Iceland: Superlative Happiness on a Cold Little Rock

The small island nation is ranked among the happiest and healthiest in the world, despite financial crisis, volcanoes, and straight-up darkness.

IcelandMain.jpgBobStrong/Reuters

In a Reykjavik café last week, a tour guide named Anne told me it was because she found Icelanders so genuinely positive that she'd moved there from Germany. Her perspective on the country was engaging. When she volunteered six years ago to work there on a farm, she was struck by how welcoming everyone was; their daily up-beat greetings felt invariably genuine. Despite her short stay, she got to know many locals. When she visited a town bank two years later, they recognized her immediately. 

Icelanders have been resilient and stoic in the face of disasters like volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and the 2008 financial collapse that hit this tiny country hard. "The stoicism is important to deal with the randomness of nature and the recent financial crash," Iceland embassy counselor Erlingur Erlingsson told me in Washington, D.C. Beyond stoicism, though, Iceland ranks as the third happiest country in the world -- just behind Denmark and Costa Rica, according to the World Database of Happiness through 2009.

So when Ben Stiller said that it's a good thing the sun never goes down "when the people are so good-looking," he was not the only one to appreciate Iceland's charms. This is a country where 73 percent of the people said they were content, compared with only 50 percent of Western Europeans and 33 percent of North Americans. It is "also happier than those who are doing better financially," according to The Reykjavik Grapevine. When life expectancy is combined with happiness measures, it emerges second in "happy life-years."

How do Icelandic people find the mental and physical resilience, in the face of winter darkness, volcanic eruptions, and financial disaster, to be among the first in global measures of happiness?

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It started when Viking chieftains sailed wooden boats to this far-off outpost rather than yield their authority to Norwegian King Harald the Fairhaired. Who would sail to this unforgiving wilderness in the year 874 without a willingness to take risks and a tough determination to preserve their independence from Harald's despotic rule? The 50-some chieftains each claimed their own land, and later gathered yearly to make laws in Europe's first parliament, the Althing.

The fruits of their voyage make Iceland unique today in being a small island nation between the United States and Europe -- the mid-Atlantic ridge runs through it with a visible gap between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. There are only 320,000 people living there, and the landmass is just the size of Virginia. 

Most of the population shares the thousand-year-old Viking and Celtic background. The country is homogeneous except for a small percentage of immigrants from elsewhere, with no separation between the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the state. Icelanders speak excellent English, but there remains a need to speak Icelandic to be fully integrated into the society. Although it's a founding member of NATO, its isolated location and protection by Britain and the United States going back to World War II has afforded it the luxury of doing without an army.

Along those lines, the interest in crime fiction there is high, perhaps because the actual rate of crime is so low. The murder rate of 1 per 100,000 people is the lowest recorded in the world. We saw only one police car on the road, one security guard at the American Embassy, and two guys chatting at the railing of a coast guard ship in the harbor. "Iceland is one of the few countries in the world with no military," Erlingur Erlingsson confirmed. 

At the Laundromat Café, which includes a cozy café and play center as well as washers and dryers, a mother noted that people left their strollers unattended outside with no concern. The country founded by fiercely-independent Vikings is now so family-friendly that fathers as well as mothers are given generous parental leave for a total of nine months, with 80 percent of their salaries. The front page of a local newspaper featured a picture of a wedding ring that had been found in a field after a carrot sprouted through it. Reykjavik Airport features a cheerful children's play area. Family-friendliness is one reason for the high birth rate compared to other European countries.

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Presented by

Robert Lavine

Robert A. Lavine, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Virginia, science writer, and recent associate professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

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