Hygge and Happiness: Social Justice and the Danes


As I am sure most are aware from the flooded bookshelves of your local bookshop, ‘Hygge’ is the newest phenomena replacing the cold empty space where ‘mindfulness’ once sat. Hygge is a Danish concept meaning ‘cosiness’ and it is about (from what we are told) enjoying the ‘little’ things in life like a warm cup of tea indoors on a cold winters night, or putting phones away and enjoying a conversation with friends.

The very first article that I read on Hygge posed the question ‘Perhaps Hygge explains why the Danes are the happiest people in the world?’ and to be frank, this is where I’d had enough.

At what point do we stop trying to commercialise happiness and well-being as something we can buy in book form for €14.99 in our local shop? Instead, why not take a look at the wider context of the world around us?!

Before I continue, I must flag a BIG WARNING – I am passionate about well-being and mental health. I practice mindfulness and have done for a year now, and I bought my sister a book on Hygge upon her return from Erasmus in Denmark. I believe in reading in general as a tool to find out ways to mind your own mental health, and in the simplest sense reading makes me happy.

This is not a blog to bash books, Hygge or any other well-being concepts. If we are to take the concept of mindfulness, for example, my dismay comes when we are SOLD the idea that when things hit the fan, we need to grab the newest book, practice for a minute, buy another, then things will be alright. Mindfulness practitioners would tell you that it takes practice daily, through good times and bad, for it to influence your life. Mindfulness means caring for others and yourself, and a philosophy for life comes with it. It is for everyone and can be practiced by everyone for free, not those who were lucky enough to get a book token for Christmas.

It is along this path that I fear Hygge is following. Is the idea that Hygge is the reason the Danes are the happiest nation reasonable? Taking a social justice perspective the answer is a resounding NO! Let’s zoom out and examine some other elements of Danish society that may explain their high levels of well-being, starting with this video that warms the soul (seriously), and then some other stand out elements of their society.


The Danes have high tax rates; in fact, they pay almost half of their wages in personal income tax. HOWEVER this level of taxation is wrapped in the idea of the common good and tax is largely viewed a contribution to a better society for all. For example, tax revenue is used to provide public cycle lanes, transport infrastructure, free cultural activities and excellent recreational facilities.  Furthermore, corporate tax in Denmark is 22%, compared to a measly 12.5% in Ireland for example. Without an in-depth analysis from a taxation expert, what this says to me in the simplest sense is that the Danes believe in fair tax, and that everyone must contribute for the common good. As we know, connecting with our fellow human beings and contributing to a better society for all has a positive effect on well-being. 


“The basic principle of the Danish welfare system, often referred to as the Scandinavian welfare model, is that all citizens have equal rights to social security. Within the Danish welfare system, a number of services are available to citizens, free of charge. This means that for instance the Danish health and educational systems are free” (Official website of Denmark) Imagine not having to worry if you can pay for your sick parent to get treatment, or wonder if you can afford to send your child to school? Don’t you think that social security would result in a happier society?

Work life balance

According to OECD, Denmark has a high level of work-life balance. On average people spend comparatively more time on personal care than other OECD countries. Denmark also has ‘Flex jobs’ to accommodate those who might need shorter working hours. Under these agreements employers pay their workers based on the effective work done.

Imagine you are a new father who wants to continue working because it is good for your personal well-being, but you are unsure of how much time you can commit as you want to raise your child. Flex jobs seems like a reasonable solution to this problem, allowing you to balance your work and personal life. I don’t think it takes much of a stretch on the imagination to see what kind of positive impact that this would have on well-being – on the individual and the family as a whole.

There are many more elements of Danish socio-economic system that I could discuss in relation to well-being (for example Denmark is fourth in the world with regards to gender equality) but the main sense of the argument is there – Hygge, a concept that while it might be fantastic when achieved authentically, CANNOT be commercialised and sold for a huge profit and still deliver societal happiness.

This blog is not an attempt to parade Denmark as some benchmark for which we should all aim. It is certainly worth noting that the Danes too have their own problems like decreased trust in their politicians, question marks over integration of foreigners , and their treatment of refugees (however, this point is also contested. See here).

Instead, I am trying to fight back against the idea of the need to spend or consume to acquire a tiny sliver of ‘happiness’ while ignoring the social justice issues that prevail in our society. Outside of Denmark, Hygge is this month’s idea, and who knows what will be coming next, but instead of trying to buy our way to happiness, lets instead take time to learn from each other to improve our society for the better.

