by plenty of stunning beauty in and around Aarhus. Our day ends on a circular pier that doubles as a work of art called the Infinite Bridge, which provides exquisite views over Aarhus Bay. That a young couple from London have chosen it to film a video for guests at their engagement party gives an idea of how idyllic the setting is as the evening sun goes down.

From Aarhus we travel further north to Aalborg, ranked the happiest city in Europe, where we speak to teacher Anders Jakobsen and physical therapist Henrik Trabjerg, who double as enthusiastic travel bloggers on their site passportplease.net. For a relatively small city, Aalborg can offer a wealth of culture including the Utzon Center, a celebration of design and architecture; musical hub the Musikkens Hus and Kunsten; and the Museum of Modern Art, designed by Finnish master Alvar Aalto.

“Danes find joy in participating in clubs or associations: whether it is theateR, history, singing, literature… And that, I think, gives them a great sense of unity”

Henrik Trabjerg

While Anders and Henrik love traveling, they say it helps them “think about all the good things we have in Denmark” and they relish taking advantage of all Aalborg has to offer. But this appreciation of the arts also provides another clue as to why Danes are so satisfied. Henrik explains: “Danes find great joy in participating in clubs or associations. Whether it is theater, history, singing, or literature, they get a great sense of unity.”

The people of Aalborg are also blessed with an enviable location, because the city acts as a gateway to wild, untamed North Jutland—a breathtaking mix of epic white sand dunes, beaches, picturesque lakes, seaside villages, and, when the extremely changeable weather allows, beautiful natural light.

There’s a sense of entering a genuine wilderness as we power through wind and rain towards Skagen, a port at the northern tip of the Jutland peninsula where the odor of the harbor unmistakably tells you that fishing is a key industry. Reinvigorated by a hearty lunch of flounder and monkfish, we return to the CX-30 to brave the elements and take in the imposing Skagen Gray Lighthouse, now an information center about migratory birds.

From there we head two and a half hours southwest to Klitmøller, a fishing village that is transforming itself into a surfing and kitesurfing destination of some repute thanks to its generous waves. An old piano beside the beach—to provide entertainment in summer, apparently—is an endearing touch.

“a surfer tells us danes are content with less. it’s a telling insight into the nation’s happiness”

As the rain begins to fall quite heavily, we speak to the surfers trooping in from the sea. One says something that gives as telling an insight into the nation's happiness as we’ve had yet. “We Danes,” she reflects, “are content with less.”

With the rain escalating into a downpour of biblical proportions, I park up the CX-30 with photographer Rama beside some picture-postcard fishing huts to mull this over, and suddenly I have the realization that we are being sucked into the Danes’ way of thinking. Yes, while contemplating the bleak beauty of the sea as the storm rages outside, it dawns on me that Rama and I are experiencing our own form of hygge in the comfort of our Mazda.

And that’s when it all becomes clear: there are many reasons for the Danes’ relative happiness, but their willingness to appreciate the moment, no matter the circumstances, is one lesson we can all learn from.

THE ALL-NEW MAZDA CX-30

Our Mazda CX-30 faced a host of different challenges in Denmark, but excelled in each environment. On urban roads it is compact enough to feel at ease darting through city traffic, while on highways, superb noise insulation makes it a comfortable and refined cruiser at speed. Head on to a twisting country road and it delivers the kind of agility not normally associated with an SUV. Inside, the pared-back design removes visual clutter and makes it easy for the driver to concentrate on driving, while the 8.8-inch information display is intuitively operated by the command controller. The use of genuinely premium materials provides a real sense of occasion, too. In a country that enjoys the good life, it unequivocally delivers a good time for drivers and passengers. You can watch the all-new CX-30’s journey to happiness in our video below.