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The Almost Nearly Perfect People

Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia

by Michael Booth

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A lively travelogue investigation into the five Nordic countries explores popular misconceptions about their idyllic educational systems, wealth and overall happiness to consider if they actually provide successful models for living.

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Are Danes Really That Happy? The Myth Of The Scandinavian Utopia

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Excerpt: The Almost Nearly Perfect People


Early one dark April morning a few years ago I was sitting in my living room in the Danish capital, Copenhagen, wrapped in a blanket and yearning for spring, when I opened that day's newspaper to discover that my adopted countrymen had been anointed the happiest of their species in something called the Satisfaction with Life Index, compiled by the Department of Psychology at the University of Leicester.

I checked the date on the newspaper: it wasn't April 1. A quick look online confirmed that this was headline news around the world. Everyone from theNew York Times to Al Jazeera was covering the story as if it had been handed down on a stone tablet. Denmark was the happiest place in the world. The happiest? This dark, wet, dull, flat little country made up of one peninsula, Jutland, and a handful of islands to its east with its handful of stoic, sensible people and the highest taxes in the world? The United States was twenty-third on the list. But a man at a university had said it, so it must be true.

"Well, they are doing an awfully good job of hiding it," I thought to myself as I looked out of the window at the rain-swept harbor. "They don't seem all that frisky to me." Down below, cyclists swaddled in high-visibility arctic gear crossed the Langebro together with umbrella-jostling pedestrians, both battling the spray from passing trucks and buses.

I thought back to the previous day's soul-sapping adventures in my new home. In the morning there had been the usual dispiriting encounter with the sullen checkout girl at the local supermarket who, as was her habit, had rung up the cost of my prohibitively expensive, low-grade produce without acknowledging my existence. Outside, other pedestrians had tutted audibly when I'd crossed the street on a red light; there was no traffic, but in Denmark preempting the green man is a provocative breach of social etiquette. I had cycled home through the drizzle to find a tax bill relieving me of an alarming proportion of that month's income, having along the way provoked the fury of a motorist who had threatened to kill me because I had infringed the no-left-turn rule (literally, he had rolled down his window and, in the manner and accent of a Bond villain, shouted, "I vill kill you"). The evening's prime-time TV entertainment had consisted of a program on how to tackle excessive chafing of cow udders, followed by a twenty-year-old episode of Murder, She Wrote, and then Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?—its titular, life-altering rhetoric somewhat undermined by the fact that a million kroner are worth only around $180,000, which in Denmark is just enough to buy you a meal out with change for the cinema.

This, I should add, was long before the recent wave of Danish culture that has swept across the United States in the form of imported TV series likeThe Killing (four seasons of which have been remade with a US cast) and political dramaBorgen (dubbed "the best TV series you have never seen" by Newsweek), this was before the New Nordic food revolution, led by restaurant Noma and its chef, René Redzepi (a two-timeTime magazine cover star, owner of the thrice consecutively named best restaurant in the world, and a huge influence on a new wave of American chefs), not to mention the architecture of Bjarke Ingels (responsible for the new West Fifty-Seventh Street Pyramid apartment building in Manhattan) or even the headline-grabbing, award-winning film work of actors like Viggo Mortensen (the Lord of the Rings trilogy), Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale), and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister inGame of Thrones) or directors like Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive), Lars von Trier (Melancholia), and Oscar-winner Susanne Bier (Best Foreign Language Film, forA Better World ). Back then, I had come to think of the Danes as essentially decent, hardworking, law-abiding people, rarely prone to public expressions of . . . well, anything much, let alone happiness, and certainly not as globally influential cultural pioneers.

The Danes were Lutheran by nature, if not by ritual observance: they shunned ostentation, distrusted exuberant expressions of emotion, and kept themselves to themselves. Compared with, say, the Thais or Puerto Ricans or even the British, they were a frosty, solemn bunch. I would go as far as to say that of the fifty or so nationalities that I had encountered in my travels up to that point, the Danes would probably have ranked in the bottom quarter as among the least demonstrably joyful people on earth, along with the Swedes, the Finns, and the Norwegians.

Perhaps it was all the antidepressants they were taking that were fogging their perception, I thought to myself. I had read a recent report that said that, in Europe, only the Icelanders consumed more happy pills than the Danes, and the rate at which they were popping them was increasing. Was Danish happiness nothing more than oblivion sponsored by Prozac?

