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Living in (Almost) Perfect Societies with (Other) Average People

02/05/2015 11:15 am ET | Updated Apr 07, 2015

What's it like living with the world's "happiest" people?

This is the subject of Michael Booth's 2014 non-fiction book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People: the Truth About the Nordic Miracle.

Unlike similar ones on Scandinavian culture, Booth's book is different because he lives there. British by nationality, Booth is -- like many of us -- a "sexual refugee," who lives in Scandinavia because of a chance meeting on vacation in Thailand or New Zealand or at a conference in New York, London, Rome or Paris. We fell in love (with a Dane or Norwegian or Swede) and moved our lives to Northern Europe.

It's generally accepted that without this motivation, very few of us would consciously choose to immigrate to nations with the highest taxes in the world, unpleasant weather, social conventions that are repressively homogeneous and languages that are virtually impossible to pronounce. Booth is one of us and we must thank him for his honest and often ironic accounts of life in the North as we know it.

Take sex, for example. Scandinavia is well-known for its liberal sexuality, yet any non-Nordic woman who has lived here knows how difficult it is to flirt with Scandinavian men. Danes are the worst, followed closely by the Swedes. Gender equality is so deeply rooted in these cultures that apparently men have forgotten how to flirt.

Women are in charge of sexual negotiations. "Though stereotypical depictions usually include reference to their sexual liberalism and physical beauty," Booth writes, "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."

I will forgive Booth this rather sexist description because I know he's right. Modern Scandinavian women cut men no slack. They demand and receive respect and equality (ligestilling in Danish). Swedish women are probably the most liberated, but it's a matter of degree. And too, it must be said, these same women are not at all ashamed to be predatory if they're interested in someone else's husband.

Since Booth lives in Copenhagen with his Danish wife and Danish-British sons, he devotes most of his book to Denmark (110 pages). Sweden gets a slice almost as big (96 pages), followed by Finland (74 pages), Norway (56 pages) and finally, Iceland (36 pages). His information is the result of personal observation, supplemented by interviews and conversations with historians, anthropologists, journalists, novelists, artists, politicians, philosophers, scientists, elf-watchers and even Santa Claus.

Besides the highest gender equality in the world, what these nations have in common are enormous public sectors that provide cradle-to-grave economic security, free education, and medical care. None of this "free," of course, but provided through taxation. Everybody complains about the high rate of taxes, but nobody, not even the staunchest conservative, wants to abolish the welfare state.

Danes designed their society. The goal was to create a culture that was competitive with continued growth and high employment, but one with few economic differences between people. It is this deep and wide middle class that makes Danes "the happiest people in the world," followed in the other Nordic nations only by small degrees of difference. Booth describes Denmark's so-called "bumble-bee" economy that defies conventional economic thinking. High taxes and a large public sector ought to stifle growth, innovation, and competitiveness. But it doesn't. Just as the laws of physics tell us that the heavy, un-aerodynamic bumblebee shouldn't be able to fly, both bee and economy remain airborne regardless.

Thus, Scandinavia offers the best there is for the average man and woman. Booth quotes The Economist: "If you had to be reborn anywhere in the world as an average person with average talent and income, you would want to be a Viking." Booth agrees: "The Danish model of redistribution has opened up to many more people than in the U.S. or Britain the chance to make a decent living, to explore their own potential."

But there is a price to pay. Booth describes well certain aspects of Danish society that probably shouldn't irritate us expats, but do: the stifling insistence on lowest-common denominator consensus; the fear of anything or anyone different from the (Danish) norm; the distrust of ambition; the disapproval of success; the ridicule and distrust of celebrity.

Hygge is probably the best example.

The word is a noun (hygge), a verb (hygge sig), an adjective (hyggelig), and an adverb (hyggeligt). There is no translation for it. Danes say it means "cozy," but that's only the top of a very big iceberg. Hygge is a feeling of being warm and safe. It means sitting with friends -- often in candlelight -- and drinking (lots of) alcohol while avoiding any conversational topic that will threaten the mood. Booth calls it tyrannical, a "relentless drive towards middle-ground consensus that insists on avoiding any potentially controversial topic of conversation."

Many of us perceive hygge as self-administered social gagging. A Danish academic, Jeppe Trolle Linnet has done research. He says that "hygge acts as a vehicle for social control, establishes its own hierarchy of attitudes and implies a negative stereotyping of social groups who are perceived as unable to create hygge." This is why strangers and foreigners are seldom invited into Danish homes; why Danes normally spend New Year's Eve with the same people year after year; and why it's so unusual for adult Danes to make new friends. This is also why spouses are normally not invited to Christmas office parties -- or julefrokost -- the annual Christmas lunch for organizations such as a choir, a sports team, a course or any other "group" that a Dane might be a member of. Spouses are "outsiders." They wouldn't (really) fit in.

This is particularly hard for some of us to adopt since we believe in "the more the merrier!" I wonder how many Americans have had to explain Thanksgiving to their Danish spouse. "Yes, I admit we don't know them well but it's Thanksgiving! We have to invite them! They're here all alone!"

