Why are Scandinavians so happy when they should be so sad? 

Boring, lazy people who eat filthy food — there's no such thing as the 'Nordic miracle', pooh-poohs Michael Booth in The Almost Nearly Perfect People

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle Michael Booth

Cape, pp.416, £14.99, ISBN: 9780224089623

As I sit here in my Sarah Lund Fair Isle sweater, polishing my boxed sets of Borgen and nibbling on a small piece of herring, it briefly occurs to me that perhaps I too have fallen victim to the prevailing mania for all things Scandinavian. Just about the only person who’s stayed resistant, it seems, is Michael Booth, the author of this book.

At home in Copenhagen — he’s married to a Dane — watching the incessant drizzle falling through the perpetual twilight, Booth begins to think he’s losing his mind. How come every survey ever commissioned into human happiness puts the Scandinavians at the top of the list?, he wonders. It doesn’t make sense — especially not when all the Scandinavians Booth meets are frosty, charmless and even more emotionally constipated than the British.

And that’s not all. Their food is filthy and their telly — with certain notable exceptions — rubbish. Even the Scandinavians themselves seem baffled by their alleged contentment. ‘We are all so boring and stiff,’ one Swede tells him, not without a tiny glimmer of pride.

In an attempt to plum the mysteries of the ‘Nordic miracle’, Booth sets off on a grand tour of the region. It soon becomes clear that anyone who thinks that happiness has anything to do with hard work is hopelessly wide of the mark. The Danes turn out to be astonishingly lazy, with over 20 per cent of the population doing no work at all. As for the others, they do work, but in a very desultory way, knocking off every day at 4 p.m. and vanishing from their desks en masse on Fridays on the stroke of one o’clock.

The reason so many Danes can get away with not working, of course, is because the rest of them pay so much tax. Danes have the highest taxes in the world — their basic rate of income tax is 42 per cent. They’re massively in hock too, having the highest debt-to-income ratio in the Western world.

Hot on their heels come the Icelanders. As far as I know Iceland has never topped any poll to do with human happiness — certainly not in the last few years — but Booth goes there anyway, on the grounds that it’s ‘more Scandinavian than Scandinavia’.

There he finds the food is even filthier than in Denmark: in one place he’s offered something called a Hamburger New Fashion which comes with lashings of tandoori sauce, camembert and parma ham. Although I can’t imagine why anyone would want to visit a country where — according to yet another survey — 54.4 per cent of the population believe in elves, it’s hard not to warm to somewhere that had to axe their version of The X Factor after three series as they’d run out of contestants.

If you want to know why Norwegians are so happy, you don’t need to know anything about psychology: just look at their balance of payments. A treaty signed in 1965 gave Norway the richest oil fields in the North Sea. As for the Danes, they got next to nothing. Ever since, there have been rumours that the then Danish foreign minister — who happened to be an alcoholic — was drunk when he signed the treaty and failed to notice that the line on the map was in the wrong place.

If anything, the Norwegians are even lazier than the Danes, with a heroic one third of them being on indefinite gardening leave. They’re also fiercely isolationist, so much so that in 2011 the entire country was reported to have run out of butter.

While Finland may have the best schools and the hottest saunas — in 2013 a Russian competitor at the annual Finnish Sauna World Championships died after the temperature was turned up to 110 degrees centigrade — the pick of the bunch appears to be Sweden. Everyone from David Cameron to Barack Obama wants to do things the Swedish way, with one of the few exceptions being the American feminist Susan Sontag, who lived there in the 1970s and reckoned it was a dump. Even Swedish pornography was ‘the wrong kind’, she declared — ‘like illustrations from some male gynaecologist’s encyclopaedia’.

This is a strangely schizophrenic book. On the one hand Michael Booth is a dogged investigator, always going off to interview some business leader or academic (‘My next meeting was with Ove Kaj Pedersen, head of the Copenhagen Business School and one of the most respected economists in the Nordic region’). But on the other, he’s a frenetic wisecracker who never stops sticking his elbow in your ribs.

This can make for a wearying combination. There are some odd omissions too. Although he’s travelled all over Scandinavia, there’s little sense of place, or even of the Scandinavians themselves. Like the secret of their happiness, they stay shimmeringly out of Booth’s reach. Either that, or they just saw him coming.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £11.99. Tel: 08430 600033

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • johnslattery

    They are not especially happy now. Sweden has quietly become the most repressive state in western Europe. The mass immigration program is widely and deeply resented, but the far-left Swedish media has turned into a propaganda machine with the sole purpose of quelling nationalist dissent. Once upon a time you could spend months in Sweden without hearing a cross word. Now the atmosphere is poisonous. Online ‘haters’ are being outed by professional snoops and ‘hanged out’ publicly by daily papers. They have things called ‘opinion registers’ there, to keep tabs on the un-PC. The Sweden Democrats are subject to physical abuse. Personal homes are being trashed. If you want a taste of ordinary Swedes not being so cool and relaxed about things, have a look at the comment sections of Avpixlat and Exponerat alternative news sites (Google translate works well). I used to admire this country. Now I have come to despise and pity it. A lot of Swedes now feel their country is ruined for ever. Norway is not a lot better. Denmark retains some common sense.
    The native food really is crap, by the way. It’s the one area where mass immigration has been an undiluted positive.