Exploring Change – a review of How Change Happens by Duncan Green

Duncan Green’s How Change Happens  (Oxford University Press 2016) is an excellent resource for a variety of conceptual and practical reasons.  It is also a book of, and for, our times, not only for its perceptive analysis of the change process as perceived by activists but also as a potential agenda of ideas and suggestions for those of us involved generally but, for us, in educational activism in particular.  And, unlike many other analyses of the subject, it is written in an engaged, accessible and readily ‘processed’ manner.  Given Bill McKibben’s assertion (in the context of climate change) that ‘we are all activists now’, How Change Happens deserves the widest possible audience and debate.  Additionally, from our perspective it also includes much food for thought (and debate) for development educators per se.How Change Happens (cover)

The book is in four parts and analyses what Green describes as a ‘power and systems approach’, with useful overviews in the first Part on power itself, on systems and on the shifting social norms that underpin change (including views on women and gender, the state, culture and faith etc.). Part 2 discusses a number of key contexts or sites, in which change happens – the state, the law, politics, the international system and transnational corporations.  Part 3 debates what activists can and cannot do, including reference to citizens’ action, leadership and advocacy.  The final part summarises the analysis together with a conclusion that highlights key challenges and possibilities for activists.

Green concludes, ‘Despite setbacks and the grim filter of the evening news, the story is overwhelmingly positive’ – a conclusion we would do well to remember in these particularly grim times. The book is rooted in a wide review of literature from many disciplines, Green’s own experiences, extensive quotation, anecdotes and case studies from Oxfam’s wide ranging work.

For those wanting a quick overview of the book, Green has included a two-page summary at the beginning of the book and we have provided a graphic summary:

Graphic of How Change Happens
Graphic: Infographic summary of How Change Happens as produced in 80:20 Development in an Unequal World, 7th Edition (2016), p.118 published by 80:20 Educating and Acting for a Better World

Green offers those reading the book from an educational context a particularly useful and interesting one pager (page 8) relating to a ‘power and systems approach’ (PSA) as presented in the table below:

How we think/feel/work: 4 steps to help us dance with the system

  • Curiosity—study the history; ‘learn to dance with the system’.
  • Humility—embrace uncertainty/ambiguity.
  • Reflexivity—be conscious of your own role, prejudices, and power.
  • Include multiple perspectives, unusual suspects; be open to different ways of seeing the world.

The questions we ask (and keep asking):

  • What kind of change is involved (individual attitudes, social norms, laws and policies, access to resources)?
  • What precedents are there that we can learn from (positive deviance, history, current political and social tides)?
  • Power analysis: who are the stakeholders and what kind of power is involved (look again—who have we forgotten?)
  • What kind of approach makes sense for this change (traditional project, advocacy, multiple parallel experiments, fast feedback and rapid response)?
  • What strategies are we going to try (delivering services, building the broader enabling environment, demonstration projects, convening and brokering, supporting local grassroots organizations, advocacy)?
  • Learning and course correction: how will we learn about the impact of our actions or changes in context (e.g. critical junctures)? Schedule regular time outs to take stock and adapt accordingly

Source: A Power and Systems Approach, p.8 from How Change Happens.

 From our vantage point, a number of propositions from the book are worth highlighting:

  • Systems thinking implies complexity, there are no simple answers or solutions, therefore multiple strategies are needed and not just one.
  • Links and alliances with a host of structures, organisations and institutions are vital, including those possible and appropriate with TNCs, multilateral institutions, churches etc.
  • Activists need to be self-aware – aware of own prejudices and perspectives.
  • Multiple perspectives are important in pursuing our agendas.
  • Recognizing the central role of power – people’s own inner power ‘within’; power through organizing and joint action and institutional power across societies.

There are many interesting and useful sections for development education, for example:

  • The world is complex – so what? (pages 19-22)
  • Why change doesn’t happen (pages 41-44)
  • Female Genital Mutilation campaign – how the movement framed the campaign as a human rights issue (pages 62-65)
  • International law (pages 106-109)
  • Hard and soft power (pages 140-145)
  • Civil society and the state: opponents or collaborators? (pages 187 – 190)
  • How advocacy works (pages 215 – 221)

In assessing Green’s book from a development education perspective, there are several significant omissions in our view.

Exploring the role of advancing ‘public conversations’

In discussing leaders and leadership (chapter 10) and citizen activism and civil society (chapter 11) there is little reference to literature and case studies on how public judgement is shaped and informed on key issues. While leadership is essential, developing a critical and engaged threshold of people involved in and/or supporting campaigns and public conversations is vital – it creates a key context in which leadership can operate.  Whether initiated in schools, colleges, adult education, youth, professional, faith or business contexts debating and coming to judgement on ethical, political, economic, environmental, rights issues etc. the building up of public debate from diverse directions is fundamental.