It's observations and analysis such as this that makes Booth's book worth reading. Unless you live in Danish society, you won't see it, and it's comforting to get our prejudices confirmed. Nothing is more irritating to an expat living in Denmark than to hear someone who comes occasionally on business say: "But you're wrong! I've been invited into many homes!"

Booth's discussions about the other Nordic nations are full of surprises. He makes some outlandish assertions but always documents his opinions with enough material to make them plausible. (Want an example? Five percent of Danish men have had sex with an animal! Cf. page 84)

Norway: Norwegians are not urban but have remained rural. Oslo is not a metropolitan city and the majority of Norwegians have distributed themselves evenly throughout the nation in a landscape that literally takes your breath away. (Some expats in Denmark think Norway is, irrefutably, the most beautiful country in Europe.)

Contemporary Norwegian culture is a blend of nature worship and folklore. "Quaint" might be a word to describe it. Booth uses Norway's Constitution Day (May 17) as evidence when a numerical majority of Norwegians dress up in 18th and 19th century regional folk costumes. There are over 400 different styles, comprised of heavily embroidered dirndls, shawls, neckerchiefs and frock coats (in black, red or green), shiny top hats, hobnail shoes with silver buckles, bright buttoned breeches and crisp white blouses with pirate sleeves.

This cultural practice known as bunad is expensive and individuals might spend up to £7000 ($10,500). That's okay because Norwegians are now one of the richest nations on the planet with a deep and wide distribution of oil profits that make everybody well-off and Norwegian adolescents the richest teenagers on the planet. Speeding fines for reckless drivers are income related. Booth says the highest on record is £20,000 ($30,300). Maybe oil wealth has ruined the Norwegian character because, according to Booth, these pious Lutherans are getting spoilt.

Finland: It has a complicated cultural history since it belonged to Sweden from the 12th to the 19th centuries and then Russia after 1809, finally gaining complete independence in 1917. It is a Nordic nation but not a Scandinavian one. Finns consume more ice cream per capita than any other Europeans, including the Italians. Finland has more tango dancers than Argentina. They like firearms and have the third largest per capita gun ownership in the world.

Finns are perceived as the least corrupt people on earth, yet two of the three most common prescription drugs in Finland are anti-psychotic medicines. Nevertheless, they have the world's absolute best educational system. Why? Because teaching in Finland is a high status profession that attracts the brightest students. Currently, it is more difficult to get admitted into teacher-training courses than it is to enter law or medicine.

Iceland: Evidently, this is the "wild west" of the Nordic nations. Booth explains why and how their economy crashed in 2008 and how the influence of American consumerism played a role. Among many other surprises is a 1998 survey demonstrating that 54.4 percent of Icelanders believe in elves.

Sweden: Booth saves Sweden for last because of all the Nordic nations, it is the biggest, the most modern, ostensibly the most progressive. The Finns, Norwegians and Danes all have cause for residual resentment and envy towards their goody-goody, high achieving neighbor. History is one cause. Swedish economic success is another. (And it doesn't help that IKEA insists on naming its least dignified products: door mats, after Danish towns.)

Sweden is the biggest dog in the kennel and they let everybody know it. They don't even try to hide their contempt for their Scandinavian cousins. I remember an encounter I had with Swedish students in 1992 when I was guest teaching in Göteborg. After my lecture a group gathered around me to ask: "How can you possibly live in Denmark? They're not serious people!"

Booth opens one of his chapters on Sweden with this: "Sweden is a totalitarian state: discuss."

He argues that the uninterrupted period of rule by the Social Democrats resulted in a virtual one party state. According to Booth, Sweden is perceived by the other Nordics as a feminized culture in which Swedish men are generally "effeminate" and unmanly. Finns informed him that in the Swedish army, the men don't have to cut their hair because the army gives them hairnets! Booth didn't believe this. After research, however, he found it was true.

Chapter 8 on Sweden is entitled "Guilt". Booth describes the extraordinary role of Sweden's super wealthy, reclusive capitalist families. It was this unholy trinity of the Social Democratic government, the trade unions and the company owners that gave Sweden its utopian society at the expense of an extensive collaboration and trade with the Nazis during Word War II. The Swedes had been selling iron to the Germans since the 14th century and clearly saw no reason to stop. In addition, "neutral" Sweden allowed the Wehrmacht to use Swedish railways to transport (June-July 1941) the German army (163rd infantry division) along with anti-aircraft weapons and associated ammunition from Norway to Finland. German soldiers traveling on leave between Norway and Germany were allowed passage through Sweden -- the so-called permittenttrafik.

Today, Sweden is one of the biggest arms manufacturers in the world.

It is said that most people can't tell one Nordic country from another. Maybe so, but what they do know is that these nations are exceptional. This collective exceptionalism is worth studying up close and Michael Booth's book is a good place to begin. He writes with irony and charm and in the end, much affection for his adopted home in Denmark.

He's not blind to the drawbacks of living with "nearly perfect people" because he knows -- once you get up close and personal -- they're not perfect at all. Not even close.

They're average, just like the rest of us. That's the secret of their success.