In fact, as I began to delve deeper into the Danish happiness phenomenon I discovered that the University of Leicester report was not as groundbreaking as it might have liked to think. The Danes came top of the EU's first ever well-being survey—the Eurobarometer—as long ago as 1973, and are still top today. In the latest one, more than two-thirds of the thousands of Danes who were polled claimed to be "very satisfied" with their lives.

In 2009 there was the papal-like visit to Copenhagen by Oprah Winfrey, who cited the fact that "people leave their children in buggies outside of cafés, that you aren't worried they will get stolen . . . that everyone isn't racing racing racing to get more more more" as the Danes' secret to success. If Oprah was anointing Denmark, it must be true.

By the time Oprah descended from the heavens I had actually left Denmark, having finally driven my wife to the end of her tether with my incessant moaning about her homeland: the punishing weather, the heinous taxes, the predictable monoculture, the stifling insistence on lowest-common-denominator consensus, the fear of anything or anyone different from the norm, the distrust of ambition and disapproval of success, the appalling public manners, and the remorseless diet of fatty pork, salty licorice, cheap beer, and marzipan. But I still kept a wary, sightly bewildered eye on the Danish happiness phenomenon noting, for example, when the country topped the Gallup World Poll, which asked a thousand people over the age of fifteen in 155 countries to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, both their lives now, and how they expected them to pan out in the future. Gallup asked other questions about social support ("If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them?"); freedom ("In your country, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?"); and corruption ("Is corruption widespread within businesses located in your country?"). The answers revealed that 82 percent of Danes were "thriving" (the highest score), while only 1 percent were "suffering." Their average "daily experience" scored a world-beating 7.9 out of 10. By way of comparison, in Togo, the lowest-ranked country, only 1 percent were considered to be thriving.

"Perhaps they should ask the ghetto-bound Somali immigrants in Ishøj how happy they are," I would think to myself whenever I heard about these surveys and reports, although I seriously doubted any of the researchers ever ventured far outside of Copenhagen's prosperous suburbs.

Then came the final, crowning moment in the Danish happiness story: in 2012, the United Nations' first ever World Happiness Report, compiled by economists John Helliwell, Richard Layard, and Jeffrey Sachs, amalgamated the results of all the current "happiness" research— the Gallup World Polls, World and European Values Surveys, European Social Survey, and so on. And guess what. Belgium came first! No, I'm joking. Denmark was once again judged the happiest country in the world, with Finland (2), Norway (3), and Sweden (7) close behind.

To paraphrase Lady Bracknell, to win one happiness survey may be regarded as good fortune, to win virtually every one since 1973 is convincing grounds for a definitive anthropological thesis.

In fact, Denmark was not without rivals to the title of peachiest place to live. As the UN report suggested, each of the Nordic countries has its own particular claim to life-quality supremacy. Shortly after the UN report was published,Newsweek announced that it was Finland, not Denmark, that has the best quality of life, while Norway topped the UN's own Human Development Index, and another recent report claimed that Sweden is the best country to live in if you are a woman.

So, Denmark doesn't always come first in all the categories of these wellness, satisfaction, and happiness surveys, but it is invariably thereabouts, and if it isn't number one, then another Nordic country almost inevitably is. Occasionally New Zealand or Japan might elbow their way into the picture (or perhaps Singapore, or Switzerland) but, overall, the message from all of these reports, which continue to be enthusiastically and unquestioningly reported in the media, was as clear as a glass of ice-cold schnapps: the Scandinavians were not only the happiest and most contented people in the world, but also the most peaceful, tolerant, egalitarian, progressive, prosperous, modern, liberal, liberated, best educated, and most technologically advanced, with the best pop music, coolest TV detectives, and the best restaurants to boot. Between them, these five countries—Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Iceland—could boast the best education system in the world (Finland); a shining example of a properly secular, multicultural, modern industrial society (Sweden); colossal oil wealth, being invested in sensible, ethical, long-term things rather than silly tall buildings or high-class call girls (Norway); the most gender-equal society in the world, the longest-living men, and lots of haddock (Iceland); and ambitious environmental policies and generously funded welfare state systems (all of them).

The consensus was overwhelming: if you wanted to know where to look for the definitive model of how to live a fulfilled, happy, well-balanced, healthy, and enlightened life, you should turn your gaze north of Germany, and just to the left of Russia.

I did more than that. After some years of watching the Danish happiness bandwagon roll relentlessly on from a distance—interspersed with regular visits that, if anything, only served to confuse me more (Weather still shitty? Check. Tax rate still over 50 percent? Yep. Shops closed whenever you need them? Oh, yes)—I moved back there.

