Iceland: Superlative Happiness on a Cold Little Rock

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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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Iceland is rebounding more recently from the spectacularly burst bubble of financial speculation in 2008. Afterwards the banks could not repay depositors, many of them lured by the promise of unrealistically high returns. Egg-throwing, pot-banging protestors staged the "kitchen-utensil revolution" to force the parliament to move to a center-left coalition. The three banks were not bailed out but were taken over by the government as they failed. Now, as it is paying off depositors, the country is held up as a model by the International Monetary Fund as well as economist Paul Krugman in The New York Times.

"The impact of the economic crisis on happiness in Iceland showed almost no decrease in happiness measures from 2007 to 2012," Dora Gudmundsdottir, Head of the Division of Determinants of Health in Iceland, told me by phone, referring to a report she presented last month. Despite less trust in social and government institutions, "the impact on people's own wellbeing seems to be minimal."

The country has weathered other disasters. The famous 2010 eruptions of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano (or E16 due to its 16 letters) spewed an ash-cloud that disrupted air travel across Europe. Frequent eruptions of active volcanoes caused greater dangers to Iceland itself from spills of red-hot lava. More predictable challenges are the dark months that follow the nearly eternal daylight in the summer. It met these challenges with energy and grit.

Factors that enhance their well-being were explored by Eric Weiner when he wrote the book on finding happiness in unlikely places, The Geography of Bliss. The financial bubble had not yet burst, and it was the cold, dark winter that captured his imagination. In such a place, he opined, "cooperation is mandatory. Everyone must work together to ensure a good harvest or a hearty haul of cod...Necessity may be the mother of invention, but interdependence is the mother of affection." A high level of trust and strong social bonds, he later said, are major keys to happiness.

Another is a refusal to live in a box. He cited Larus, who worked as a chess player, executive, theologian, and now, music producer. Weiner did not foresee the example of actor, rocker, and comedian Jón Gnarr who founded the Best Party to become Reykjavik's current mayor.

You might expect a tendency toward depressed mood, or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), during the mostly-dark winter months. Fish oil is a popular preventive measure, and the large amount of fish with vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids may have a protective effect. An SAD rate lower than predicted has also been attributed to a hereditary resistance, persisting even in Canadians of Icelandic descent, according to a 1993 report from Reykjavik's National University Hospital.

"SAD is lower than in other countries with the same amount of darkness," Dora Gudmundsdottir confirmed to me by phone, reaffirming the importance of social factors. "It's easy for people to stay in close connection with others in a small country, and social connections are quite strong as the biggest predictor of happiness."

Global health statistics show Iceland with one of the highest life expectancies in the world, according to the 2010 Lancet. It has the lowest death rate for men under 60, well below that of the United States and other Western countries. "The coverage and quality of clinical health care is high," according to the World Health Organization, with most of it funded by the government.

Iceland's clean water and unpolluted air, helped by geothermal power, have a positive effect on human health. Tomatoes, cabbage, and other vegetables are grown in greenhouses without pesticides. Like other western nations, Iceland has to deal with a growing obesity rate, so some see it as a happy accident that McDonald's was forced to shut down following the crash.

So while the unique population and location limit Iceland as a model for the rest of us, there are certainly lessons to be drawn. It's exciting to see the ice cube of a country overcoming hardships by channeling its energy -- social, democratic, and geothermal -- to reach the top of the charts in global wellbeing.

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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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