The Road Less Taken: Is Danish happiness an inside job?

Some weeks ago I was conducting research at Danish schools trying to gain a deeper understanding of how Danes actively teach empathy there.

Standards set at school
Seeing as empathy is now considered one of the single biggest factors in predicting successful leaders and businesses, as need as general well-being, it’s no wonder the Danes are consistently voted as being one of the happiest countries in the world by the OECD.

Alarmingly, empathy levels in America have dropped by up to 50 percent in the last 30 years according to a study presented to the Association for Psychological Science by the University of Michigan in 2010. Denmark, on the other hand, continues to have high empathy levels, which is partly due to it being entwined in the school curriculum.

Learning together
One of the ways Danes teach empathy, I discovered, is through teamwork and something called ‘co-operative learning’. I explore this theme with my co-author, a Danish psychotherapist, in the book ‘The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident Capable Kids’.

The idea of co-operative learning is to mix children of different strengths and weaknesses to work together on projects and assignments to help each other. The thinking goes that if you are smart and talented you should hone your skills, but you should also help others. While you may be a maths genius, if you don’t learn to work well with your peers, you won’t get very far. The maths genius will surely need help in other areas at other times, and it’s a great lesson to teach children early on since no-one in life operates alone.

Interestingly enough, research shows that when you have to explain something to someone else (like a maths problem), you not only learn the material much better than by memorising it alone, but it also builds up your capacity for empathy. Having to listen to the way someone receives information, and putting yourself in their shoes to understand how they learn, is strengthening your mental wires for empathy.

All about the teamwork
Approximately 60 percent of schoolwork in Denmark is done in teams. This is fascinating when you consider how many of us spend the majority of our schooling careers thinking as an individual and yet, when we graduate, most of us go on to work in teams in some form or another. It’s no wonder, perhaps, that Denmark is also voted as one of the best places to work in Europe.

The idea that one person should be a winner and stand out isn’t what they strive for in Denmark. Instead, if you happen to be talented or gifted in a subject, then you have a certain responsibility to help others who aren’t as talented.

Compete with yourself!
Before I left, I asked one of the teachers if there was ever something a student would be awarded for. As I didn’t see one trophy case in the hallway or one sign of an ‘outstanding student’ or a ‘sports star’, I was indeed curious.

He laughed. “I think the only time someone might be awarded for anything would be for being a nice friend. But generally we don’t want students to compete with each other. We want them to compete with themselves.”

I was really struck by this. Is there any better way to build genuine self-esteem than to compete with yourself without the need for an award or to beat someone else? Isn’t it more powerful to believe in your own progress than to measure yourself against others? This seems like the real foundation for internal well-being. True happiness, after all, is an inside job.