Thursday, May 22, 2008

Why Iceland is the Happiest Place On Earth

Excerpts From An Article In The Observer (U.K.)
By John Carlin

Highest birth rate in Europe + highest divorce rate + highest percentage of women working outside the home = the best country in the world in which to live. There has to be something wrong with this equation. Put those three factors together - loads of children, broken homes, absent mothers - and what you have, surely, is a recipe for misery and social chaos. But no. Iceland, the block of sub-Arctic lava to which these statistics apply, tops the latest table of the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) Human Development Index rankings, meaning that as a society and as an economy - in terms of wealth, health and education - they are champions of the world. To which one might respond: Yes, but - what with the dark winters and the far from tropical summers - are Icelanders happy? Actually, in so far as one can reliably measure such things, they are. According to a seemingly serious academic study reported in the Guardian in 2006, Icelanders are the happiest people on earth. (The study was lent some credibility by the finding that the Russians were the most


Statistics abound. It is the country with the sixth highest GDP per capita in the world; where people buy the most books; where life expectancy for men is the highest in the world, and not far behind for women; it's the only country in Nato with no armed forces (they were banned 700 years ago); the highest ratio of mobile telephones to population; the fastest-expanding banking system in the world; rocketing export business; crystal-pure air; hot water delivered to all Icelandic households straight from the earth's volcanic bowels; and so on and so forth.

But none of this happiness would be possible without the hardy self-confidence that defines individual Icelanders, which in turn derives from a society that is culturally geared - as its overwhelming priority - to bring up happy, healthy children, by however many fathers and mothers. A lot of it comes from their Viking ancestors, whose males were rampant looters and rapists, but had the moral consistency at least not to be jealous of the dalliances of their wives - tough women who kept their families fed in the semi-tundra harshness of this north Atlantic island while their husbands forayed, for years at a time, far and wide. As a grandmother I met on my first visit to Iceland, two years ago, explained it: 'The Vikings went abroad and the women ran the show, and they had children with their slaves, and when the Vikings returned they accepted it, in the spirit of the more the merrier.'

Oddny - a slim, attractive pianist who speaks fluent German, translates English books into Icelandic and works as a city councillor in the capital, Reykjavik - offers a contemporary case in point. Five years ago, when she was studying in Stuttgart, she became pregnant by a German man. During her pregnancy she broke up with the German and reconnected with an old love, a prolific Icelandic writer and painter called Hallgrimur Helgason. The two returned to Iceland where they lived together with the new baby and in due course had a child of their own. Hallgrimur is devoted to both children but Oddny considers it important for her first-born to retain a close link to her biological father. This happens on a regular basis. The German flies over and stays at Oddny and Hallgrimur's far-from-spacious home for a week, sometimes two, at a time.

'Patchwork families are a tradition here,' explained Oddny, who was off work, at home, on the Thursday morning we met, looking after her youngest child. It is common for women to have kids with more than one man. But all are family together.'

I found this time and again with people I met in Iceland. Oddny's case was not atypical. When a child's birthday comes around, not only do the various sets of parents turn up for the party, the various sets of grandparents - and whole longboats of uncles and aunts - come too. Iceland, lodged in the middle of the North Atlantic with Greenland as its nearest neighbour, was too far from the remit of any but the more zealously obstinate of the medieval Christian missionaries. It is a largely pagan country, as the natives like to see it, unburdened by the taboos that generate so much distress elsewhere. That means they are practical people. Which, in turn, means lots of divorces.

'That is not something to be proud of,' said Oddny, with a brisk smile, 'but the fact is that Icelanders don't stay in lousy relationships. They just leave.' And the reason they can do so is that society, starting with the parents and grandparents, does not stigmatise them for making that choice. Icelanders are the least hung-up people in the world. Thus the incentive, for example, 'to stay together for the sake of the kids' does not exist. The kids will be just fine, because the family will rally round them and, likely as not, the parents will continue to have a civilised relationship, based on the usually automatic understanding that custody for the children will be shared.


Herbal Amanda said...

Interesting. I want to move to Iceland now! That could just be the traveling bug I caught before going off the Paris speaking though...

The Imaginary Reviewer said...

Iceland has always seemed like a great place to live. I'd love to visit at some point. The Walrus magazine (a thoroughly enjoyable read) had a wonderful article on the country's environment policies a couple of years back; it can be found here:

Jillian said...

IR--Thanks for the head's up. That article is really interesting. I hadn't heard of The Walrus before. I'll keep checking in there.

The Imaginary Reviewer said...

Yeah, the Walrus is great. I think of it as the Canadian New Yorker. A lot of the articles are very Canada-centric, but given that I live in the country now I thought I should make the effort to learn about it!