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What Life in Denmark Can Teach Us About Depression

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I live in Denmark, which for many years, has been ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world. Because of the socialist society Danes have built for themselves, there is free education, which means plenty of people have advanced degrees. Since so many people are educated, many earn a satisfying salary with plenty of disposable income to spend on traveling, restaurants and other indulgences. Because of these indulgences, people report having a healthy work-life balance. This balance ensures social cohesion with low levels of crime and intolerance, and people are not in debt from healthcare or educational costs. Despite these gifts, though, we still have seen a rise in antidepressant use, and people in our country still experience mental health challenges.

Why is this? I believe the answer is revealed in two quotes from the Batman trilogy.

The Batman trilogy begins with the hero in a crisis where he needs to build himself to become his strongest self. With this strength, he creates a city of peace where its citizens can prosper. Afterward, when the hero no longer needs to fight adversaries, he isolates himself from the world. In his comfort, his muscles and reflexes naturally weaken. This is not a problem until the new villain attacks him and says, “Victory has defeated you.”

When we are victorious, it is natural to want to spoil those around us and give them a better life. Unfortunately, there are consequences of being spoiled. When surrounded by abundant privilege designed to protect us and give us a head start, we can be “weakened,” just like Batman. Our ability to stand up for ourselves, fight for our passions, challenge adversity and overcome obstacles atrophies and the smallest things have the power to defeat us. When we are always protected, sheltered and supported we never get the opportunity to build a strong mental health defense system. Then, when anything bad happens, we don’t have the ability to cope. Sometimes, people assume there is something broken within them and it makes them want to die.

Furthermore, because of all the wonderful privileges one receives when living in Denmark, many develop a lack of appreciation for the bounty they are surrounded by. After all, all things manmade go through inflation. For example, having a master’s degree is so common here that it is rendered relatively meaningless. Therefore, having high status requires people to become truly exceptional to rise out of the vast pool of the middle class.

This ascension is quite hard, so one strategy I’ve noticed many have adopted is to present the illusion of having a higher status by complaining about how unsatisfied they are with luxuries. Some Danes will look far and wide for things to complain about and indulge in it gleefully. They will glorify restaurant reviews complaining about trivial matters such as the mushroom sauce on steak being the wrong color brown. Unfortunately, the short-term high of feeling superior is self-destructive and creates a necessary habit of searching for the negative in life to ensure they never fall too low. Before they know it, negativity is all they see and it filters the way they think about life and themselves. In this “victory,” of course they are struggling.

I remember, over a decade ago, when I was so poor I lived in a house with no hot water. If I wanted to shower, I had to heat a special bucket connected to the faucet. When that bucket was empty, there was no more hot water, so I learned to take super-fast showers and turn the water off when scrubbing. At the time, I could only afford Cup of Noodles for most of my meals. One day, one of my friend’s parents came by with some potato salad. We sat at the table, and I had my fair small portion. But then the mother said I could have all of it. Me? I thought. I can have all of this? It was just a bowl, but I cherished it with all my heart. On that day of poverty, I was king. Since that day, I have been to more fancy restaurants than I can remember, and I haven’t cared too much about it, but I will never forget that potato salad.

In the final Batman movie, the concept of having too much is contrasted with not having enough. The rich hero is confronted by a thief who says, “You’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” She didn’t necessarily have a bad life, but comparison is a thief of joy, and when she saw what the rich had, she wanted it.

Envy is shaped by our environment and is created by comparing ourselves with what others have. When our expectations for what we believe we deserve doesn’t work out, which happens all the time, we suffer. Consider how quickly we begin to hate ourselves when we go on social media and look at romantic relationships, glamorous bodies, fancy houses or cars, fame, hyper success, or anything else we fixate our attention on. We’re completely fine without any of these things, but our mind loves to compare the best in others with the worst in ourself. Most of us can’t look away, even when we try, because there is a pleasure in the sting of desire.

Since Denmark has been ranked as having such a high quality of life, it’s easy for Danes to look at others and assume they must be happy. This comparison makes them feel extra worthless, even when everything is just fine. Jealousy, envy and greed are fantastic ways to make yourself miserable. They eliminate our ability to love ourselves and rest in gratitude for what we have.

We are all living as someone else’s answered prayers. Maybe you are blessed with good health, having more time to live, having parents, kids, a partner, a job, a body you feel comfortable in, not being in a dangerous environment, or many other wonderful gifts, but everyone wants more.

Being depressed and suicidal is not always a reflection of how bad our life is, but it can be a reflection of how bad we think our life is since comparisons will destroy us. It’s understandable to want to seek comfort, wealth or privilege as a way to ensure a happy life, but this mentality can be a trap because regardless of if you win or you lose, if you think being comfortable is required for happiness, you will suffer.

Denmark is an absolute wonder, but everything comes with a cost. Batman was strongest when he had a purpose for building himself. Therefore, do not concern yourself with what others have or what they are doing. You have no idea what their inner state is really like. Instead, build only yourself.

What do you think?

Photo by Sorin Sîrbu on Unsplash

Originally published: April 19, 2021
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