Why Cold, Depressive Countries End Up the 'Best'

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I used to eat at a Scandinavian cafeteria in San Francisco that called itself a “smorgasbord” and advertised its reindeer meatballs over pasta as superior to the Italian meatballs at the U.S. Cafe next door. This place was just outside Chinatown. It also had Swedish meatballs, but if there was a difference only a Finn could tell for sure. After the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performing Gypsy music from Slovenia under the direction of a Japanese conductor in Salt Lake City, this is my second-favorite example of the great American smorgasbord.

The word may have originated in Sweden, but looking over the metrics for “best countries”—where Sweden is No. 3 and Finland No. 1, Norway No. 6 and Denmark No. 10—I find it hard to imagine just how much variety that Northern European buffet holds. Why is it that the Nordics always dominate such lists, anyhow? Since it’s dark and cold outside for most of the year, the smorgasbord itself must be an attempt to offset tedium, angst, and monochromatism. Even so, there couldn’t be that many kinds of pickled herring, smoked fish, dark rye bread, and mustards on the smorgasbord, be-cause we know from the 1987 movie Babette’s Feast that a French woman on the run in Scandinavia after the Paris Commune turned the austere locals into insane bons vivants by means of spices. Also, as Ingmar Bergman’s movies and Stieg Larsson’s novels show, Scandinavian angst is nothing to laugh about. Pass the vodka, the incest, and the noose.

best-places-switzerland NEWSWEEK's list of the best places in the world to ... Illustration by Frank Chimero

Still, metrics are metrics, and art is subjective, so let’s try another tack. Intuitively, one would think that people who are warm most of the year would be better off than people who are not. Yet Finland is in the No. 1 spot, and tropical Burkina Faso dead last at 100. The link between freezing and a high ranking becomes more explicable when the following dots are connected: a heated classroom is better than being outside chopping trees, hence education is important; moving briskly is good preventive medicine, thus health is robust; quality of life improves immensely when one must get as close to one’s beloved as possible to fend off the chill; the political environment is likewise better when governance is kept simple and equitable because it’s too cold to fight in the streets; and finally, economic dynamism is bound to be high among peoples who have learned to combat frostbite with a maximum of movement and the least expense of calories.

A large portion of Finland’s well-being is also the result of its historical reputation for fierceness and diplomacy; it has had to fight and appease both the Russians and the Germans. Switzerland, at No. 2 on the “best countries” list, shares a similar history: squeezed between warring powers, it looked most appetizing to its French, German, Austrian, and Italian neighbors. The Swiss Alps are very good for health, Swiss banks are (or were, until recently) very good for hiding ill-gotten gains, and its so-called neutrality made it an excellent place for enemy combatants to do business and spy on each other. All these reasons, combined with a reputation for martial valor, enabled the Swiss to thrive and plan; the Alps are honeycombed by tunnels stocked with food that would enable every Swiss citizen to survive a nuclear war. Switzerland is a Swiss-cheese country hiding an underground smorgasbord.

The world’s “best countries” seem to have this in common: they avoid war, they live in the dark, and they maintain a steady state of depressive and productive activity. No wonder, then, that we in the United States rank a pathetic No. 11. We are the only country in the world that has written “the pursuit of happiness” into its founding document, thus guaranteeing that we’ll never be satisfied. We are a geographically and socially diverse nation doomed by law and custom to optimism. We are not too healthy, are quite belligerent, and we borrow too much without thinking much about how we’ll pay it back. To achieve better metrics we’d need to tolerate a lot more (smorgas) boredom.

Codrescu is the author of  The Poetry Lesson and the editor of Exquisite Corpse (corpse.org).