Do our individualistic lifestyles really make us happy?

Kjetil Røed
Røed is an art critic based in Oslo.

A man is alone in his flat. He has been lying there dead for three weeks – people only noticing his demise when an awful smell appeared in the communal hallways. As the Swedish authorities scrutinise the case, they discover that the man has no close relatives or friends. It is highly likely that he lived lonely and alone for years, sitting solitary in front of his TV or computer. After a while, they discover that he has a daughter, but she proves impossible to locate. All his worldly goods are therefore dumped on a tip, whilst his money end up in the state coffers. It becomes apparent that he actually had quite a lot of money tucked away in the bank. But what does that help when he had no one to share with.

«What does it matter if I have a million in the bank if am not happy, » says one of the social workers who searched through the deceased man’s flat looking for signs of a social network or relatives.

The new independence. Erik Gandini’s film The Swedish Theory of Love examines the Scandinavian countries’ individualism. He traces it back to 1972, when the leaflet The family of the future – a socialistic family policy decided that the way adults relate to each other should be founded on volunteerism and independence.

«Every person is to be treated as an individual and not as an appendage to a breadwinner, » said Olof Palme, one of the advocates of this new family politics. Whilst in a traditional society is born into a family or other social arrangements where we depend on others to survive, the past 40 years have seen a greater focus on making every one of us self-sufficient.

Unsuccessful policy? Do you also live alone? Many people do – especially in Norway and Sweden, where almost half of the population is a one-person household. This quickly raises the question whether being alone is an expression of freedom or independence – or not. The Swedish Theory of Love depicts the northern European family policy over the past 40 years and how the ideology about independence developed in the 1970s as an antithesis to what was seen as outdated and traditionalist lifestyles.

«More than one in five of us feel lonely. Some 70,000 Norwegians do not have any close confidents or friends whom they can turn to when they need someone to talk to, » states helsenorge.no. There is a growing number of single and lonely both in Sweden and Norway. The mass of citizens without anyone to speak with, is ever increasing. In addition, there are new groups, such as young immigrants, who do not speak the language nor possess a social network. Young men, in particular, end up in this category.

That Ethiopia’s Conservative gender roles are not even alluded to, simply helps distort the truth.

Rose tinted. Security can mean unhappiness, says one of the youths interviewed in the film. He is sitting with a group of young, hippy-ish individuals who are gathered in a circle of meditation in a Swedish forest. When we are supported by the State, when we no longer need to contact others for help, well, then, perhaps we do not even want to get in touch with each other, suggests one of the others. Sure, these are reasonable statements which could dent the exaggerated depiction of the Scandinavian countries as a haven for human happiness and wellness.

The friction becomes even more palpable as we in the next scene are transported to Africa. «Let us leave perfection behind for a moment, and move towards progression, to the Swedish opposite on the value map. » To Ethiopia, and specifically, to rural Wollegga where Swedish GP doctor Erichsen lives. «Here, people are never alone, » he says. «They look after each other. »

Modern and traditional values. Traditional values, with a focus on the family and community, have been downgraded through an individualistic ideology, Dr Erichsen points out. However, does not director Erik Gandini seem to agree with this view point a little too easily? There is no doubt that we can learn something crucial about looking after each other by looking to, for instance Ethiopia, but it does not mean that we should return to the nuclear family the way it existed prior to the (according to Gandini) demonic family policy document. Herein lies also the film’s problem – although we in the North do have problems, using the example of Ethiopia as a role model is not only too simplistic, but idealising and naïve. That the Ethiopian conservative gender roles are not even alluded to, not to mention FGM (female genital mutilation), simply helps distort the truth.

Uncertainties. There is a lot of loneliness in Scandinavia. But does this mean that it is a terrible place to live? No, it means that certain ideas about how to live together are botched, not leaving enough room for empathy and solidarity. This especially comes to the fore in the current refuge situation.

The Swedish Theory of Love is a well-crafted documentary which puts the finger on a weak spot in the Nordic self-image, and one which is good to linger on. But, the film does not provide any solutions, only idealising and simplistic models. Gandini touches upon something vital with the entrance of Polish sociologist Zygmunt Baumann towards the end of the film. «Happiness is not wellness,» he says. «It is about conquering challenges. Something which disappears with the increase of welfare. » He should have appeared earlier, preferably right at the start of the film, because this is when interesting things happen. On the whole, the film is just a little naive, which is a shame – as these are important issues tackled by Gandini. Because, at the end of independence, awaits not only loneliness, Baumann points out, men unimaginable unhappiness and boredom.

 The film premieres in Norway on August 19.


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