Scandinavia's Pursuit of Happiness Is About Big Taxes, Contentment, and Old Feuds

Journalist Michael Booth's survey of "The Almost Nearly Perfect People" reveals how a people can win by declining to compete.

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In his book The Almost Nearly Perfect People journalist and best-selling author Michael Booth raises his brow at the notion that the Scandinavians — our herring loving, tax-bingeing friends to the north — are unequivocally the happiest in the world.

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

So Booth traveled across the five Nordic countries — Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden — gathering research from academics, economists, and the people who actually live there. He found that while many things are going right, these nations were far from homogenous paradises. Rather, they brim with their own taboos and anxieties about the future.

Inverse spoke with Booth about this almost, nearly perfect people and questioned whether this image of “happiness” is sustainable with the massive influx of refugees, fleeing to Scandinavia.

So how did all this hype around Nordic countries being the happiest in the world start? Was it the World Happiness Reports or something else?

It’s several things. Denmark has topped the proper, serious global happiness surveys since the early 1970s almost consistently and the other four Nordic countries are always in the top 10. But I think the main reason the whole world has started to focus on the Nordic countries was — and this is certainly true in Europe — the utopia was always considered to be the Mediterranean. People would dream of moving and getting a house in Spain, France, or Italy. But after the Euro and global economic crisis in 2008, I think that dream disappeared for a lot of people. There was a need to look for somewhere with a different way or order and society — a little bit less commercialized, a little bit back to basics, with old-fashioned values of equality and morality.

Swedes hold a banner during a demonstration in Stockholm.

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Then at the same time that this happened, you’ve got this amazing cultural wave that came from the Nordic countries — the food, the television dramas series, the crime novels, the fashion, the architecture; there was this cultural moment globally. And I think those elements, combined with the happiness reputation, really got people focusing on this part of the world.

How did you conduct your research for The Almost Nearly Perfect People?

The book took me, I guess, four years to write. But really, it’s based on 10 or 15 years worth of living, on and off, in this region. I traveled to all five countries repeatedly and I live in Denmark, so I know it particularly well.

I pinpointed key themes in each country — themes that can generally apply to all five countries — but I tried to find one country in particular that represented them. For example, alcoholism I focused on in Finland, and the monarchy I talked about in terms of Sweden.

It was never just a question of me going to the countries and forming an opinion. I spoke with economists, anthropologists — experts. I formed the opinion from Norwegians in Norway, in the region.

I would say that, at least in the U.S., there’s always a lot of conversation and articles written about the “happiest countries in the world” when these surveys come out. Would you say that it’s the same in these Nordic countries?

It is discussed, but they are mostly a modest, unassuming people. They’re quite self-deprecating about it and downplay it a bit — but then, of course, everyone is aware of it.

Particularly in Denmark, they have this brand about being the happiest people in the world, and it’s become a bit of a self-perpetuating phenomenon in a way. They’re aware of the surveys and some are them are mystified by it.

I understand why they do so well in these surveys — but I question the use of “happy.” The people in these countries aren’t happy, they’re content. They’re satisfied. There’s this semantic point that isn’t really addressed and when you talk to the people who conduct these surveys. They kind of secretly admit that the word “happiness” is just an attention-grabbing headline. What they are really measuring is life quality and life satisfaction.

The canal in Copenhagen, Denmark.

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Yes, I saw that when you raised that point in an NPR interview you gave, the first comment on their article was from an individual who wrote, “The Danes and others have figured out what’s really important in life. Hope more Americans will tune out the capitalist mantras and take a break from the rat race to enjoy life and be content with what they have.” Does this person gets what you’re saying, or is that conclusion off-track?

No, I actually think that is right. America needs a dose of Scandinavia. I would vote for Bernie Sanders if I was in America. America is so swung towards an extreme of inequality that it really needs some serious shock therapy.

What parts of Scandinavia does America need most?

Fair redistribution of wealth, higher taxes to pay for social welfare, better public schools, health care. I see that when people have these things, life is better. You lose some things in terms of maybe ambition and drive, but these countries are still inventive. They do well on global business surveys as well and have an ease at doing business.

It’s actually wrong to describe them as socialist, and it’s probably wrong to describe Bernie Sanders as a socialist even though he does himself. What these countries really are, are mixed economies that blend a little bit of state and a little bit of private. They’ve managed to do that very well and keep that balance.