Working through and debating issues is an essential ingredient in the change mix. Social norms have (as Green acknowledges) been changed through public information, awareness and moments of public judgement (shock moments or crisis events) present learning opportunities for working through many ‘emotional resistances’). The Northern Ireland peace process, for example, was advanced pivotally when the ‘public’ created the context in which politicians could deliver or were forced to deliver.

Human Rights traditions and approaches as a fundamental activist tool

The references to human rights traditions, procedures and architecture are significantly underdeveloped in How Change Happens.  Green offers summative passages on developing a culture of human rights norms:

‘A study of how governments come to adopt and implement new human rights norms identified five stages: repression (of those promoting the norm); denial (refusal to acknowledge the issue); tactical concessions (just enough to keep critics quiet); prescriptive status (starting to adopt the spirit of the new norm by ratifying international treaties, changing domestic laws, or setting up new institutions); and rule-consistent behaviour (putting mechanisms in place to ensure the new norms are respected)’ – page 56, How Change Happens, 2016.

For us, contextualising how human rights ‘came to be’ – its global origins as expressed in the Preamble of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights and the host of subsequent international instruments, procedures and structures (and the movements that generated many of them) would, we feel, have strengthened the book. Without doubt, the principles and values embodied in the human rights movement are visible, but the connections from these to core underlying human rights contexts are a lot harder to find.

The role of learning processes as platforms for change

The PSA approach is rich tool for reflection, whether by an individual, a group of individuals working together or as part of strategic planning conversations in organisations.  While education institutions (e.g. the role of the state in supporting public education on rights and values in citizen activism) and learning through training (through footnoted references to active citizenship projects and key takeaway lessons) are covered, the role of learning processes as amongst the broadest platforms for change are missing from the book.

The ingredients are certainly present as part of individual reflection exercises. For example, how South African dockworkers refused to unload an arms shipment from China headed for Zimbabwe  and how the campaign promptly highlighted both the effectiveness of the action, and the human cost it prevented within the context of Arms Trade Treaty campaign in 2008 (see chapter 7) gives us a flavor of the public learning (and engagement / interest / exemplar activities) in such actions as part of a larger context.

The contribution of human rights education and development education to the ‘change mix’

Strangely development or human rights education is also missing from How Change Happens despite its key role historically in campaigns on, for example, ending Apartheid, Central America, Nestle, Fairtrade etc.  Exploring the role of diverse groups of people in debating and acting on the Behind the Brands campaign or the broad Fairtrade agenda as examples of public conversations in building a groundswell of public pressure and engagement highlights the key role of education.  As part of a broader discussion, it would be hugely interesting to review the role of education-based initiatives in building public awareness in, for example the discussion (in chapter 8) on transnational corporations as drivers of change through the actions (and inactions) and behavior of consumers, investors/pension fund managers, industry peers and others.  Certainly, in our view the role of education in building the Fairtrade movement and debate has been pivotal.

One of the key questions a book such as How Change Happens evokes is inevitably ‘what can I do?’ and DE has historically offered a platform for discussing action ideas, particular roles and responsibilities as well as opportunities.

Student activism and the distinctive contributions of young people to change agendas

The role of young activists and the challenges they routinely pose to adults are largely overlooked. While Green appreciates that JK Rowling and JRR Tolkien are among some of the most powerful influences on the next generation, student and youth activism and examples of the challenges they offer to the speed, direction and tactics of change are absent from How Change Happens. Whether exploring the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ in Hong Kong in 2014, the challenge to universities and education through the 2015 Rhodes Must Fall protests initiated in South Africa or the college campus ban of Coke Cola products in University College Dublin in 2003, young people offer countless examples in the change mix as natural adopters of ‘positive deviance’ approaches often ahead of mainstream activist responses.

The book (and the conversations it has generated) would benefit from additional ‘cooking’ in this context; many of the ingredients for such work, drawn from the book, are clearly identified:

  • The ‘learning by doing’ approach as presented in theories of change in chapter 12 critiques strategies and ideas for moving beyond ‘command and control’ approaches to challenge the straitjackets of working to ‘logframes on steroids’ (performance frameworks on steroids?)
  • Considering more the choices available in adopting an ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’ activist approach with those in power and the kinds of tactics for raising public awareness because of those decisions.
  • Adopting ‘positive deviance’ approaches: embracing outliers and behavioural change that occurs from within a given community as ‘for any given problem, someone in the community will have already identified a solution’ (chapter 1).
  • History and learning from the past (p76).

Duncan’s book (and more importantly the conversations it has and will provoke) are fundamental to our whole agenda whether in policy, advocacy, campaigning or education contexts.  It deserves to be read thoroughly.