Kaitlin Ugolik is a brooklyn-based journalist who writes and edits stories about the law, health, finance, technology and the media.

Empathy = Hygge?

I have been thinking a lot about Denmark, recently. For one thing, Pinterest learned that I’m interested in Scandinavia and started really pushing Copenhagen on me. So I started researching the city a bit more, and learning about things like hygge, and the place is really growing on me. Not only is it gorgeous and apparently a hipster haven (apparently Brooklynites fit in quite well over there), the country is really serious about empathy.

If you’ve been following along here lately, you know empathy is a topic of particular interest for me. So when I saw this story start to circulate earlier this month, my ears perked up. I’ve been doing a bunch of research lately into psychological and sociological beliefs about empathy, particularly the question of whether or not it can be taught. Many seem to have come to the conclusion that it can, but the question of how is a bit trickier, especially because different cultures seem to approach and define empathy differently.

According to some recent research linked in the Quartz story above, an empathy deficit may be leading to higher levels of anxiety and depression in teenagers in the U.S. Over in Denmark, they’ve been taking this issue to heart for a while longer, and as Quartz explains, empathy building is a required part of the school curriculum for students between the ages of six and 16. During these workshops, which sound like mini group therapy sessions, students talk about interpersonal issues. The goal is to create a nice sense of coziness – hygge! – and ultimately more empathy.

The most interesting part of this story to me, though, was the end, when the author notes that while Denmark is often held up as one of the happiest countries in the world, some studies have suggested that’s because Danes have lower expectations for happiness, and there isn’t evidence that they actually have an easier time with mental health than us. So, it’s hard to tell whether this empathy training in schools is really working. But maybe taking empathy seriously as a nation is good enough, for now? What do you think?

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