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Searching for happiness in the far north

Landscape
© Bettina Theuerkauf
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On our Happiness Road Tour through Scandinavia, we talked to three very different women about their definition of happiness.

According to the World Happiness Report, the Nordic countries are the happiest in the world year in, year out. Why is this? To get to the bottom of it, we set off on a search for happiness through Scandinavia with our Marco Polo.

Mercedes Marco Polo driving in the landscape
© Bettina Theuerkauf

Our first port of call: Denmark. Here, we meet up with Kirstine Roepstorff. After having lived in New York City, Tokyo and Berlin, the artist returned to her tranquil home town of Fredericia.

Our camper van effortlessly purrs across the flat expanse of the Danish countryside. Here and there, the sea glints in the distance and the occasional windmill appears on the horizon. After a three-hour drive, we arrive at Kirstine's studio. Nestled into green meadows, its wooden architecture catches the eye, jutting into the bright blue sky. The artist, who was Denmark's representative at the Biennale di Venezia in 2017, is exceedingly busy: She is in the throes of preparing for her extensive 'Renaissance of the Night' exhibition at Copenhagen art gallery Charlottenborg Kunsthal.

© Wendy Taylor

With a charming Danish accent, she recounts her years in Berlin, and the connection to happiness is quickly made: “One subject that I address from various perspectives is that of denouement. Berlin is a city of denouement, denouement in the form of change, which is also always associated with pain.” Yet, wherever there is suffering, there is also healing. “I had the feeling of coming to Berlin as an unfinished puzzle,” Kirstine continues. “The 14 years I spent there were an important part of a healing process for me.”

The artist’s return to Denmark was linked with the need to distance herself from all the hustle and bustle and the many external influences. Thanks to the tranquillity needed for looking inward, Kirstine says she became more aware of her environment again. In Denmark she feels like she has arrived in her life – a deep source of happiness, she states. Does Kirstine’s personal story play into the peaking numbers of Scandinavians, as suggested by the World Happiness Report?

happiness researcher Anne Henderson on a bike
© Wendy Taylor

One person who should know the answer is Anne Henderson. She works as an analyst at the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen and explains how happiness research works. According to Henderson, it has been found that generosity, trust – trust in the government as well as one another – and the social network are extremely important; having someone to rely on in times of crisis and someone to share one's happiness with. Henderson points out, that physical and mental health are also very important, as is equality. “Equality can refer to many aspects in life – be it income, gender equality or healthcare,” the scientist explains. “These, in essence, are the main drivers for happiness.”

Our visit to the Happiness Research Institute not only made happiness research more tangible for us, it also highlighted the fact that equality and a good social system go a long way to ensuring that a society is predominantly content.

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  • Mercedes Marco Polo in Sweden
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    © Bettina Theuerkauf
  • residential area in sweden at a waterfront
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    © Bettina Theuerkauf
  • grasland in sweden
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    © Bettina Theuerkauf
  • Mercedes Marco Polo on a meadow during the Happiness Tour
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    © Bettina Theuerkauf
  • interior of the Mercedes Marco Polo
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    © Bettina Theuerkauf
  • Mercedes Marco Polo at a lake
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    © Bettina Theuerkauf
  • Mercedes Marco Polo in front of a lake in Sweden
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    © Bettina Theuerkauf
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    © Bettina Theuerkauf

After a stopover in Sweden, we continue on to Iceland, the last destination on our Happiness Road Tour. Fascinated by the incredible nature of the country, we meet Arnbjörg Mariá Danielsen. For the 38-year-old founder of the Disco Art Festival in Greenland, the key to happiness lies in the freedom to shape one's own life. This is also reflected in the Icelander's professional projects: Arnbjörg accompanies major orchestral projects as a freelance director. Currently, she is working with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra to develop a piece celebrating the country's 100th year of independence before taking up her post as Programme Manager and Curator for the Nordic House Reykjavik in the winter. She is not surprised that her homeland consistently serves as a role model when it comes to equality. “Icelanders have a great understanding of the human side of things,” Arnbjörg agrees. “There is great tolerance and a very strong model of femininity.”

Founder Arnbjörg Maria Danielsen
© Wendy Taylor

For Arnbjörg, happiness is not just tied to individual freedom and self-expression, however; the relationship with nature, which plays an important part in her home country, is also key. Elves and goblins, in which around 80% of Icelanders are said to believe, are seen as guardians of nature and have already put a stop to several construction projects on the island.

Mercedes Marco Polo driving through the landscape in Swede
© Foto: Bettina Theuerkauf

A wise decision and a blessing, we think, as we drive along the country road past herds of Icelandic horses, mystical moon-like landscapes and dark, barren mountains. We stop at waterfalls, hot springs, icebergs and black beaches that seem to have sprung from a fairy tale world and almost take your breath away. You forget about the smartphone in your pocket and the things on your to-do lists. Instead, with the temperature at barely ten degrees Celsius accompanied by sudden showers, we are overcome by a strong feeling of happiness and the certainty that, at this moment, we are in just the right place at just the right time.