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

Feb 1, 2015
Originally published on May 1, 2015 2:01 pm

What comes to mind when you think of Scandinavia? Great education systems? The world's happiest people? Healthy work-life balance?

One man, a British transplant living in Denmark, sought to set the record straight about his adoptive homeland.

Michael Booth is the author of The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia. He tells NPR's Rachel Martin about how culturally different Scandinavian countries really are.


Interview Highlights

On Denmark's high taxes and what Danes get for it

Let's take Denmark for example. We do have literally the highest taxes in the world. The income tax is about — top measures are just over 50 percent. But there's all sorts of other very heavy taxes. ... Most people reckon about three quarters of your income ends up in the state's coffers if you include all the various taxes. You know, if you want to buy a car, there's a 180 percent tax on the car. [Value-added tax] is 25 percent. They have the highest energy taxes. ... So basically I'm working until Thursday lunch time for the government, and the rest of the week for myself. ...

What you get is free education, very cheap pre-school care, functioning public transports, a free health service — all the things that many Americans dream of. Now the big question is: You're paying the highest taxes in the world, is the education system the best in the world? Are the hospitals the best in the world? No, they're not.

On whether Danes are satisfied with the status quo

Actually, that's the perfect word for the Danes. You may have heard they're supposed to be the happiest people in the world, and they have regularly topped these happiness rankings. [But] they haven't, actually, in the last few years. They've dropped dramatically in line with their economy. So I'm afraid [the] side message here is: Money does make you happy. But I've spoken to some of these people who are behind these ranking lists and they secretly admit it's not about happiness, but they just use the word "happy" to grab the headlines. It's really about ... satisfaction and contentedness, and the Danes are massively content.

On how Scandinavian countries are handling the issue of immigration

How long have you got to talk about this? This is a very complex subject. And it differs, really, from country to country. Because you have Sweden, which has had basically an open-door policy — they've welcomed many thousands of refugees from Syria, [an] incredibly impressive, humanitarian gesture. On the other hand, they have problems: They have ghettos, they have crime levels that are getting quite excessive and in their last election their far-right party, the Sweden Democrats, which has its roots in the Neo Nazi party, scored 13 percent of the popular vote. ...

On the other hand, just across the water in Denmark, the right wing has been far more mainstream and has had far more influence over the last 15 years. They're a little milder, in some senses, but they've been in the center of government for some of the last 15 years and they've tightened up immigration regulations dramatically in Denmark.

And then we have Norway, where there were the tragic events of the Anders Behring Breivik terrorist attack [in 2011]. ... His kind of beef was with multiculturalism as he saw it in Norway.

On how culturally different these countries are

That's really what started my idea of this book about 10 years ago when I first spent time in Denmark and kind of [saw] the weird, dysfunctional family dynamic there is up here. ... I thought of Scandinavians as just one big, homogenous, bearded, you know, cycling, maybe with a pipe. But they are radically different. Even within Sweden, from north Sweden to south Sweden [they are] very, very different peoples. And then I learned what the Danes thought about the Swedes and what the Finns thought about the Swedes and what the Swedes thought — the great, juicy gossip that journalists love, you know?

On how other Scandinavians view Norwegians

The Norwegians, they ... traditionally were thought of [as] the country bumpkin. But then in the '70s, they struck oil, so they are now [like] The Beverly Hillbillies. ... If there is a God, he has a great sense of humor because he gave the cash to the Norwegians.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

OK. What comes to mind when you think of Scandinavia - great education systems, the world's happiest people, healthy work-life balance, maybe? Well, one man, a British transplant living in Denmark, didn't buy it. So he's trying to set the record straight about his adoptive homeland. Michael Booth is the author of a new book titled "The Almost Nearly Perfect People - Behind The Myth Of The Scandinavian Utopia." And when I spoke with him, he started by telling me the real definition of that word, utopia.

MICHAEL BOOTH: It literally means, in Greek, does not exist.

MARTIN: Does it?

BOOTH: Yeah. So this is my message to everyone. Utopia doesn't exist, unfortunately.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

BOOTH: And it certainly doesn't exist up here in the chilly north.

MARTIN: You are coming to this as an outsider, but you do make your home in this part of the world by choice.

