The truth is, Scandinavia is neither heaven nor hell

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

By Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen, University College London

Earlier this year, British travel writer and resident of Denmark, Michael Booth, riled Guardian readers with a provocative article claiming to dispel the myth of Scandinavia as the perfect place to live. Many are now confused. Is everything we believed about the social ideals of Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland a lie? Well, not entirely but we’re not all drunk serial killers either.

Based largely on his book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle, Booth’s “revelations” about the rot eating away at Scandinavia’s welfare societies were meant to “correct the imbalance” of the recent utopian idealisation of the Nordic countries in the British media.

It’s true that the Nordic countries have received unprecedented good press in the UK. This is partly due to a a trend that emerged in the early years of the 21st century for assessing the well-being of nations not according to their GDP but other, more human factors. Nordic countries consistently come out top.

In the 2005-2011 Gallup World Poll, Denmark ranked first for happiness, followed by Finland and Norway. The OECD’s Better Life Index of 2012 had Norway, Sweden and Denmark among the top five nations and the 2014 State of the World’s Mothers report from Save the Children, assessing the well-being of mothers and children world wide, had five Nordic countries in the top six. Meanwhile, lifestyle magazine Monocle’s Quality of Life survey named Copenhagen the most liveable city in the world for the third time in 2014.

But these figures are starting to be undermined by people in many different quarters. If life is perfect in Scandinavia, why are there so many dramas and books that depict Nordic societies as rampant with corrupt institutions, alcoholics, dysfunctional families and men who are violent against women? These dark depictions can’t come out of a clear blue Nordic sky.

While the Killing and The Bridge are new though, interest in the rotten states of Scandinavia is not. The perception of the Nordic countries abroad has swayed between two extremes for nearly a century.

In 1936, the American journalist Marquis Childs published the international bestseller Sweden: The Middle Way. Written in the time of the Great Depression, Childs viewed the Swedish Social Democratic compromise between liberal capitalism and state communism as a pragmatic model that could guarantee full employment, social security and equality without jeopardising economic development and democratic institutions.

In the 1970s, the image changed radically with the British journalist Roland Huntford’s book The New Totalitarians. To Huntford, Swedes, dominated by the Social Democratic party for 40 years, had come closer to living in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World than the Soviets. Even Sweden’s otherwise much admired sexual liberalism became an expression of totalitarian state control in Huntford’s eyes. High suicide rates and heavy taxation were other less than perfect trends he sought to highlight.

The utopian view has since made a come-back but perhaps that is less of a reflection on Scandinavia and more of the rest of the world. Global recession and austerity have taken their toll across Europe in recent years and people are starting to look around for better models. When fearing the corrosion of well-being and social cohesion, it is natural to seek consolation elsewhere, even if that elsewhere only exists in the imagination (as any good utopia) or in surveys that lack any form of cultural context.

Defending his dystopian counter-narrative against thousands of critical comments on The Guardian, Booth explained that his portrayal of jingoistic Danes on anti-depressants, lethargic Norwegians drunk on oil wealth, and gun-toting, binge-drinking Finns is largely based on what Scandinavian experts themselves have reported. That said, you could equally argue that he has carefully selected data to prove a predetermined narrative.

Booth’s book does prove an important point regarding perceptions of the Nordic countries, though. Scandinavians are predominantly satisfied with their lives but they are not utopians. Nor are they blinded by their success. They might not experience social problems on the same scale as people in other countries but they still fiercely debate what issues they do have. These include the purpose of the welfare state in the 21st century and how large it should be.

The Nordic countries are real places – not utopias – and as many other countries they struggle to overcome social divisions as they adjust to changing global realities. Austerity measures and welfare reforms have been implemented across the nations and it seems no entitlement previously guaranteed by the welfare state is off the table when it comes to cuts. A rise in mental illness may be the first severe consequence of widening socioeconomic gaps in the Nordic countries – just the kind of problem that is proving so fascinating to lovers of dark Nordic crime stories abroad.

The Conversation

Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.



