The joys of small-town living: Danish researcher visits Steamboat to study quality of rural life |

The joys of small-town living: Danish researcher visits Steamboat to study quality of rural life

Danish sociologist Dr. Pia Johansen looks out across the Yampa Valley in front of the historic Arnold Barn on Saturday. Johansen visited Steamboat this weekend from her native Denmark to inform her study on quality of life in rural communities.
Derek Maiolo

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — What makes people happy? Why do some people live in rural areas while others prefer cities? How does this decision impact one’s sense of well-being?

These are difficult, lofty questions to answer, but they are what Danish researcher Dr. Pia Johansen has spent much of her career studying. For the past 1 1/2 years, she has explored specifically how people in rural communities perceive their quality of life. While most of her work focuses on her native Denmark, she visited Steamboat Springs this weekend to speak with local residents and researchers, as well as to compare quality of life among Americans with her Danish subjects.

“What I am interested in is people’s satisfaction with everyday life,” Johansen said.

While it is too early in her four-year study for her to draw definite conclusions from her work, Johansen said time and time again she has found that not all of the factors to one’s sense of happiness can be measured. She calls to question some of the basic tenets on which her colleagues and predecessor have based quality-of-life studies in the past. 

Such work can have real impact on the way people think about and treat rural places, which Johansen acknowledged have taken a negative connotation among some people. In the U.S., an urban migration has been a decadeslong phenomena, with 80% of Americans living in cities, according to 2016 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. 

“Rural people are often talked about as if they only live where they do because they cannot get away or afford to,” Johansen said.

Her research says otherwise.

A breakdown of Johansen’s research

Johansen grew up in an urban area near Copenhagen, but she has since moved to a small Danish village that she says is home to just 35 people. She knows all of them by name, and, like Steamboat, a trip to the grocery store is just as much a social gathering as an errand.

It is these kinds of informal but meaningful connections that interest Johansen and what informs much of her research. As a doctoral student studying sociology, most of the studies she and her peers analyzed in class measured quality of life using traditional, tangible metrics — things like wealth, level of education and access to health care.

“But maybe we have missed something in this measuring,” Johansen said. 

An image from one of Johansen’s Danish respondents shows his morning swim, a representation of his quality of life.
Courtesy photo/Pia Johansen

About 120 Danes in six rural communities across the country, typically with populations of fewer than 1,000 residents, have participated in her study, according to Johansen. They represent various income levels, ethnicities, ages and other demographics. Johansen also visited each of the six communities for three or four days to get a sense of the place and meet the people who live there. Often, she would spark conversations with residents in grocery store lines, parks or other informal settings.

Instead of rating their perceived quality of life, Johansen asked them to send her photos of their town or home, of things that brings them joy or meaning. They accompanied the photos with descriptions.

Many of the pictures she received were of simple, pastoral settings: a bowl of fresh vegetables from a garden, a morning swim or a free breakfast at a village school. She also reached out to people in Routt County, asking for similar photos. 

“There’s a strong link between the pictures and how they talk about the landscape and how they talk about quality of life,” Johansen said.

Another Danish respondent sent Johansen a photo of carrots and radishes from her garden.
Courtesy photo/Pia Johansen

In Routt County, where most people live in the Yampa Valley surrounded by mountains, people talked about feeling “cozy,” describing the community as “tight-knit,” according to Johansen. This differed from Denmark, a country barely above sea level where people can see for miles across flatlands. There, many described feeling “free” or “open-minded.”

Landscapes, she said, can drastically shape how one perceives their life and the values they ascribe to it. The two appeared to be intrinsically linked, according to Johansen. Preserving the landscape is therefore important to preserving one’s quality of life.

Bringing her research to Routt County

One of the locals Johansen spoke with was Libby Christensen, a 4-H Extension Agent for Colorado State University in Routt County who specializes in family and consumer science. 

Her job, as she described it, is to analyze the holistic well-being of families in the area, with a focus on agriculture and economic development. Christensen sees studies like Johansen’s as a way to expand the conversation about what is important in rural communities and a way to protect Western heritage and open spaces even as more and more people move to urban areas.

“We want to make sure that piece of our community is not forgotten or lost even though the percentage of folks who engage in agriculture keeps shrinking,” Christensen said.

Christensen pointed to Steamboat Pilot & Today’s #SteamboatSnaps section as a local version of Johansen’s research.  Featured images show a variety of aspects that are meaningful to residents and visitors, from hiking trails to hunting to powder days. These things cannot be measured with the same ease as income levels or education, but they have just as much of an impact on people’s quality of life, she said.

Christensen used Routt County’s master plan as an example of how such intangible information can have a tangible impact. Routt County Commissioner Beth Melton has asked the community for feedback about priorities they want to see as she and fellow commissioners make updates to the plan, which lays out rules and regulations for managing land use in unincorporated parts of the county.

Protecting the county’s Western identity and open spaces are among the top priorities the public has listed, according to Christensen. She has a similar opinion. Routt County is the smallest community she has ever called home, but that is precisely what she loves about the place.

“You have to work to live here. It’s not easy, necessarily. The people that are here, we all come from this shared respect and appreciation and love for this community,” Christensen said. “It’s a very dynamic and meaningful experience.”

Johansen is looking for more Routt County residents to contribute to her research through photos of places or objects that contribute to their quality of life. Those interested can send images to

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.

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