Micael Widell

The Swedish Loneliness

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Sweden is famous and reputable for its social safety net which provides world class safety and physical comfort. The Swedish model of welfare is known around the world. We have found a system that ensures, with a pretty high degree of success, that people are safe, have food on the table and a roof over their heads. Institutions have been built to ensure that the individual is always independent. You shouldn't have to depend on a spouse or on parents or children for your material well-being. So we built a society where you don't need anyone else to support you.

Today I watched a documentary about the saddest aspect of Swedish society, which probably is a side-effect of our focus on the sovereignity of the individual: our loneliness. When you have grown up in this country, you tend not to reflect too much upon it. But when talking to people from other countries it becomes more apparent. Our unique material safety net takes care of us, so that we don't have to take care of each other. And when we don't need each other, we let go of our ties and sense of community.

Sweden has the loneliest population on earth. Half of Swedes live alone. One fourth die alone. The documentary shows the government workers who visit homes where someone died months or even years ago without anyone noticing. Usually someone notices once the smell becomes so strong that it spreads outside the deceased's apartment and causes an inconvenience to the neighbours. Our social systems make sure we have an income every month, and automatic bank transfers pay the bills – even when we are dead.

And we get more and more tools to distract us from the fact that we are lonely. You don't feel as lonely when you can interact with people online. But you are. TV and the internet just takes away the worst pain of the loneliness. It takes away just so much pain that you become passive and don't do anything about it.

Even if you have perfect material wealth, I believe you cannot feel complete and fulfilled if you don't have people around you that you feel close to. We have evolved in tribes. We are social animals. We need people close to us who see us. The most comprehensive study carried out on humans concluded that the most important factor for happiness is good relationships.

In the documentary we get to follow a Swedish doctor who moves to Ethiopia to discover a culture that is the opposite of Sweden. Poor material wealth but with high social wealth. It begs the nontrivial question of what is a better life. Being poor and close to other people, or rich and lonely?

When I visited Brazil a couple of years ago I couchsurfed. I lived both in a poor neighbourhood and in a rich one. I visited the favelas and saw the warmest most family-like ties between neighbours I have ever seen in my life. The sense of community was awesome. The rich neighbourhood I stayed in a couple of metro stops away was the opposite; people didn't know who their neighbours were. And I've even noticed the same thing here in Sweden, even if the differences between poor and rich neighbourhoods aren't anywhere near as pronounced as in Rio de Janeiro. I used to live in slightly lower-class neighbourhood in southern Stockholm. I knew all the neighbours in my apartment building. I had been invited to all of their homes. That's just how people were in Hökarängen. Now I live a couple of kilometers away in a neighbourhood where most of the people have a high paying job. I don't know my neighbours. Many of them barely say hi, if they even bother to elevate their eyes from the sidewalk when walking by.

If we can afford to be independent from other people, it seems we take the opportunity. We don't initiate contact with other people unless we have good reason to. The poorer the neighbourhood, the more dependent everyone is on other people, and the more social bonds between neighbours.

So what's the point with this blog post? Where am I going? Sorry, there isn't really a point. Just wanted to write down these thoughts. Right now this seems like a dilemma to me. You can have material safety and wealth in a society, or you can have people who are close to each other with rich social lives and happiness as a consequence – but it seems you can't have both at the same time.

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