This wasn't some magnanimous gesture of forgiveness, nor a bold experiment to test the boundaries of human endurance: my wife wanted to move back to her homeland and, despite every molecule of my being screaming, "Don't you remember what it was actually like to live there, Michael?" I have learned from harrowing experience over the years that it is usually best in the long run if I just do what she says.

In fact, the fever for all things Nordic only intensified around the world after I returned to live there. Contemporary Viking culture was—and remains—on an unprecedented roll: Swedish crime authors Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson began to sell millions of books, and Danmarks Radio (DR), the Danish national broadcaster, sold its stylish dramas to 120 countries in all. Danish architects continued to knock out major international projects as if they were made out of Lego blocks, and works by artists like Olafur Eliasson were appearing everywhere from Louis Vuitton window displays to MoMA. A former Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen was recently replaced as head of NATO by another Scandinavian ex-PM, Norway's Jens Stoltenberg, and a former Finnish president, Martti Ahtisaari, won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Elsewhere in the region, Finland gave us Angry Birds and, for a while at least, mobile phones that took up permanent residence in everyone's inside breast pocket. Meanwhile, Sweden continued its domination of the world's high streets with H&M and IKEA, and of our airwaves with pop producers (of Britney Spears, Katy Perry, and others) and singers too numerous to list here, as well as giving us Skype and Spotify; Norway kept the world supplied with oil and fish fingers; and the Icelanders embarked on their extraordinary, albeit also catastrophic, fiscal buccaneering spree.

No matter where I turned for my news, I could not escape the (Iceland aside) almost exclusively adulatory coverage of all things Scandinavian. If our newspapers, TV, and radio were to be believed, the Nordic countries simply could not put a foot wrong. These were the promised lands of equality, easy living, quality of life, and home baking. But I had seen a different side actually living up here in the cold, gray north and, though there were many aspects to Scandinavian living that were indeed exemplary, and from which the rest of the world could learn a great deal, I grew increasingly frustrated by the lack of nuance in the picture being painted of the region.

One thing in particular about this newfound love of all things Scandinavian—be it their free-form schools, whitewashed interior design, consensus-driven political systems, or chunky sweaters—struck me as particularly odd: considering all this positive PR, and with awareness of the so-called Nordic miracle at an all-time high, why wasn't everyone flocking to live here? Why did people still dream of a house in Spain or France? Why weren't they packing up their mules and heading for Aalborg or Trondheim? For all the crime literature and TV shows, why was our knowledge of contemporary Scandinavia still so abysmally lacking? How come you have no idea where Aalborg or Trondheim actually are? Why can no one you know speak Swedish or "get by" in Norwegian? Name the Danish foreign minister. Or Norway's most popular comedian. Or a Finnish person. Any Finnish person.

Few of us visit Japan or Russia or speak their languages but, though you might not be able to name all of their political leaders, artists, or second-tier cities, I'm guessing you would be able to name at leastsome. Scandinavia, though, really is terra incognita. The Romans didn't bother with it. Charlemagne couldn't care less. As Nordic historian T. K. Derry writes in his history of the region, for literally thousands of years "the north remained almost entirely outside the sphere of interest of civilised man." Even today the lack of interest is deafening. A journalist writing in the BritishSunday Times recently described this part of the world as "a collection of countries we can't tell apart."

Part of the reason for our collective blind spot—and I am the first to admit that I was quite fantastically ignorant of the region before I first moved here—is the fact that comparatively few of us ever travel in this part of the world. For all its scenic wonder, the cost of visiting Scandinavia coupled with its discouraging climate (not to mention the continuing existence of France and Italy) tend to dissuade most from vacationing here. Where is the travel writing on the north? Barnes & Noble's shelves are buckling beneath the weight of Mediterranean memoirs—Dipsomaniac Among the Olive Groves, Extramarital Affairs on Oranges, and so on—but no one, it seems, wants to spendA Year in Turku, or try Driving over Lingonberries.

One day, while standing for half an hour waiting to be served at my local pharmacy (Danishapoteks are run on a monopoly basis so customer service is not a priority), it dawned on me that, for all the glowing profiles of Sofie Gråbøl (the star of The Killing), for all the articles about Faroese knitwear, and recipes for twenty ways with foraged weeds (and I must put my hand up here, as I have written more than a couple of the latter), the truth is that we learn more from our schoolteachers, televisions, and newspapers about the lives of remote Amazonian tribes than we do about actual Scandinavians and how they actually live.

