Lena Andersson | Human behavior

This interview with Lena Andersson was conducted in September 2023 and has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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About Lena Andersson
Lena Andersson, born in 1970, is an award-winning Swedish author and columnist. She is known for her sharp texts and novels, often dealing with philosophy, societal issues, human relationships, and behaviors. Her major breakthrough came with the novel “Wilful Disregard” (2013, Natur & Kultur), which earned her the August Prize. Andersson has also received significant appreciation for her depictions of the Swedish welfare state in “Son of Svea: A Tale of the People’s Home (2018, Polaris) and “Dottern: en berättelse om folkhemmets upplösning” (2020, Polaris). Her style is characterized by analytical clarity and psychological insight, establishing her as one of the foremost Swedish authors of the 21st century.

Your new book is titled “Studie i mänskligt beteende” (2023, Polaris), which translates to Study in Human Behavior. What is it about human behavior that fascinates you?
– It’s almost a self-answering question. Human behavior is fascinating. It’s a part of all my books. The question then is why I wrote a book exclusively about it, aiming to portray and highlight it. After dealing with larger ideas and themes – geopolitics, worldview, the welfare state – I wanted to return to the minutiae of everyday life. In the reception of my last book, “Koryféerna” (2022, Polaris), I was reviewed as a columnist, based on the critics’ perception of my columns. It made me think that I should do something different next time. I started this without knowing what it would become. All I had was a vague notion that the theme would involve situations between people that I know something about or have observed. The title came later. But what I was after was to observe different phenomena. Illuminate them thoroughly, in areas that empirical research can’t reach, but must be perceived. The things that happen in the in-between.

Lena Andersson has written several books, and the latest ones are Studie i mänskligt beteende, Koryféerna, Sveas son and Dottern.

You say that the book sheds light on behaviors you know something about. Is it because you have experienced them personally, or from a consciousness in meeting people where you analyze their behaviors?
– Both. In some capacity, I have experienced everything in the book. It might be a glimpse, a sensation. I’ve also been some of these people, maybe for five seconds. From there, I can expand it, make it understandable. It also comes from a lifelong presence in situations where such things play out. You hear a crack in a voice and see something happen. Then, I can hear myself crack in the same way and realize it’s the same thing happening. It’s the result of a strong presence in life. Even if not everyone is as present, I believe everyone has access to it. If you depict it, they can recognize it. Therefore, I think that readers can realize they’ve actually seen these behaviors before. But being aware of it and articulating it is something else, and I think that’s the job of the author.

Have you analyzed my behavior?
– Haha, no, I don’t observe in that way. You don’t need to be afraid when meeting me. This happens more over time, and maybe more when I know people. It’s also an analysis of myself. I think it’s about being relentless towards one’s own emotions. When I feel irritation, how do I sound? What words do I use? What am I not saying? Maybe I exaggerate a bit to hide my irritation? Then I assume people are somewhat similar, so if I notice it in someone, I think they are probably as irritated as I was when I acted that way. I simply make assumptions based on how I function. Let’s say you were half an hour late to this interview. I would probably be disturbed and irritated by that. But what can I do? I can’t scold you, it doesn’t achieve anything. You do that with someone you need to educate, who needs to learn not to be late. I also think that you already know you shouldn’t be late and didn’t want to be. But it will be hard for me to pretend it’s not important. Somehow, it will affect me.

“I have an ideal that one should control oneself. You need to be able to restrain yourself. Self-control is a virtue.”

I perceive you as extremely rational in your reasoning about whether to express your irritation or not. Many would probably give in to their irritation without a thought on whether it leads to any improvement or not.
– Yes, of course, I have to control myself to not give in to that feeling. I have always been attentive to emotions and behaviors. If I get hurt by what someone says, it becomes a lesson for me, that one shouldn’t say such things. It’s true that I have rationally realized that it doesn’t help anyone to say that I am irritated, but psychologically it’s also an expression of restraint. I have an ideal that one should control oneself. You need to be able to restrain yourself. Self-control is a virtue. This includes realizing that it doesn’t help to point out someone’s lateness in irritation, and then I carry that with me when I find myself in that situation, and a quick consideration is enough to act correctly. But sometimes you can’t manage it. Then you usually always regret it, I think.