BOOTH: Yeah, almost of my own free will. I'm married to a Danish woman. And Scandinavian women are pretty strong, and you generally just do what they tell you to do. And my wife told me to come and live with her in Denmark. So I did.

MARTIN: So let's walk through a big - a few of the big points in the books. One of things I think Americans, in particular, think of when you talk about Scandinavia is the social welfare system and the correspondingly high taxes that go with it. What about this part of the culture plays into the myth?

BOOTH: Let's take Denmark for example. The income tax is about - the top rate is just over 50 percent, but there's all sorts of other very heavy taxes.

MARTIN: Fifty percent.

BOOTH: Most people reckon about three quarters of your income ends up in the state's coffers.

MARTIN: What do you get for it?

BOOTH: Well, exactly. That's the quid pro quo, isn't it? What you get is free education, very cheap preschool care, functioning public transport, a free health service - all the things that many Americans dream of. The question is you're paying the highest taxes in the world, is the education system the best in the world? Are the hospitals the best in the world? No, they're not.

MARTIN: Let's just stay in Denmark for the time being. Are Danes satisfied with the status quo?

BOOTH: Actually, that's the perfect word for the Danes. You may have heard they're supposed to be the happiest people in the world.

MARTIN: Yeah.

BOOTH: And they have regularly topped these happiness rankings. They haven't, actually, in the last few years. They've dropped dramatically in line with their economy. So I'm afraid the side message here is money does make you happy. But I've spoken to some of these people who are behind these ranking lists. And they secretly admit it's not about happiness, but they just use the word happy to grab the headlines. It's really, as you said, it's about satisfaction and contentedness. And the Danes are massively content.

MARTIN: You spend a good portion of time in the book talking about the issue of immigration. How have these countries learned to integrate immigrant populations? Which have done it really well and which ones have not?

BOOTH: Oh, that's a long - I mean, how long have you got to talk about this? It's a very complex subject, and it differs, really, from country-to-country because you have Sweden which has had basically an open door policy. They've welcomed many thousands of refugees from Syria - incredibly impressive humanitarian gesture. On the other hand, they have problems. They have ghettos. They have crime levels that are getting quite excessive. And in the last election, their far right party, the Sweden Democrats, which has its roots in the neo-Nazi party, scored 13 percent of the popular vote. And then we have Norway where there were the tragic events of the Anders Behring Breivik terrorist attack.

MARTIN: We should just remind people that happened in 2011.

BOOTH: That's right. His kind of beef was with multiculturalism, as he saw it, in Norway.

MARTIN: You take a look at the cultural historic differences among these countries. I mean, we in America, I think, in particular, are guilty of just kind of lumping them all together. I was fascinated to learn that the Norwegians kind of get short shrift.

BOOTH: Yeah. I thought of Scandinavians as just one big homogenous bearded, cycling, maybe with a pipe. But they are radically different even within Sweden. You're right. The Norwegians - they are kind - or traditionally, were thought of as the country bumpkin. But then in the '70s, they struck oil. So they are now the Beverly Hillbillies. If there is a God, he has a great sense of humor because he gave the cash to the Norwegians. You know?

MARTIN: (Laughter) When you go back to Britain or visit other parts of the world, what do you end up missing about the North?

BOOTH: I don't miss the licorice and the marzipan which you can't avoid here. What I miss, oh, God. Oh, I do love Denmark. Honestly, it's great. Let me think of something.

MARTIN: (Laughter) The beer?

BOOTH: No, I don't really like beer very much.

MARTIN: No, OK.

BOOTH: There is a fantastic new Nordic food movement here, and I write a lot about food. So there, that's what I miss.

MARTIN: All right. Michael Booth - his new book is called "The Almost Nearly Perfect People - Behind The Myth Of The Scandinavian Utopia." Hey, Michael, thanks so much.

BOOTH: Oh, there's always one question I've never been asked before. You really got me there.

MARTIN: Is that true?

BOOTH: You know, apart from my family, honestly, and friends.

MARTIN: This has really stumped you.

BOOTH: It's terrible. I'm having an existential crisis.

MARTIN: Come on. Are there mountains?

BOOTH: They have nice beaches.

MARTIN: Coffee?

BOOTH: No, I don't drink coffee. (Laughter) But you're right, they have the best coffee in the world. I'll say that next time someone asks me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.