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 well-being.