In 2008, Iceland’s economy collapsed.
The global economic crisis wrenched the country’s currency into the gutter, wiping out the stock market and sending unemployment soaring to historic new levels, and all three of its major banks failed.
In any other country, this would be a recipe for misery, depression and hopelessness about the future.
The Reynisdrangar Rock Pillars on Iceland’s south coast
Instead, everyone’s happiness levels were more or less stable – and a quarter of those surveyed said they felt more positive about how the country was doing. How on earth did that work?
Icelandic happiness is legendary.
The country regularly tops surveys and polls including the UN’s yearly Happiness Report – although it’s recently slipped to third place, behind Norway and Denmark.
That still puts it ahead of 50 other countries, including places with the most admired scenery, the best food, the most spectacular beaches – all the trappings of what we like to think of as “paradise”.
Iceland is rugged and fascinating, but it’s a long way from being the Caribbean of the North Sea.
It’s an arctic desert studded with volcanoes and geysers, surprisingly green and sunkissed in the summer, but also near-permanently draped in glaciers and frozen waterfalls, and it has the kind of winter weather you’d expect in a country just outside of the Arctic Circle (albeit a mild version most years, thanks to the Gulf Stream).
Its midwinter darkness is legendary – at its peak, the sun rises at 11.20am and sets at 3.30pm, leaving you in darkness for the remain 20 hours of the day. At first glance, there doesn’t look a lot to be happy about.
But maybe you’ll start seeing the truth, as you step out of your car in the middle of Reykjavik.
There’s a friendliness in people’s faces, a twinkle in the eye. Icelanders like visitors of all kinds (a tenth of the population is foreign-born) and most of the genetic stock is recent, from Norse or Celtic settlers. You’ll feel welcome.
Even the seals can be found smiling
That’s if you can find anyone, of course.
Once you leave the capital, Iceland’s population thins out dramatically. It’s a vast, ragged chunk of volcanic rock that’s 25% bigger than Ireland – but contains barely a third of a million people, with 125,000 living in Reykjavik. It’s such a small population that dating comes with a few risks.
There is a national genetic database, the Íslendingabók (“book of Icelanders”) that allows anyone with a social security number to check the ancestry of their potential romantic partner, just to make sure they’re not related.
What’s it like to be part of a small community? The answer seems to be – it’s rather nice, all told. Trust levels are remarkably high: it’s common to see small children walking to school in the pitch dark during the winter.
There’s a sense of Iceland being a collective enterprise, a grand family of a country where everyone has a role to play – or more correctly roles, because Icelanders are famously multi-vocational.
That fisherman you get talking to could also be a plumber, a scientist and an author of children’s books. There are no easy job titles in this country.
Then there’s the social stratigraphy. Happiness isn’t clustered amongst the well-to-do’s, as it is in other nations.
Contentment isn’t a full bank account, a steady job and the right kind of luxury yacht in the driveway. In fact, everyone seems to be more or less at the same level of happiness, no matter what their life is like.
Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland
If you mention the 2008 financial crisis, you’ll get another clue.
Oh yes, you’ll be told, we sorted those crooks out properly. There was no government-funded bailout of the three major banks. They were allowed to fail.
Then the most reckless bankers were rounded up and convicted. Senior executives did jail-time, and Iceland’s ex prime minister, Geir Haarde, was put on trial.
For everyday citizens, there was a real sense that “something was being done” – and that’s another clue. Icelanders were born for the challenge.
Remember those folk whose happiness went up after the crash? It was because they relished the opportunity of rebuilding the economy, and getting it right this time.
Iceland is a supremely resilient place, defiantly thriving while clinging to a rock in the icy waters at the top of the world. Of course Iceland would be OK – haven’t you been paying attention to history?
Then there are the books.
If you want to get instant credibility with an Icelander, sit yourself in a pub, order a drink, and pull out a book.
This is a country of readers. Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country in the world – and it’s such a popular choice as a seasonal gift that the publishing industry gets around four-fifths of its annual revenue in the 8-week run-up to Christmas.
A restaurant near the harbour in Reykjavik
Aside from the practical side of things (something to while away those long winter nights indoors, prior to the arrival of Netflix), Iceland’s culture is defined by its sagas, written around the 13th Century and telling stories of political turmoil, colonial oppression and heroic struggle in the face of a hostile environment.
They’re stories that teach survival through stubborn, proud endurance – exactly the traits that give Icelanders such a resilient attitude today.
It’s also a culture of writers. Everyone seems to be working on a book, or knows someone who is (perhaps making it the Los Angeles of Europe).
The National and University Library holds journals and diaries that go back centuries, containing everyday entries that quietly speak of unthinkable hardship, like:
“There is frost outside, yet it is calm. My daughter died last night.”
So maybe it’s a country of people whose requirements for happiness are less material than most. They don’t need sunlight (although it’s nice when it’s around).
They don’t need a lot of money in the bank (although every little helps). The only things that matter are each other, and the stories that fill the gaps between people.
As long as you have a good source of conversation, a good book and a pen to write down your deepest thoughts, a happy life is possible anywhere – even when the snow is howling, the dark is creeping in and the nearest inhabitable beach is a thousand kilometres away.
Thanks for the tip, Iceland.