Filed under Scandinavian crime fiction

6 responses to “The truth is, Scandinavia is neither heaven nor hell

  1. Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen

    I see we have much to thank Connery for:-)
    I agree with you that “happy” is not a very well-chosen term for what these well-being indexes are reporting on – happy does not really say anything about how we experience life over time. Content seems at first a more appropriate term for summing up one of the strongest indicators for the well-being of Scandinavian societies, as it does involve interpersonal and social trust, which I have written about elsewhere. Scandinavian countries usually score well on trust indicators, and if you trust your government, police, strangers etc, and trust that they do not threaten your liberties and general well-being, then I guess you have content citizens.
    However, there is still the danger that with such terms we continue to perceive Scandinavians as slightly self-satisfied and living in a fairy like glass cage (this is what often comes out when people try to explain why also Scandinavian countries include fairly large numbers of voters who support ‘slightly’ xenophobic political representatives).
    Just as I know a good amount of Scandinavians who would rather not be described as “happy”, I guess many of them would see themselves, at least publicly, as non-content and critical of how their societies are changing, how we care for each other, for new citizens and relate to the rest of the world.
    However, in everyday life, I do believe Scandinavians have much to be content about: less worries about how to pay the doctor’s bills, for your childrens’ education, for your life in retirement etc. But as the great Danish philosopher Villy Sørensen once wrote, the welfare state is meant to make people secure as citizens, not as humans. There will always be much to worry about – as humans – also for or maybe especially for, Scandinavians:-). Certainly, longer holidays, less working hours, longer maternity and paternity leaves, as well as less time spent caring for children and the elderly, have give them time on their hands to worry more deeply about existence! I sometimes think this may be one reason why we see so much interesting (and some less so) fiction coming out of the Scandinavian countries.

  2. Ian Charles

    I was introduced in the 60’s to the Scandinavian welfare model by a book called “The Scandinavians”, also by an American journalist named Donald Connery ( It’s yonks since I read it but I seem to remember in one of the chapters he contrasts the violence in Scandinavian art and literature with the relative calm and peace of the four countries post war (of course at that time Finland wouldn’t have been included) and I think he actually drew a conclusion that Scandinavians purge their violent instincts inwards through the arts where others manifest them in outward violence (I think he ‘discovered’ the US and Swedish homicide and suicide rates were in inverse proportion!)

    • Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen

      Ian, thanks for the reference, I have not read this book, but certainly will now. I have heard a similar argument more than once recently. I don’t know if the psychology is reasonable. There are certainly some contrasts between US and Scandinavian societies, but I don’t think the former lacks violent popular fiction to purge whatever violent instincts there may be in society. If the argument held true, I think the US should be one of the most peaceful countries in the world, which I don’t believe it is. One should also not be deluded that Scandinavian countries are faced with very little violence. Last I checked the murder rates are not that different between Scandinavian countries and the UK. While it would be great (and particularly for my job:-) ) if fiction could have such direct and calculated impact on society and individuals, I believe the relationship between the deluge of crime fiction and the societies they represent is more subtle, and the impact not quite that straightforward. One other argument that is often being made in connection with crime fiction and society is that crime fiction may not be the most civil of genres as the hero is often a lone wolf who takes the law into his own hands or in other ways borders on criminality (there are many examples i recent Scandinavian crime fiction of this) – if that is the case, one could fear that otherwise socially and democratically minded Scandinavians are becoming less tolerant and more vengeful of deviant behavior, and more prone to blame individuals rather than seeking the causes of criminal acts in social structures. So, it is a big and complicated question – and an important one – what if any effect the current (not only) Scandinavian trend in crime fiction may have on the future of societies, I would like to believe in a cathartic theory, but I fear the opposite might be more to the point.

    • Ian Charles

      Well it’s nearly 50 years since I read the book, Jakob, so no guarantees as to whether any of it will make sense today 🙂 – but it was the catalyst that got me interested in all things nordic and indirectly led to your choice of departmental secretary at UCL, so you can blame the author for that. He actually did quite a lot of statistical juxtaposing as far as I recall – for example he attempted to blow the common belief at the time that Sweden’s high suicide rate was a result of liberated, mollycoddled, bored youngsters – he claimed the majority of suicides were in fact amongst over-50’s who had survived illnesses that killed off people in poorer countries but still left them debilitated. But here’s a question: would you agree that every time Denmark or Norway are cited as the ‘happiest’ countries in the world, the correct word should be ‘contented’? Empirically I see no evidence that Danes are happier or less happy than anyone else, but they are generally much more content with the way their society is governed and organised. They must surely be the only people who willingly elected a government that promised to raise taxes!

  3. Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen

    Thanks, Barry. None of this, of course, will be news to you.

  4. A balanced and insightful piece, as one would expect from Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen

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