Finding America

Me and Tarah

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Having moved to the United States from Britain in 2008, I have often pondered how this large country of more than 300 million people might improve (certain) aspects of itself simply by taking a look at Britain. Indeed, I have written numerous articles on the matter.

But something that, during my research, I continue to find more and more apparent is that there is one other cultural region that the US (and Britain) could stand to emulate: Scandinavia.

Studies such as the OECD Better Life Index (BLI) would seem to suggest that present-day Scandinavia - comprising of Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark - is a high-achiever; a region who is quietly out-performing not just the US, but the entire planet, in areas ranging from education to coffee consumption. With that in mind, here is a list of 8 crucial things the United States could learn from Scandinavian nations.

1. Work-Life Balance 
It is often said that Americans are considerably overworked, and do not, on the whole, have a great work-life balance. Work-Life Balance is broken down by the BLI as follows:
"The average person in the OECD works 1,776  hours a year and devotes 62% of the day, or close to 15 hours, to personal care (eating, sleeping, etc.) and leisure (socializing with friends and family, hobbies, games, computer and television use, etc.)."
Of the world's developed nations, the United States ranks below average when it comes to personal care and leisure time (ranked 25th). The average American devotes just 14.27 hours to eating, sleeping and relaxing. Meanwhile, Denmark, which is ranked number one in the world for Work-life Balance, tops out at 16.06 hours of personal and leisure time. Of the top 6 nations on this list, Denmark is also joined by Norway (15.56 hours) and Sweden (15.11).

2. Coffee consumption 
I recently wrote about my new-found love of coffee and how it is consumed far more in the USA than my homeland. However, neither country even comes close (per capita) to consuming as much coffee as the Scandinavian countries. That's right! These 5 European nations not only have the best work-life balance, but are also the highest coffee consumers in the world (coincidence?).

While the average American drinks 4.2 kg of coffee each year, the Swedes are drinking almost double that. If that wasn't crazy enough, of the five Scandinavian countries, Sweden is actually the lightest consumer. The Danes drink 8.7 kg a year; the Icelanders 9.0 kg; the Norwegians 9.9kg and the Finnish a staggering 12.0 kg! For a further breakdown of world coffee consumption, check out this table.

3. Environment
The BLI has categorized environment using two different subsections: water quality and air pollution. In terms of the former, 87% of people in the United States state that they are satisfied with the quality of their drinking water - 3% above the OECD average. Meanwhile, also in the United States, PM10 levels ("tiny particulate matter small enough to be inhaled into the deepest part of the lung") have been measured at 18.0 micrograms per cubic meter, roughly 3% lower than the average. Overall, the USA is ranked number 16 for environment.

Ranked at number 1, with 95% of citizens approving of their nation's drinking water is (you guessed it) Sweden. Indeed, in that very same country, PM10 levels were measured at just 10.0 micrograms per cubic meter. And just in case you thought the Swedes got lucky, check this out: Norway, Iceland and Denmark are ranked 3, 4 and 5 respectively, while Finland comes in at a respectable 7th.

Note to my UK readers: we come in at number 2!

4. Education
Education in the United States has been analyzed every which way by bloggers such as myself. The fact remains that the US ranks number 20 among OECD nations, with 89% of people aged 25 to 64 having attained at least a high school degree. Moreover, the average performance of 15-year-old American students, according to the findings of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), yields a score of 496 - exactly one point beneath the OECD average across nations.

At this point in the list, it will probably come as little surprise that the top spot is claimed by a Scandinavian country: Finland. Though only 83% of Finnish people aged 25 to 64 have at least a high school diploma, the country was found to have the most highly skilled students, with an incredible score of 543. Additionally, people from Finland can expect to spend 19.6 years in education between the ages of 5 and 39 - some 2.5 years more than American citizens.

5. Voter Turnout
Again, much has been made of voter turnout at US elections. Indeed, according to the BLI, voter turnout at the most recent US election was 70% of all registered voters - 2% below the OECD average. Meanwhile, the level of government transparency when drafting regulations is indexed at 8.3.

Compare this with Denmark, Sweden and Iceland, where voter turnout is 88%, 85% and 85% respectively and where, in Sweden's case, government accountability is indexed at 10.9, bettered only by the United Kingdom.

6. Intentional Homicide Rate
It is fairly well-understood that the United States has one of the highest intentional homicide rates among the world's developed nations. Indeed, a study from the most recent year shows that 14,612 intentional homicides took place in 2012 at a ratio of 4.7 deaths per 100,000 citizens.

The whole of Scandinavia combined didn't even come close to equaling this tally, with Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway seeing just 285 intentional homicides between them, while Iceland saw just 1 (yes, you read that correctly).

But hold on, you say; the United States is bound to have a higher rate of intentional homicides, since its population is 12 times that of all the Scandinavian countries combined. To that, I will point you to a very simple mathematical equation:
14,612 (no. intentional homicides in the USA) divided by 286 (no. intentional homicides across Scandinavia) is equal to 51.1.
In other words, though the US has 12 times the population of Scandinavia, it is still committing 51 times the amount of intentional homicides.

