The story of “Danish Happiness”

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According to a new global narrative, the Danes are the happiest people in the world. This chapter takes a critical look at the international media discourse of “happiness”, tracing its roots and underlying assumptions. Equipped with the Natural Semantic Metalanguage approach to linguistic and cultural analysis, a new in-depth semantic analysis of the story of “Danish happiness” is developed. It turns out that the allegedly happiest people on earth do not (usually) talk and think about life in terms of “happiness”, but rather through a different set of cultural concepts and scripts, all guided by the Danish cultural keyword lykke. The semantics of lykke is explicated along with two related concepts livsglæde, roughly, ‘life joy’ and livslyst ‘life pleasure’, and based on semantic and ethnopragmatic analysis, a set of lykke-related cultural scripts is provided. With new evidence from Danish, it is argued that global Anglo-International “happiness discourse” misrepresents local meanings and values, and that the one-sided focus on “happiness across nations” in the social sciences is in dire need of cross-linguistic confrontation. The chapter calls for a post-happiness turn in the study of words and values across languages, and for a new critical awareness of linguistic and conceptual biases in Anglo-international discourse.


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