This is especially strange as you could go as far as to argue that Anglo-Saxons are, essentially, Scandinavians. Well, a bit. The cultural links are undeniably deep and enduring, dating back to the infamous first raid on the monastery at Lindisfarne, England, on January 8, 793, when, as contemporary records have it, "The harrowing inroads of heathen men made lamentable havoc in the church of God in the Holy-island."

Viking kings went on to rule a third of Britain—the territory known as the Danelaw—during a period that culminated with that great spell-checker booby trap, Cnut, as undisputed king of all England. Excavations of a ship burial at Sutton Hoo have given plenty of evidence of a Swedish link, too. After they had got all that raping and pillaging out of their systems, there is strong evidence that Vikings of various tribes settled amicably among the Anglo-Saxons, traded, intermarried, and had a major influence on the indigenous population.

They certainly left their mark on the English language. A Norwegian language professor at Oslo University, Jan Terje Faarlund, recently went as far as declaring English a Scandinavian language, pointing to shared vocabulary, similar verb-then-object word order (as opposed to the cartwheels of German grammar), and so on. Some of the days of the week (Wodin or Odin for Wednesday; Thor for Thursday; Freya for Friday), and many place names are of Viking source. In England, any town ending in "-by" or "-thorpe" (meaning "town" and "smaller settlement") was once a Viking settlement—Derby, Whitby, Scunthorpe, Cleethorpes, and so on. I was born near a town called East Grinstead, the name of which, I assume, is of Danish origin ("sted" meaning "place," and a common Danish town name ending); and in London I used to live five minutes from Denmark Hill, a name that stems from a more recent connection, admittedly: it was once the home of the Danish consort of Queen Anne, the Danish and British royal families having been tightly intertwined by marriage over many centuries.

Family words—mother (mor), father (far), sister (søster), brother (bror)—are all pretty close, too, although, sadly in my view, the English never adopted the Scandinavians' very usefulfar-far, mor-mor, far-mor, and mor-far method of distinguishing between maternal and paternal grandparents.

The Scandinavian influence has been considerable in the States too. The Norwegian Viking Leif Erikson discovered America around AD 1000. Having failed to see the attraction of Newfoundland, he promptly turned around and went home again, but Scandinavian efforts to populate North America were more successful nine hundred years on when 1.2 million Swedes, along with many Norwegians and some Finns and Danes, sailed across the Atlantic. At one point in the 1860s, a tenth of all immigrants arriving in the United States were from Scandinavia; many of them ending up in Minnesota, where the landscape reminded them of home. Today there are said to be almost five million Norwegian Americans and as many Swedish Americans in the States. If it wasn't for the latter, Hollywood would certainly be a lesser place—Uma Thurman, Scarlett Johansson, Matt Damon, the Jameses Coburn and Franco, Julia Roberts, and all of the Wahlbergs are in part of Swedish descent. To them we might also add great American icons, such as Buzz Aldrin and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom boast Swedish ancestry.

What makes the current Nordic mania so unlikely is that during the twentieth century the popular cultural influences tended mostly to flow in the opposite direction. Socialize with Scandinavian males of a certain age, for instance, and the conversation will at some point almost certainly turn to the sketches of Monty Python or the Police Academy movies. The women, meanwhile, will share misty-eyed memories of the male cast members ofER, or of their time working as au pairs in New York. More recently, a whole new generation are all familiar withHomeland, Mad Men, and House of Cards. The Scandinavians are totally up to speed with every aspect of the US political scene. I wonder how many US congressmen could name the Danish foreign minister?

Perhaps the vague familiarity, the superficial sameness, is one of the reasons that the rest of the world has not really cared to learn anything beyond fictional representations of the Scandinavians. Also, though stereotypical depictions usually include reference to their sexual liberalism and physical beauty, somehow they still manage to project an image of being pious, sanctimonious Lutherans. It is a neat trick to be thought of as being both deeply hot and off-puttingly frigid, isn't it? And it doesn't help that the Scandinavians are not very forward when it comes to coming forward: they aren't ones to boast. It is against their rules (literally, as we will discover). Look up the word "reticent" in the dictionary and you won't find a picture of an awkward Finn standing in a corner looking at his shoelaces, but you should.

While I was writing this book, several people—including some Danes and, in particular, many Swedes—expressed genuine bemusement that they would be of the slightest interest to anyone outside Scandinavia. "Why do you think people will want to know about us?" they asked. "We are all so boring and stiff." "There must be more interesting people in the world to write about. Why don't you go to southern Europe?" It seems Scandinavians tend to regard themselves rather as we do: functional and worthy, but plagued by an unremitting dullness that tends to discourage further investigation. Industrious, trustworthy, and politically correct, the Scandinavians are the accountant at the party, five countries' worth of local government officials, finger-wagging social workers, and humorless party poopers.