I’ve only been to Denmark briefly, but when I was there it seemed like the Danish people I was with had the habit of trash-talking, albeit with affection, the Swedes. Would you say that there is this rivalry among the Nordic countries?

Oh yeah, totally. That was one of the reasons I wrote the book. Initially, when I moved here — and like most people outside of the region — I had very little knowledge of it and I thought the Scandinavians were all the same. But then I realized how radically different they all are.

At the next stage, there’s this fabulously dysfunctional familial relationship they have. Everyone — well, “hate” is a strong word but there is, as you say a lot of “trash-talking” about the Swedes, especially from the Finns and the Danes, but also from the Norwegians. Because the Swedes, as I write in the book, they won. They won all the awards, they’re the richest. So on one hand, you’re right.

But on the other hand, if they all meet on holiday in Spain or Thailand, the Scandinavians will think of themselves as cousins in the same family.

Copenhagen Zoo staff member with the leg of Marius, a healthy giraffe put down for educational purposes.

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Now, to transition into what’s going on right now with the refugee situation in Scandinavia: A recent New York Times opinion headline reads “Denmark’s Cruelty Towards Refugees,” which is quite a far cry from “Denmark, Where Joy Is Always in Season.” From your experience, is the behavior of Denmark and these other Nordic countries towards refugees surprising, or is it only surprising to us who’ve been considering them a sort of utopia?

The thing to remember is that in the last 12 months we’ve been hit by a massive, unprecedented crisis. Everything has changed — and all previous thinking and attitudes are kind of redundant. In Sweden it’s a bit like, you know, when teenagers’ parents go away and they put their house party on Facebook, and suddenly 2,000 people show up and trash the house? That is how many Swedes are feeling about the recent influx of migrants.

They’re shutting down the borders. They say they’re going to repatriate some 8,000 asylum seekers. It’s a domino effect — Denmark has closed its borders, Switzerland has done it, Hungary is doing it; I think that Germany will close its borders soon.

I’m no one to normally defend the Danes, but I think they had a very bad rap these past few weeks about their policy of taking away from asylum seekers. It doesn’t look good — it looks, really, really bad, I agree. But the other countries are doing the same, and they aren’t having this bad press.

When you ask the Danes — do you remember a couple of years ago, when there was the scandal about killing a giraffe and dissecting it in front of public school kids at the Copenhagen Zoo? At the time there was this global hysteria of people saying, ‘How can they do this?’ And you ask most Danes and they’re like, ‘Well, what’s the big deal?’ It’s a bit similar here — the Danes don’t really understand what the world is up in arms about. Most Danes know they contribute to society; they pay up to 75 percent tax, if you combine all the different kinds of tax. They expect someone who comes here to contribute as well.

Now, you can say, that what the Danish government is doing exactly is taking it too far. But on the other hand, Danes think it’s perfectly acceptable that people who come here as a safe haven should also contribute like they do. So, they don’t really understand what the fuss is about.

Do you think this global hysteria mostly comes from the fact that the rest of the world has had this working theory that these are the people who have really been getting it all right?

Scandinavia, and Sweden in particular, but also Denmark, used to be held up as these moral ideals, didn’t they? They were like the moral conscious of the world, and Sweden especially has had an open door policy of taking in refugees for some years now. And that is very impressive on a humanitarian level. That’s how the world perceives these countries — when that changes, it does have a bit of a shock.

But if you live in Denmark, and you know Denmark, you will know that for the last 15 to 20 years it’s been moving to the right politically. That’s not to say that there isn’t a political opposition to the approach to immigration. On the far left, there has been massive criticism of what the government has done and there’s a huge part of the population that disagrees — who are embarrassed, ashamed, and appalled by what the government is doing.

Yet, there’s a portion of the population that is going, “About time — we can’t accept this huge volume of people.” People are justifiably afraid as well; some Danish feel quite vulnerable.

So it’s a mix. In Denmark, it’s quite a divided country. But even before all of this, the Danes were beginning to realize that their social welfare model is not economically sustainable. That was already under threat and now you have a ton of people who are coming who have nothing — it’s a huge economic burden on a welfare state, that’s already the biggest in the world. So the Danes are afraid, asking, “Are we going to have to pay even more?”

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