    • jackscht

      That’s what happens when right wing conservatives take over. Unhappiness, repression,nastiness.

      • What’s ‘right-wing’? I am a classical liberal and I want to conserve classical liberalism, the greatest, sanest, and kindest way of living that man has ever devised. Happiest, too, if reality permits such a thing.

  • Sharon Herbitter

    *plumb the mysteries

  • gudmk

    “knocking off every day at 4 p.m. and vanishing from their desks en masse on Fridays on the stroke of one o’clock.” – and he wonders why they are happy??

  • Sintram

    As a native of Sweden I can testify that Swedes are not as happy as they used to be.

    Many of us are very concerned about the extremely high immigration. Here’s an article which correctly describes the dismal situation in Sweden:

    • Fergus Pickering

      Good article. Worth reading. But Sweden hs never been a happy place. I suggest you get the dvd of the Swedish film, ‘Let The Right One In’ and play it with the commentary from the director. He says that pre the mid 1980s Sweden was practically a client state of the Soviet Union, continuing their long tradition of lying down before naked power.. Vampires are the only answer.

  • Fergus Pickering

    Happy? I thought they were miserable as sin. All those suicides because of the cold and the dark and the prohibitive price of booze.

    • Guest

      Norway (5 million) has 500-550 suicides pr. year. England (55 million) has about 6000. That makes us equally miserable, even though we’ve got cheap booze and a better climate.

  • Paul Brady

    Ever so slightly off tack, the following article knocks on the heads the argument the Swedish have Socialism to thank for their affluence. An affluence they have been busily dismantling since the 1970s.

    • Hamalisk

      And the growth during Palme years of expansion of the welfare state was possible thanks to liberal policies before him. The most important feature is the mixture of social democracy and social liberalism in politiccs. Then one have to remember that not everything is politics. Culture, private entrepreneurship and other factors play an important role as well.

  • rorysutherland

    Tiny quibble. Surely Sarah Lund’s is a Faroese sweater?

  • This is interesting enough as a chat about Scandinavians, but it’s not really a book review, is it?

    • Fergus Pickering

      Imagine, Swanky. A book to entertain us and make us laugh. Rather than something highbrow and depressing. And probably Swedish..

      • Fergus, I don’t need a laugh a page to be entertained. And there IS pressure on writers to be comedic in the manner of, say, Mark Steyn. But frankly, trying to be comedic does limit one’s scope, not only in terms of individual style but also in terms of content. I recently read Marcus Berkmann’s book, A Shed Of One’s Own: Midlife Without The Crisis. It’s very funny. I laughed quite often. But I was even more ‘entertained’ — felt reading it was worthwhile — by the non-funny bits.

        • Fergus Pickering

          I must read that book. I am sure you are right. And since you are a teacher may I recommend to you the novel ‘The Harpole Report’ by J.L. Carr which is both funny and instructive. Carr was the headmaster of a primary school for many years and he ran it just as he chose.

          • Thanks for the recommendation, Fergus, though you ought to know that my comment meant I was glad not to be a teacher, not that I am one. That’s hubby.

          • Fergus Pickering

            Well, he’ll like it then. Buy it for his birthday.

          • I’ll read it first, put it aside, and then give it to him… his b-day’s not till October. : )

          • Fergus Pickering

            It’s not very long. I know you’ll like it. And the 1950s were JUST like that.

          • I’m sure I will. It gets rave reviews. I’m sure there are things we’ll laugh at and other things we’ll wish were still around.

  • Kooljeff

    believing in Elves is more sound than believing in Right-Wing, neolberal claptrap.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Nothing wrong with believing in elves and trolls.

      • Kitty MLB

        Or even tree sprites!
        Athough that would depend on where all these
        mythological characters come from.
        Nordic elves are quite different from the ancient and
        Roman creatures.

        • Fergus Pickering

          There is a Norwegian film about trolls in the north of Norway. It shows the Prime Minister (the real life one) admitting that there are trolls. Some of them are sixty feet tall.

          • Lord Edmund Moletrousers

            Some of them are sixty feet tall & obese from eating too many Big Macs & Jumbo Fries

          • Fergus Pickering

            Nonsense. Trolls eat people.

          • Lord Edmund Moletrousers

            and people are obese

          • Kitty MLB

            Well you never know, the unknown adds to the
            spice of life, and this Prime Minister obviously
            is not run of the mill and has a sui generis quality about him.
            Nothing is more dull then the mundane and the expected.
            There are also Leastrygonian’s who were giants and man eaters. I would send them to Downing Street, but Cameroons
            are very difficult to digest and will always repeat on you.

  • jackscht

    Clocking off at 4pm and half days on Friday, how awful.

    This winging pom lives there though, funny that.

    • whingeing, I think you mean. Unless you’re referring to his flying around Scandinavia.

  • FruityPimpernel

    Having travelled a bit in Scandinavia writing guidebooks, much of this chimes with me – especially the observations about the food and the dour outlook of many. It seems a bit unfair of the reviewer to accept Booth’s argument argument wholesale and then have a go at him for having fun with the topic. What does he want – 500 pages of dry dissection? I’ve not read this one but I have read his Hans Christian Andersen biography/travelogue which was a funny, scholarly and also tender portrait of the deeply nutty fairytale author. Booth is more than a rib-digging gag merchant.

  • ArneBo

    Don’t come to Norway.