So, how do I hope to hold your attention for the duration of this book? The short answer is that I find the Danes, Swedes, Finns, Icelanders, and even the Norwegians utterly fascinating, and I suspect you will, too, once you find out the truth about how brilliant and progressive, but also how downright weird, they can be. As Oprah would have discovered had she stayed longer than an afternoon, and as I have finally, grudgingly, begun to concede, there is so very much more to learn from the Nordic lands— about how they live their lives; the priorities they set; how they handle their wealth; about how societies can function better and more fairly; how people can live their lives in balance with their careers, educate themselves effectively, and support each other. About how, in the final analysis, to be happy. They are funny, too. And not always intentionally, either, which as far as I am concerned is the very best kind of funny.

I began to dig a little deeper into the so-called Nordic miracle. Was there a Scandinavian template for a better way of living? Were there elements of Nordic exceptionalism—as the phenomenon has also been termed—that were transferable, or was it location specific, a quirk of history and geography? And, if people outside of Scandinavia really knew what it was like to actually live in this part of the world, would they still envy the Danes and their brethren quite so much?

"If you had to be reborn anywhere in the world as a person with average talents and income, you would want to be a Viking," proclaimed British news weeklyThe Economist, ever so slightly backhandedly, in a special Nordic-themed edition. But where were the discussions about Nordic totalitarianism and how uptight the Swedes are; about how the Norwegians have been corrupted by their oil wealth to the point where they can't even be bothered to peel their own bananas (really: we'll get to that later); how the Finns are self-medicating themselves into oblivion; how the Danes are in denial about their debt, their vanishing work ethic, and their place in the world; and how the Icelanders are, essentially, feral?

Once you begin to look more closely at the Nordic societies and their people, once you go beyond the Western media's current Scandinavian tropes—the Sunday supplement features on Swedish summerhouses peopled by blond women in floral-print dresses carrying baskets of wild garlic and surrounded by children with artfully mussed hair—a more complex, often darker, occasionally quite troubling picture begins to emerge. This encompasses everything from the relatively benign downsides to living among such comfortable, homogenous, egalitarian societies as these (in other words, when everyone earns the same amount of money, lives in the same kinds of homes, dresses the same, drives the same cars, eats the same food, reads the same books, has the same opinion about knitwear and beards, holds broadly similar religious beliefs, and goes to the same places on their holidays, things can get just a teensy bit dull—see the chapters on Sweden for more on this), to the more serious fissures in Nordic society: the racism and Islamophobia, the slow decline of social equality, the alcoholism, and the vast, over-stretched public sectors that require levels of taxation that would be deemed utterly preposterous by anyone who hasn't had them slowly creep up on them over the last fifty years like a deadly tide, choking off all hope, energy, and ambition. . . .

Where was I? Anyway, so, yes, I decided to go on a journey to try to fill in some of the gaps in my Nordic experience. I set off to explore these five lands in more depth, revisiting each of them several times, meeting with historians, anthropologists, journalists, novelists, artists, politicians, philosophers, scientists, elf-watchers, and Santa Claus.

The trip would ultimately take me from my home in the Danish countryside to the frigid waters of the Norwegian Arctic, to the fearful geysers of Iceland and the badlands of the most notorious Swedish housing estate; from Santa's grotto to Legoland, and from the Danish Riviera to the Rotten Banana.

But the first lesson before I set off, offered, following a long pause and a deep sigh, by a Danish diplomat friend who had patiently endured a speech by me encompassing much of the above, was that, technically speaking, neither the Finns nor the Icelanders were actually Scandinavians: that term refers to the people of the original Viking lands—Denmark, Sweden, and Norway—only. But, as I discovered on my travels around the region, the Finns have reserved the right to opt in or out of the old marauders' club as and when it suits them, and I don't think the Icelanders would be too upset to be labeled Scandinavians, either. Strictly speaking, if we are going to lump all five countries together we really ought to use the term "Nordic." But this is my book and so I reserve the right to bandy both terms about pretty much interchangeably.

So let us begin our quest to unearth the truth about the Nordic miracle, and where better to start than at a party.

ALMOST NEARLY PERFECT PEOPLE copyright © 2014 by Michael Booth. Originally published in Great Britain by Jonathan Cape, a division of the Random House Group, LTD. First U.S. hardcover edition published by Picador USA. All rights reserved.