7. Irreligion
Over a five year period (2006-2011), the polling company Gallup asked citizens of each country the following question: Is religion an important part of your daily life? Now, understand that this question is markedly different from asking do you believe in God? Nonetheless, the results would indicate that some countries take their faith more seriously than others.

In the United States, where I can say from experience that citizens are often quite vocal and open about their faith (certainly compared to the UK), just 36% say that religion is not an important part of their daily life. Meanwhile, a similar poll conducted by the Dentsu Communication Institute found that 20% of Americans said they do not identify with a religion.

Meanwhile, 88% of Swedes insist that religion is not important in their daily life, with Denmark and Norway just behind them on 83% and 78% respectively. Intriguingly, however, just 25% of Swedes said they do not identify with a religion. For the Danes, this figure is 10%. I invite you to make your own conclusions as to what this means.  

8.Overall Life Satisfaction
This is where we get down to the crux of why every entry on this list matters. Because ultimately, the most important thing in life is to be happy, right? Well, as a group of nations routinely ranking among the most joyful on Earth, the Scandinavians know a thing or two about being happy. The BLI describes life satisfaction as follows:
"Life satisfaction measures how people evaluate their life as a whole rather than their current feelings. It captures a reflective assessment of which life circumstances and conditions are important for subjective well-being. When asked to rate their general satisfaction with life on a scale from 0 to 10, people across the OECD gave it a 6.6 grade."
As this graph shows, Scandinavian countries are extremely satisfied with life, with Norway (7.7), Sweden (7.6), Iceland (7.6), Denmark (7.5), Finland (7.4) all listed in the top 7 most satisfied nations in the world. The United States, meanwhile, is placed 14th with a life satisfaction score of 7.0.

Laurence is a British expat living in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is a contributor for BBC America and writes a weekly column for Anglotopia. Having graduated from Lancaster University with a degree in English Language and Creative Writing, Laurence runs this blog, Lost In The Pond, charting the endless cultural and linguistic differences between Britain and The United States. Please follow Laurence on this journey by clicking on any of the icons below.


  1. You only have to read "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" to realize that they drink a shit-ton of coffee.

  2. Except the population in the USA is way more diverse than all those Scandinavian nations combined so you can't really compare things like education or religion. Nothing to learn there from them.

  3. To be objective and unbiased, you can't have 250 years of slavery and oppression and expect African Americans to have the same standard of living as the rest of the nation only 50 years after the height of the Civil Right's Movement nor can you have endless illegal and legal immigration of the poorest of the poor from third world countries and expect them to assimilate in just a few years, however...You're comparing relatively small and homogenous nations to a very large and diverse nation...You're simplifying "standard of living" and "quality of life" through a highly subjective perspective and ignoring many factors, subtext and nuance...African Americans and Hispanics suffer about 3 times the poverty rate of Asians and white Americans:

    However, these stats were made after the Great Recession...In 2000, the poverty rate for whites was as low as 8%, 22% for African Americans...

    Massive poverty among certain minority groups has lead to high crime rates for those groups...The per capita murder rate for African Americans is more than 17 per 100,000 and more than 15 per 100,000 while the per capita homicide rate for whites is similar to that of Canada:

    Canada, Australia and New Zealand are also ranked along with Scandinavian nations with overall quality of life and standard of living however, they have similar rates of religiosity as the U.S. where large majorities of the population believe in a God and an afterlife...The standard of living of a nation and how intelligent their people's are, is independent of the religiosity of that nation...Both Canada, Australia and New Zealand scored far above the PISA averages and far above Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the U.K. as well as had among the highest percentages of the populations holding university degrees, in the world, yet these were very religious nations:

    The U.S. scored along with the Denmark, Norway and far higher than Sweden in overall test scores for math, reading and science...However, a closer look at U.S. PISA scores broken down by race and region reveals how the socioeconomic background of students effects the outcome of the scores...

    Western Europe has only experienced relative economic prosperity, stability and peace since the early 1990's while the nations of the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand already experienced such peace, prosperity and stability since the end of WWII, yet while Western Europe held a lower standard of living than these nations, they were already relatively much less religious than the mentioned "anglosphere" nations...this includes much of Scandinavia, which was relatively poor compared to the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand...Just because Scandinavia has recently experienced such wealth, prosperity and stability, and so happen to be very irreligious, they all of a sudden hold the world standard and it's their irreligiousness that makes them have such a high standard of living and quality of life? If this was the before the 1990's, it would be the religious nations that held the high standard while secular Western Europe would not be held as a model considering all the problems across the continent at that time...All places have their ups and downs...nations rise and fall, religions come and go but change is a permanent feature of human societies, progress and growth...and a nation's success is independent of it's religiosity...

  4. Also, if irreligiosity was related to a region's or nation's standard of living, quality of life and intelligence and the more irreligious a nation or region is, then the higher the standard of living, quality of life and intelligence, then Eastern Europe should be a utopia with among the most intelligent peoples on earth...but it isn't.

  5. I knew some people would immediately go on the defensive after reading this, despite you confirming that there is no political or social agenda attached haha.
    A bit concerned that CaliforniaKid thinks New Zealand has similar rates of religiosity as the US.
    Good read :)


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