Welfare State Not Always a Bed of Roses

They have some of the world's best medical care; their professors award the field's Nobel Prize. International studies show they're among of the globe's happiest as well as healthiest people. So why are a small but growing number of Swedes paying their hard-earned, high-taxed kronor to seek back pain relief with Russian-inspired nail mats? The New York Times reports on the newest Stockholm Syndrome:

"It's quite painful initially," said Catarina Rolfsdotter-Jansson, 46, a yoga instructor and writer who uses her nail bed almost every day. "The trick is, all the adrenaline rushes, after which you relax and feel nice again."

When a person stands up after lying on the mat, she said, "the back looks picked at, as if with a fork."

Until now, Sweden has been better known for luxurious bedding enhanced with layer on layer of cotton, wool, and specially sterilized and treated horsehair. And one of Sweden's ergonomic gurus, Dr. Johan Ullman, a medical professor and entrepreneur whom I met while studying ergonomic chairs, declared "If it feels good, it most probably is." (High Swedish marginal tax rates benefit ergonomic consulting and manufacturing. They make improved working conditions often more attractive than higher pay, and in Sweden and elsewhere in Northern Europe ergonomic products have become significant export industries.) So where does this leave those spiky mattresses?

Custom has everything to do with comfort and perceived health and well-being. When Japanese futons were introduced to the US in the early 1960s, American manufacturers bulked them up with extra cotton and even foam cores, but the Japanese themselves, but the Japanese themselves and a growing number of Westerners prefer the original.In a remarkable traveling multimedia exhibition I saw earlier this year, a Holocaust survivor observed that after many weeks of sleeping on hard surfaces on refugee ships to Palestine, it took her a long time for normal beds to be comfortable.

All this is no argument against a more rational health system. It's just another sign that (as Lynn Payer documented) it's hard to take culture of out of health or medicine.







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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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