Why happiness in Iceland is beautiful but tough

At first, the Icelandic nature is so dazzling you can’t stop staring outside your car window the whole time. And there are some amazing facts about this beautiful country you should know. The places we visited during our road trip we’ve put in a separate blog. We got really vigorous and met a few very happy and energetic people, reconfirming our personal excited state of being. Yet the longer we stayed in Iceland, the more diverse our impression on happiness in Iceland got.

So what about happiness in Iceland. Most Icelanders are kind of stubborn, rigid, seemly grumpy and are lacking some energy. They look a bit tired and annoyed. Maybe it’s because a lot of Icelandic need to work very hard, especially after the crisis. It’s not just the tourists who are broke after a visit to a local bar (yes we paid 14€ for a small beer), for the locals, it’s also very expensive. Yet they are very open and willing to talk, be vulnerable and honest. They see no problem sharing their personal thoughts and opinions and, unlike the Swiss, don’t seem to bother how they come across.

Winter season asks you to play a tough game

We are more confronted with the challenge of the winter season: the darkness, less energy and more depression people experience. Some of the elderly people we’ve spoken with are ok with the short days during winter, simply because they’re used to it, whereas the vast majority explicitly mentions the difficulty of those dark months. The, not so funny, fact of Iceland having the highest consumption rate of antidepressant is well known amongst the Icelanders, and they are by no means ashamed of it or trying to hide it. It’s a very concrete example of what darkness does to people, or maybe the consequence of the Icelandic life.

After seeing the one once-in-a-lifetime geological miracle after another, we couldn’t help but reflect on the impact the Icelandic landscape and climate must have on its people. As we find out, the relationship with nature is very contradicting. At the one hand, they identify themselves with nature and see it as one of the key factors to be happy, whilst simultaneously it snugs up some of their happiness when the summer season is over.

Victor, a creative filmmaker, explains to us the relationship boy smiling to camera - happiness in Icelandbetween nature and happiness. “We’re born and raised with a lot of nature around us. We do many outdoor activities and highly appreciate the long summer nights. Yet
when darkness returns, we spend most of our time inside the house, with little interaction and social gatherings.”

It is like nature forms their mentality: it’s beautiful, but hard, rough and a bit mournful.

Happiness in Iceland is both me and we

The community aspect in Iceland is also quite ambiguous. Whereas they all have a big heart and mention that it’s important to look out for each other, and they all have big families, they also place a great value on their me-time. They have an individualistic mind-set and often prefer to spend time alone or in a less crowded place. Well luckily an island almost three times as big as the Netherlands with merely 350k citizens (half of all people living in Amsterdam), it probably isn’t that hard for them to find such a spot.

In the capital region, citizens have a lot of social interaction, especially in summer. They spend a lot of time outside, have late-night dinners on middays and are looking for opportunities to unite with their fellows. The more remote citizens seem to be less in need of frequent social gatherings, and place great value on their independence, freedom and calm surroundings.

Yet, regardless of their region, Icelanders are always looking out for each other. girl smiling at camera - happiness in IcelandWe met Sigrun when we stopped for a cup of coffee at Sunnlenska Bókakaffið in Selfoss and we asked her opinion on happiness in Iceland. According to Sigrun, it’s not very different here than somewhere else in the world – everyone wants to be close to the people that matter to them. Yet here in Iceland, it’s specifically the family that is extremely important. They often have big families and celebrate family reunions, where they go way back into the family tree and meet nephews of great grandfathers. Because Iceland is so small, there are only a few different families. This means that Icelanders are often related to each other. To prevent any accidental dating-your-niece situations, they have a mobile dating app that allows you to check if and to what degree you are related to each other.

The community’s most obvious and important social gatherings are in the divine natural heated swimming pools. Nearly every village in Iceland has its own natural pool, and many people take a swim before or after work. It’s a space of liberty and an opportunity to speak freely and open.

Saving up to feel safe and secure.

What we noticed is the high-value Icelanders place on a feeling of safeness. They are very aware of the safety on their island and put great effort in it to keep it this way. Whether it’s about potential dangers from natural disasters or challenges from political imbalance, they will protect everything like a mother goose does. They are proud of not having an army and a common thing you see on the streets is babies sleeping in their strollers both in summer and winter while parents catch up with a hot cup of tea. Everyone mentions they feel very safe and will always look out for each other, and see this as a key determinant of happiness in Iceland. During our two-week trip, we have seen ONE, yes ONE, police car. Is saving up to feel safe and secure the secret to happiness in Iceland?

Icelandic policemen seem to be rare. And probably very relaxed.

Their safeness is also expressed in their financial status. Ever since the financial crises in 2008, where a lot of Icelanders lost about everything they owned, Icelanders tend to relate their safeness and security directly to their financial situation. They work very hard, and are very protective, with the fear of losing their possessions again.

I believe I can.  

Icelandic people tend to believe. Believe in elves to be more specific. In 2007, a poll revealed that 32% claimed the existence of hidden people was ‘possible’, 16% said ‘probable’ and 8% were certain elves existed. Some even felt able to specify the types of elves they believe in: flowers, house or guardian elves. To put this in perspective: at that time only 45% believed in God.

When we visited Landmannalaugar, the highlands of Iceland, we met this belief. First of all, the highlands used to be a place for the outliers, who were forced to escape civilization by living underneath a mighty volcano, with an average temperature below zero degrees and around nine months per year a snow blanket.

As it was the first day of the summer season in Landmannalaugar, the roads were supposed to be accessible again by car, now that snow and ice formation took a three-month break. Yet a river that wasn’t ready to host tourists yet decided to block the road, leaving us no other option than returning our way home and say goodbye to our hike. Whilst our humoristic Icelandic tour guide started his explanation with rainfall and natural causes, the noun elves slipped through his mouth 4 times during his epistemology about our situation. So when something happens, for example, a road block or disaster during building work, they often blame the elves.

You can see it as superstition, but it’s a way for them to illustrate what happens, both hypothetically in future situations as well as historical events. They often use it to prevent children from doing things that might be dangerous, such as going into the mountains or being very close to a waterfall.

Happiness in Iceland is strongly protected.

To sum up, let’s have a look at what happiness means in Iceland. On the World Happiness Index, Iceland is ranked #3. Mostly because of its high GDP, safety, and security, which we definitely experienced during our stay. It can be best labeled as the Icelandic social ties.

On the one hand, Icelanders feel a continuous social pressure, big-brother experience. They all know each other, each other’s families and probably even each other’s favorite pair of socks, making it difficult to think and act outside the standardized Icelandic box. Simultaneously, these social ties assure there is a great feeling of security, belonging and support.

Our main conclusion is that there is definitely a handful of things that result in happy citizens, such as the breath-taking nature, the safety, the community and their belief. Yet many people claim not to be extremely happy. They worry a lot, have a hard time paying their bills and dealing with the harsh winters. It seems like they are OK with not being extremely happy though, as they don’t seem to be bothered by it, nor the fact that many people use anti-depressives. They are in some sort of a “survivor-mode”, which could very well be explained by the country’s environmental circumstances and the endangered species phenomenon. Their happiness is protected by nature, themselves and with a little help of anti-depressives every now and then. Here is what Michael Booth said about happiness in Iceland in his book ‘The Almost Nearly Perfect People‘.

“One cannot overemphasize I think, how very, very few Icelanders there actually are. If they were an animal species, they would be on the WWF endangered list – the human equivalent of a yellow-nosed albatross” – Michael Booth.

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