– I could have written such a story in the book too, about when you feel frustration towards another person and consult someone about what to do. All too often the advice is to speak up, you must tell them how you feel. But in reality, that very rarely works out. It’s very difficult and that’s why the world’s everyday problems are as they are. It’s extremely hard to confront someone, just as it’s extremely hard to take criticism. It opens things that you don’t know if you want to delve into, because then the other realizes they have been doing something wrong all along and that you have been irritated for a long time. Moreover, when you criticize someone for something, you risk getting criticism back and that’s not something you want to open up for. It’s very difficult to predict where this criticism will lead. The person might not tolerate the criticism and the relationship might not withstand it. What is this person then supposed to do with this criticism? It might be a behavior that the person doesn’t want to change. Where does that leave us? Must we end the relationship? It’s extremely uncomfortable. Usually, you can’t speak up about what bothers you. Actually, you can almost never speak up about anything.

Photo of Lena Andersson in front of a window.

One of the characters in your new book, named Holger, struggles immensely with self-control when it comes to consuming sweets. This theme is recognizable from your previous books “Son of Svea” (2018, Polaris) and “Dottern” (2020, Polaris), where the main character Elsa battles with losing weight. It’s an interesting theme that many can relate to. Part of you really wants to have another cookie, while knowing that you shouldn’t if you want to regain the body you once had. It’s a negotiation between the self of now and a future self. Can you please share your thoughts on this subject?
– A theme in this book is the body, and how the body impedes things like self-control and restraint. How that struggle looks. Holger’s self-control is destroyed by what he does to fix his body. He stages situations with enormous self-control where he doesn’t allow himself to eat anything and he constantly loses that battle, because it’s a battle against life itself. He’s doing it wrong. He can’t manage this. It’s easy to make this mistake because it’s hard, what he’s trying to do, losing a lot of weight when one has gained a lot. This struggle is ancient, the battle between what we want short-term and long-term. Paul the Apostle expressed it as “I do not do what I want to do, and I do what I do not want to do”. Plato’s writings deals a lot with this. He argues that this is what reason is, to be master over oneself.

– Controlling one’s emotions in other situations is easier, where the body is not in the way. Others might have a different opinion on that, but it’s at least not biology that’s against you, as in Holger’s case. There, it’s evolutionary. In the story about Holger, I write: “You must have character, his mother said about the five stubborn kilos that always sat on her stomach, hips, and thighs. It’s all about character. Holger felt that it wasn’t character he lacked, but something else, something that had gone wrong, something at the cellular level.” Thus, he is beyond character. That word is not relevant when one feels like he does. It’s not about whether he should have another cookie or not, but he feels like he’s dying. He’s torn apart. Character is not the right word for such a situation. He’s beyond the moral concepts of restraint and self-control. He has been destroyed along the way, for some reason.

“We as humans must discipline ourselves! Otherwise we are everywhere, we are completely spread out. We can’t do everything we want all the time. Some things are rewards. Sweets are eaten occasionally. You don’t go to the amusement park every day. It’s absolutely necessary, and if you believe otherwise, you’re deceiving yourself and society.”

If one hasn’t ended up in as extreme a situation as Holger, but still constantly experiences this ancient struggle between short-term desires and long-term goals, do you have any tips on how to build self-control and let the long-term will prevail?
– Personally, I find it most difficult when it’s about the body. For that, it’s the usual advice for a healthy lifestyle. Make sure you’re full on healthy things, so you don’t want to fill up on unhealthy things. But winning self-control, if it’s not bodily, probably involves forcing oneself not to live in the moment. Knowing that I will regret it if I make the wrong decision. I think you can get quite far with that thought, “I will regret it if I don’t…” Being in that feeling of regret, accepting that it exists and dealing with it when it comes. Then you learn that next time you have to work harder, because you don’t want to feel this way again.

– You should do what you can so you don’t have to regret. Maybe you don’t have the energy to visit your parents as much as you think you should. Then it’s good to think, “I do as much as I can, but I will regret it if I don’t try.” It’s important to find a level that’s livable. You can’t be too hard on yourself. A bit tough towards yourself and the situation, yes, in the sense of being clear-sighted, a bit merciless. Accept that you don’t find it the most fun to visit your mom, and you can’t do it all the time, but you need to do it.

