High world rankings across the board
Without exception, the Nordic countries all seem to rank extremely high in world rankings about quality of life, education, happiness and other measures. For example, according to the World Happiness Index, among the 7 happiest places in the world are all of the five Nordic countries (Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland). It’s a pattern that cannot just be explained by high levels of GDP-per-capita, where ‘only’ 2 of those are in the world’s top-10. There seems to be something more fundamental at play in Europe’s high North.
A novel that became a ‘law’
In many cultures, people will work hard their whole lives to achieve a social status that allows them to gain the admiration of their peers and neighbours. In the Nordics, people will work hard their whole lives to avoid their neighbours’ admiration at all costs. How can this be explained? In 1933, Aksel Sandemose wrote a novel in which he laid out the “Law of Jante”. Jante was a fictitious town in Denmark, probably modelled after his home town. He described what was to become the epistolic foundation of the Nordic lifestyle.
The Law of Jante
Sandemose laid out 10 rules that he believed should define a society. The first rule already encapsulates the philosophical underpinning of rules 2 thru 7. Hence, let’s focus on that. It says: “You are not to think you are anything special”. That is quite a statement. To many readers around the world, especially in North America, such a statement will be juxtaposed to what they grew up with. Many children today are told by well-meaning parents “You are special” or “You can become anything you want”. But might that not increase the pressure on the little ones? Might it not set them up for frustration as adults when most of them will realise they will never become rock stars or CEOs? Perhaps an approach that instils in people that they are not special is healthier in the long run.
An average life
That you are more likely to be happy with an average life if you are not being told from the moment you are born that you will become a famous star or a billionaire is an angle that looks at the Law of Jante at the level of an individual. However, the bigger picture to understand when analysing Jantelagen surrounds the group dynamics of the concept: Rule 8 of the Law states: “You are not to laugh at us”. This is vital to understanding Nordic societies: If your contribution to society as a manual worker, cleaner or other type of employee without higher education or a high income is valued just as much as that of a rock star or CEO then you will feel appreciated and happier compared to a society that looks down on you. Such societies are more stable and peaceful. With more appreciation for everyone’s place in society comes less anger and conflict.
Do the Nordics make inequality invisible?
These are not only assumption. Research shows that inequality in societies leads to greater instability. Thomas Piketty’s bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century famously showed how wealth and income inequalities beyond sustainable levels can lead to a revolt of the masses. Such revolts do not need to be violent, but can take the form of voting populist parties into power or pushing for wealth taxes or nationalisations of corporate conglomerates. They can, however, likewise take the form of violent protests. It therefore appears to be in the very interests of those who have accumulated wealth and resources not to show off said wealth too much. After all, people will hardly take to the streets based on a statistic, but might very well do so based on glaring inequalities they encounter every day.
Is there even a large concentration of wealth in the Nordics?
One measure for inequality is the Gini-Coefficient. On a scale between 0 and 1 it measures how inequal wealth or income is distributed in a country. A score of 0 means that every person in the country has the same amount of wealth, whereas a score of 1 represents a maximum unequal distribution of wealth. The Gini-Coefficient for Sweden is 0.87 and for Denmark 0.84. Those two Nordic countries are therefore a far-cry from being equal societies. However, the stigma associated with showing off that wealth, let alone boast about it, makes that inequality far less visible. Furthermore, all Nordic countries possess a strong and robust welfare state. Those who have been less fortunate in life therefore do not need to take up the pitch forks as the stronger shoulders in society support them through comprehensive redistribution mechanisms.
The critical side of Jantelagen
Jantelagen seems to be one element that helps create stable societies with an egalitarian and inclusive mind-set. However, as in any country, there are people in each of the Nordic states who can rightly claim to have achieved something remarkable in their lives, whether it is in the arts, business, sports, or other areas. For those, it could be a struggle to live in societies that discourage the portrayal of excellence and outstanding achievements. To take pride in one’s achievements is a deeply enshrined human desire. Reducing one’s ability to express pride and receive praise and recognition from society because one is different (in a positive way) can have its flip-sides.
The conclusions the world can draw
While the above observations will explain a large degree of how important the Law of Jante is in understanding Nordic societies, it would be greatly erroneous to reduce complex societies anywhere in the world to a set of rules from a novel. However, if we can learn anything from the Nordics, it might be that the most important laws in society are not the ones written down in legal code, but those that govern our actions and aspirations on a much deeper, intangible level.
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