The Scandinavians are a famously collectivist bunch but the Danes’ social cohesion is off the scale. The super glue that binds them is an extraordinarily high membership of clubs, societies, voluntary associations and unions. According to one recent survey by Aalborg University, more than 90 per cent of Danes are members of something or other. The Danes joke that if two or more of them meet they will form a forening (a union or association) and they commonly refer to their country as foreningsdanmark.
Some say this tendency has something to do with climate or geography; others point to Denmark’s history, in which its vast empire was slowly eroded by military defeats and economic ruin, leading to an insular national character. These nesting tendencies are inherent in hygge, the much co-opted Danish concept of cosiness.
“Denmark is a small country; we don’t really have any natural resources so we’ve had to work together to negotiate and trade,” says social scientist Torben Bechmann Jensen from Copenhagen University. The upside might well be that this proclivity to join groups and clubs is the secret behind Denmark’s most valuable soft-power asset: happiness.
Club membership has also helped make Danes among the least lonely people in the world. In a 2018 Eurobarometer survey, 79 per cent of Danes reported never or almost never being lonely and only 8 per cent of them socialised less than once a month. In contrast, one in five American and British adults reported feeling lonely or socially isolated; while two in five people in Japan are expected to live on their own by 2050.
“After a dip in the cold water we’re smiling, even at the end of a bad day,” says Karen Sophie Lerhard, a board member of Charlottenlund Søbad winter-bathing club. “We dream of the ice; the colder the better.” Fellow board member Lise Bak agrees: “The slush is like a silk scarf on your body.”
Winter bathing is just one of the club activities booming in Denmark. Charlottenlund Søbad, founded in the early 1900s on the coast just north of Copenhagen, has 3,000 members and an eight-year waiting list. The health benefits of a cold dip are well documented but the winter bathers stress the social aspect. “You feel part of something bigger here,” says new member Lotte Maersk. “It becomes part of your identity: ‘I am a winter bather.’”
There are said to be more than 100,000 local and national societies and associations in Denmark, ranging from hobby or leisure-orientated groups with a handful of members to trade unions, which have a combined membership of about 1.25 million. The average Dane belongs to three such formal associations, more than any other European nationality. The most popular are amateur football clubs, with 350,000 members nationally.
In recognition of sports and hobby clubs’ importance to Danish society, support for them is enshrined in law and local authorities provide financial assistance and help in finding premises. But Bachmann Jensen does have a warning about foreningsdanmark, pointing out that if you’re constantly told that you live in the happiest country in the world but you yourself aren’t happy, it can foster a sense of failure and isolation. “Younger Danes and those in big cities are occupied with other things and the fear of missing out stops them committing to something regular,” he says.
Psychologists have long cited membership of groups as important for wellbeing. A 2016 Nottingham Trent University study of 4,000 people in Italy and the UK found that for each club, team or group people joined, their happiness increased by 9 per cent, irrespective of age, gender, income, employment status or nationality.
“In a sense it doesn’t matter so much what people do in the club – it doesn’t have to have a greater purpose,” says Jensen. “The most important thing is just to be doing something with other people.”
The members of Københavns Braetspilsklub (Copenhagen’s Board Games Club) would probably agree. At a weekly Tuesday night gathering in a basement in an apartment block in Nørrebro, members cheerfully suggest that board games are a rather limited sphere of activity – but that’s the point.
“It’s great to be with people while you are doing something else, something distracting,” says Daniel Olsen as he enjoys The Great Western Trail, an obscure and complex strategy game typical of those played here. “My friends and family are all members of clubs but I was a bit socially distant. Then I found board games and it was like, ‘Where have you been all my life?’”
Another student, Copenhagen-based Louis Kleiminger, a first-time visitor, reveals that he sometimes finds social occasions stressful. “It’s easy to be with people around a board game,” he says. “You don’t have to talk too much. Everyone has been really welcoming.”
A couple of days later we catch up with another Danish special-interest club: the Realdania By and Byg Klub (Realdania City and Construction Club). Realdania owns about 60 historical buildings across the country, including several homes created by Danish design legends such as Arne Jacobsen and Poul Henningsen. Today some of the club’s 4,000 members are in Brabrand, west of Aarhus, visiting a prime example of 1950s Danish brutalism, which was once home to its architect Knud Friis.
“This is different to other clubs I belong to,” says Pia Mølholm, who’s also in a salsa club and a business networking association. “This is about an interest in architecture, not so much about hygge or getting together to eat and drink.” Similarly, another member visiting the Friis house, Maike Jessen, belongs to a knitting circle and a ceramics club “but this is about an interest in design. I don’t come here [just to] socialise.”
Whether it’s about socialising or not, the simple motivation for joining a club is the same: get out of your home, follow your passion and be less lonely while doing it. “You work to get results and be productive,” says Stine Petersen, another member of multiple organisations. “But these clubs are where you put your love.”
Do you socialise less than once a month? (2018 EU survey)
Least lonely three:
Denmark: 8 per cent said yes
Netherlands: 8 per cent
Sweden: 8 per cent
Most lonely three:
Greece: 40 per cent said yes
Hungary: 40 per cent
Lithuania: 35 per cent