How Do You Stop a Plague of Loneliness?

How Do You Stop a Plague of Loneliness?

By Fiona Zublin


Because even utopia could be improved. Maybe.

By Fiona Zublin

This article originally published in July 2016.

The investigators knock, then enter the detritus-riven apartment. It is the home of a man who hanged himself, a man nobody discovered for two years because nobody came to check, and because Sweden’s ubiquitous automatic bill-pay system never stopped debiting his rent. “Sometimes I wonder why we are so unhappy,” murmurs the investigator, staring out the window. “There’s nothing to glue us together.” 

In state-loving Sweden, can’t the government fix that? Maybe, filmmaker Erik Gandini argues in his documentary The Swedish Theory of Love. Gandini’s made movies about Guantanamo and consumerism, but this one hits at a perennial darling of the American left: the Scandinavian paradise, where a strong welfare state defends even the poorest against privation. In Sweden, nobody is supposed to need to depend on their family for financial support. But that’s led to a nation where about one in 10 people die without their family burying them, and where 40 percent of the population reports loneliness. “I took the liberty of questioning some very fundamental ideas,” Gandini says. “Not because they’re bad, but because they could be better.” Bernie Sanders, he says, was “absolutely right” to hold Sweden up as an example … but no one’s perfect. 

Gandini is half Swedish, half Italian; he says he feels Italian in Sweden and Swedish in Italy. In 2009 he made a documentary, Videocracy, about Silvio Berlusconi’s deleterious effect on the Italian press and its freedoms. Italian TV banned ads for it, both lending it new publicity and, well … sort of proving Gandini’s point. Born and raised in his father’s boot-country homeland, he settled in his mother’s Sweden partly because of the ideal of independence. Now divorced with three kids, he says he’s no romantic — and he’s not trying to expose some great lie about Swedish utopia. He just wants things to get better.

The Swedish Theory of Love isn’t likely to be banned anytime soon in cooler-headed Sweden; Gandini says Swedes don’t deny the loneliness his film presents. Instead they embrace it — there’s even a Swedish phrase, “Ensam Är Stark.” Lonely is strong. Indeed, in 2014, 47.5 percent of Swedish households consisted of a single adult with no children, by far the highest percentage of single households in the EU. The numbers exemplify “a political vision,” one that Charlott Nyman, a professor of sociology at Sweden’s Umeå University, was part of in an intentional push to give women more equality in Swedish society. But Gandini contends it may have backfired for some — in 2014, Sweden had the fourth-highest divorce rate in Europe. To make his point, Gandini interviewed people who meet in the forest to hug (really!) just to feel human connection, and others who, bereft of a social life, take to combing the woods for missing persons in teams.

Yet Sweden’s abandonment of intimacy isn’t cut-and-dried. Nyman, who studies single females, says older women she interviewed had mostly been in relationships, and while many were happy to be independent, everyone she interviewed saw companionship as a goal. “They wanted someone to take a bike ride with,” she says, “but they weren’t lonely in an existential kind of way.” For Nyman, Sweden’s social policies encouraging independence are in part a feminist issue: They were introduced to allow women to break free of the home, and to abandon the notion of relationships for relationships’ sakes. 

“These sorts of narratives have their own legs and feet,” says historian Lars Trägårdh, who coined the term “Swedish theory of love” for the idea that all relationships should be chosen, not maintained out of cultural loyalty, duty or need. He says that despite notions of American individualism, the U.S. is a very “communitarian” country — people are expected to provide for their children and their parents, and to depend on them as well. Though Trägårdh watched and enjoyed Gandini’s film, he says there’s little data to back up the idea that Sweden’s individualism makes people unhappy. “There’s a big difference between people who’ve chosen to live alone and unwanted loneliness,” he says. “We have an idea that individualism leads to alienation and unhappiness, but there’s very little evidence for that.”

This isn’t just about Sweden. In New Zealand, 18 percent of young people report feeling lonely — much more than the country’s elderly population, who are normally ground zero for loneliness in society. Meanwhile, research in the U.K. and Denmark has found that elderly members of migrant communities are more likely to report loneliness than their native-born counterparts — but that in the next generation, that disparity disappears. Between 1996 and 2006, the number of people around the world living on their own increased by 33 percent.

Maybe the answer isn’t traditional relationships. Nyman says several of her subjects were drawn toward Living Apart Together relationships, in which two people cooperate without cohabitating, reducing the chance that women will wind up doing the housework and emotional labor for two. It’s one of many changes around the world in the way people negotiate love and marriage, an attempt to find a better system that’s resulted in polyamory and three-parent households, among other things.

For Gandini, the answer’s obvious: Sweden’s refugees. Sweden sees more asylum applications than any other European country, but Gandini says the bar to truly becoming Swedish is impossibly high. He argues that Sweden is missing an opportunity to reinvigorate itself. But Swedish government statistics have found that only 60 percent of immigrants to Sweden have found a job within seven years of arriving. “There’s been an ambition to create a pluralistic society,” he says, “but it’s very segregated.” Perhaps, he hopes, in an echo of progressives across Europe, in the inverse of an anti-immigrant cry across the world, a new influx of foreigners could bring his society together, rather than dividing it.