By Tomas Björkman 

Co-author with Lene Andersen of The Nordic Secret (2017) Stockholm: Fri Tanke Förlag

In our current turbulent times of algorithms, globalisation, Brexit and Trump, we need to ask questions like: How do societies go through major technological, economic, and structural changes peacefully?

In the middle of the 19th century, Denmark, Norway and Sweden were very poor, agrarian and authoritarian societies. Due to starvation and miserable living conditions, about 20% of the working population in Sweden emigrated to the US during the second half of this century.

Just a few generations later, already before the Second World War, Denmark, Norway and Sweden were amongst the richest and happiest countries in the world. They had managed to transition from poor, agrarian, and authoritarian societies to rich, industrialised democracies. Compared to other countries, in Europe and elsewhere, their transitions from traditional to modern societies were outstandingly successful. How did this happen? What can we learn from this when we today are facing an equally large societal transition from national industrial societies to a global digital world?

In Lene Andersen’s and my recent book The Nordic Secret, we tell the story of visionary Nordic intellectuals and politicians who knew that in times of uncertainty and rapid change, people tend to look for an external authority to anchor themselves. We did it back then, and we are doing it today again. But, around the turn of the last century, these visionary leaders did not want to promote dogma or authoritarian leadership. They were committed to building democracy and they knew that the only way to build truly stable democracies is to build them from the bottom up.

These visionaries wanted to enable a large part of the population to become active co-creators of democracy and for this purpose they enabled state sponsored – but not state organised – retreat centres all over the Nordic countries. At the turn of the last century there were about 100 retreat centres like this in Denmark, 75 in Norway, and 150 in Sweden.

Here, young adults with a few years of work experience, mainly from the working class or farming parts of the population, could spend up to six months with the expressed goal of not being politically indoctrinated, but rather encouraged to find their own inner compass. To find themselves and in so doing be able to resist the siren’s call of extremism in any form. To be able to hold the complexity of rapid social change in contemplation, and even become active co-creators of the emerging new social order. A hundred years ago, up to ten percent of each generation of young adults participated in these programmes.

Today’s developmental psychologists would say that the aim of the retreats was to help the participants become “self-authoring”. To help them take that crucial psychological developmental step from being externally guided in their values and purpose to becoming grounded enough in themselves to author their own values and meaning.

In addition to this, the retreats gave the participants knowledge of current technological developments in farming and manufacturing, a feeling for the participants’ place in societal evolution of tradition and history, and basic tools for organising civic movements and activism.

So, where did these – even for our times – radical ideas come from?

The philosophical and psychological insights came from the German idealist philosophers. Schiller, Goethe, von Humboldt, Herder and others were read by almost all Nordic intellectuals back then. These philosophers had all reacted against the Enlightenment’s view of our mind as a fixed, rational machine. They pointed out that our mind is embodied in the totality of our bodies and embedded in our culture. And that our mind is a complex organic system under lifelong development. Views that are today confirmed by scientific research. One of the most important steps in this lifelong development of our mind during adulthood is to become “self-authoring”.

These philosophers lived, thought and wrote in the years after the French revolution and came to the conclusion that the only way to avoid future bloodbaths – like the ones that followed the revolution that they all had placed high hopes in – was for a large portion of the population to develop “self-authoring” capabilities. Unfortunately, few of us do this without conscious effort.

After the 1848 revolutions in Germany, no one in responsible positions in that country dared to implement these ideas on a broader scale. Instead, these ideas travelled to Denmark and from there to Norway and then to Sweden. It was in these Nordic countries that originally German ideas about the connection between personal, inner development, and societal change came to be implemented on a large scale.

Today, not many – not even in the Nordic countries – know this fascinating part of our history of nation building. That is why we call it The Nordic Secret. The retreat centre still exists and continue to receive massive state funding. They are called “Folk High Schools”. But after the Second World War, the focus on personal, inner development, and democracy building was lost. Our Folk High Schools are now mainly used for adult education and training. We reverted again to the Enlightenment’s view of the fixed, rational mind, with democracy now mostly taken for granted too.

We are now at a point in history were we – again – could use some of the insights that were instrumental in building the modern Nordic nations. Neuroscience, adult developmental psychology, and behavioural economics are all today confirming that the idea of “rational man” or “homo economicus” is flawed. This old understanding of our mind can actually dangerously undermine society and democracy. We need – again – to focus on the lifelong development of our minds and of our inner worlds. We need again to focus on the development of our consciousness.

We need to support the development of not just a few visionaries and leaders. Large parts of our populations need to develop secure inner foundations and the independence of mind needed to hold, and take part in, the complexity of our current societal transformation. We need to empower all those who want to become active co-creators of the new social order that needs to be born. This can only be done through deep inner work, reflection, and dialogue.


  • Tomas Björkman

    The Wellbeing Project

    Wellbeing inspires welldoing: the profound connection between how our relationship with ourselves deeply influences the way we are in the world. We are hearing changemakers around the world express the pressing need for support with their wellbeing. Our work highlights how wellbeing needs to be fundamentally prioritised both for each individual changemaker and because of how it shapes the way social change happens. The Wellbeing Project is a global initiative focused on shifting the culture of the social change field to one oriented towards inner wellbeing and catalysing an infrastructure of support for everyone in the field. The Project is co-created with leading social change institutions and is a community of many of the key global and regional social change leaders and organisations. We see an incredible opportunity to cultivate a social change culture that is more human-centred and at the same time unlock more of the extraordinary collaboration and innovation we need to address our great social and environmental challenges.