Is self-control the same as discipline?
– Absolutely, it’s discipline. That’s a word that is out of fashion today. Not many use it. It’s considered authoritarian and anything that can be linked to authoritarianism has a bad reputation. Everything that’s not slack and loose is considered authoritarian today, basically. And it’s not good for us that it’s like that.

Lena Andersson in an outdoor photo, facing the wind.

I see it as desirable for children to develop strong discipline, but indeed it sounds authoritarian to discipline one’s children.
– It sounds terrible. Evil. And we do ourselves a great disservice. We as humans must discipline ourselves! Otherwise we are everywhere, we are completely spread out. We can’t do everything we want all the time. Some things are rewards. Sweets are eaten occasionally. You don’t go to the amusement park every day. It’s absolutely necessary, and if you believe otherwise, you’re deceiving yourself and society.

Jordan B. Peterson asserts that everyone aiming for a happy life is misguided and that instead, we should strive for a meaningful life. He further argues that meaningfulness comes from taking responsibility. First to take responsibility for oneself, then for one’s family, and thereafter for the local community. How does this resonate with you?
– Meaningfulness is good. But I wouldn’t say responsibility is enough. You also have to fill yourself with meaning. Enrichment. Learn things. I think using your strength is meaningfulness. To become your best version, to use a cliché. To realize your potential as much as possible. Reach your own destiny. You’re suitable for something, you have some talent, and you should make the most of it. That, I would say, is as much a meaning and a goal as anything. Responsibility, I think, sounds like it’s along a different scale than meaning.

An example can be a person who feels meaninglessness lacks reason to get out of bed in the morning. But if the person has responsibility for a dog, which needs to go out and be walked, there suddenly is a reason to get up. In this way, responsibility can give meaning.
– Okay, then I understand how it’s contrasted with just doing what one feels like. I agree that we are part of social contexts that we have to take responsibility for. You don’t need to get that dog if you don’t want to. But if you have, for example, started a family, then you have responsibility for it. If you don’t want that responsibility, you should be able to refrain. We should have that freedom. Morally speaking, the person doesn’t have the right to neglect the dog. Maybe he could sell the dog, even though he would probably feel worse without it. You feel better taking responsibility and mean something to someone. You feel good doing something in this world, you’re forced to put on clothes in the morning and fulfill your social destiny.

“When it comes to gender, it’s biologically determined. It’s a definition. We can, of course, agree on a different definition, but then we need other words for what we mean, or for what we have meant up until now. “

I would like to hear your thoughts on identity. An identity often comes with an expected behavior. Author James Clear suggests that one way to create desirable habits or get rid of bad habits is to try to change one’s identity. Someone trying to quit smoking should stop identifying as a smoker. Someone who wants to start exercising should identify as an active and healthy person. He argues that this makes it easier to then change the behavior. The ability to choose one’s own identity has also become a central debate issue in our time, especially when it comes to gender identity. Do you believe that identity is something one can completely determine for oneself, or is it not that simple?
– When it comes to gender, it’s biologically determined. It’s a definition. We can, of course, agree on a different definition, but then we need other words for what we mean, or for what we have meant up until now. When it comes to biology, one cannot choose. You can undergo surgery, but then it’s something new you have created. Gender roles are something else. How a man or woman behaves and is expected to behave is not the same as gender. Of course, one can claim to feel like something, and no one can question that. But you can’t force others to agree on it, that is, how one should be perceived. For an identity to work, it has to be in some harmony with the surroundings’ perception.

– For one to believe in it themselves, probably someone else needs to agree with them. Maybe not everyone, because people can be misinformed, have prejudices, or be malicious. But some probably need to agree that it’s correct. If a grumpy person claims to be cheerful, they need to prove it to their surroundings in some way. The example from the author you mentioned sounds more like a strategy, and the question is what comes first. Do I quit smoking and then no longer see myself as a smoker, or do I first not see myself as a smoker and therefore quit?

Which book would you recommend everyone to read?
– I can mention a book that I have gained a lot from, and that is Plato’s dialogues. Especially over the last ten years, it has lifted and broadened my thinking. Raised the ceiling and elevated the horizon. I feel like I see things with a different view and understand the problems much better. But it doesn’t seem like it helps everyone in the same way to read Plato. You probably need to be in the right place or wondering about something to embrace it. I have seen the debates of our time play out in his dialogues, in a clear way. They are still the same questions.

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