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