Hygge while difficult to accurately translate into English, is defined by the Oxford dictionary as a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being (regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture). I was first introduced to this term earlier this year, by my former student who had spent a semester studying in Copenhagen. Thanks to social media, I was able to live vicariously through her posts, and the city has moved to the top my list for places to visit. While Norway surpassed 154 other countries as the happiest country in 2017, Denmark took a close second and has previously been at the top of the list. The United States was ranked fourteenth.
Happiest Countries (2017)
- Norway (7.53)
- Denmark (7.52)
- Iceland (7.50)
- Switzerland (7.49)
- Finland (7.46)
- Netherlands (7.37)
- Canada (7.31)
- New Zealand (7.31)
- Australia (7.28)
- Sweden (7.28)
The list above isn’t surprising, and I’m sure we could discuss at length the difficulty of defining and measuring a country’s happiness. However, we can at least agree that happiness is a key life goal for the majority if not all people. Ask anyone, and while some put making a lot of money at the very top, most people desire happiness. In fact, experts in the growing field of positive psychology have devoted entire careers to studying happiness.
A very helpful perspective comes from the work of Shawn Achor in his book The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work. This book in a nutshell convinces the reader that success does not precede happiness, but happiness precedes success, because your cognitive abilities are improved when you are in a happy state. While this is a simple relationship to understand, it is a challenging task to put into practice for many today, including our students who are super-scheduled, aways plugged-in, and continually focused on their next accomplishment or potential failure. (Here’s an interesting and very humorous TED Talk by Shawn Achor that captures his important work in positive psychology.)
Knowing this, the important question becomes: How do we as educators and schools as institutions provide a recipe that promotes student happiness and ultimately success? While I do not have any concrete fixes or well-researched answers, I believe it has something to do with the school environment and purpose. First, our school environment might do well to borrow from the Danish concept of “hygge”. While we are often racing a clock, or thinking about the next assessment, I think it is important to take the time to relax, enjoy the moment, and focus on building relationships with students. We all want to know our students, but we only really get to know someone when we are in an unstructured safe, comfortable environment where we can be ourselves and pursue our interests. While classrooms can be welcoming and safe, the environment and time spent is rarely unstructured, and students are striving to live up to someone else’s expectation or at the worst are completely checked out because the expectation seems insurmountable.
In addition to the environment, the purpose of school is vital. Many view school as a necessary stepping stone to success in life, because it leads to getting into college or university. The skills and knowledge gained at college then lead to a successful career where a person can make an ample living, and this ultimately leads to success in life. Many schools define their purpose or mission statement as preparing students for participation in the real world as engaged and informed global citizens. While this purpose is worthy, shouldn’t schools place more emphasis on the happiness of the student?
On a “positive note” (pun intended), I think schools are starting to do this. First, many teachers have introduced mindfulness using sites like Calm and are not afraid to take some time out of the hectic day to introduce students to the benefits of meditation. Additionally, many schools are beginning to see the advantages of curricular strategies like Genius Hour that allow students the time to explore an individual interest or goal. These both point to a shift that is essential to achieving success, a shift towards emphasizing well-being of the whole person over test-scores and happiness and growth over content-coverage. With that, I hope that all students and teachers find hygge and happiness in life!