When asked why The Fabulous Wife and I chose Scandinavia for our vacation, I semi-facetiously answered “because we want to see what a happy society looks like.”

Over the last two decades, social scientists have begun to systematically study happiness, which they prefer to call “positive psychology.” In 2006 the nascent field gained global attention when Tal Ben-Shahar’s Harvard class on the subject became the most popular on campus. Now everyone’s into it, and in 2012, the United Nations started issuing an annual World Happiness Report. This year, Norway and Denmark finished one-two as the happiest countries on earth. Sweden tied for ninth. Meanwhile, the United States has dropped from third in 2007 to nineteenth today.

(This is where I’d normally rant about the problems with Happiness Studies, but I’ll postpone that for another day. You’re welcome.)

The three weeks The Fabulous Wife and I spent in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden are not enough to make conclusive statements about how happy those countries are, especially since we don’t speak the languages, have little knowledge of local history and culture, and engaged only a handful of natives in discussion. But we were there long enough to make a couple of general observations.

The first is that Scandinavia is not a paradise where all the women are leggy blondes, all the men are affable lumberjacks, and all the citizens are polite. They have the same problems we do. Walking after midnight on the Strøget, Copenhagen’s pedestrian thoroughfare, we saw plenty of homeless people waiting for the partying tourists to leave so they (the homeless) could roll out their sleeping bags. In Bergen, the walls of respectable buildings are covered in graffiti. On the long ride from Oslo to Stockholm, we observed up close the hollow-eyed routine of a pair of young junkies. And in all three countries we were surprised by the ubiquity of smoking.

Nor are these nations perfect global citizens. Norway pumps gobs of oil out of the North Sea and is second only to Japan in the slaughter of whales, which it clearly feels no shame over:

One of the less inspiring sights in Bergen.

Passing through eastern Norway and western Sweden, most of the forest is second growth, an endless tree farm like the clear-cut swaths of Washington, Oregon, and northernmost California. I have little doubt that once the ice caps melt, the Scandinavians will exploit the exposed land and sea. The Danes control Greenland; I’d be shocked if their elites aren’t already planning the plunder.

Scandinavian politics includes an authoritarian element, as evidenced by the growing alt-right presence in Sweden and a heinous act of domestic terror in Oslo in 2011, and they are just as vulnerable as the United States to Islamic terror. One month before our trip, a fanatic drove a truck down Stockholm’s pedestrian street, the Drottninggatan, and killed four people. The store window he crashed into hasn’t been replaced and serves as a temporary memorial to the victims:

In 2015, a terrorist opened fire on a political gathering in Copenhagen, then drove to the city’s synagogue a couple miles away and murdered someone there. The synagogue remains under guard, although the police cars at either end were unmanned when we passed by:

Few other buildings in Copenhagen need a concrete and iron fence around them.

The Danes’ response to truck terrorism has been to block pedestrian areas with hideous concrete freeway barriers:

An improvised ANTI-explosive device.

Before we fill out applications to become permanent residents, we need to keep these things in mind.

We also need to keep in mind the winters. We went to Scandinavia when there are twenty hours of sunlight per day. I don’t foresee us visiting when there are only four hours of sunlight per day.

But our second general observation is that, aside from the weather, Scandinavia’s problems tend not to be as extreme as America’s. I’ll talk about that in the next post, and then I’ll shut up about our vacation because at this point I’ve been writing about it longer than I was on it.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.