We’re All Icelanders Now

Eric Weiner: Global Positioning: On the intersection of place, politics and culture

02.16.09 | 10:26 AM ET

Protesters recently in Reykjavik. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

It’s tempting to pity poor little Iceland. No other country has been hit harder by the economic downturn. With its banks insolvent and its currency in free-fall, Iceland teeters on the edge of bankruptcy. Presumably, that famous Icelandic bliss (to which I devoted a chapter of my recent book) has also evaporated.

Or has it? People I’ve spoken with there are certainly anxious, on edge. But they’re not, by and large, miserable.

Why? For starters, Icelanders are accustomed, historically, to great upheaval. As Pall Stefansson points out in the Iceland Review, the current economic crisis is nothing compared to the eruption of Mount Laki in 1783. A quarter of Iceland’s population was killed. Such sentiment might seem like whistling in the dark (Icelanders know a thing or two about darkness) but I don’t think that’s the case.

Icelanders are remarkably resilient people. If you lived on a small, cold isolated island in the North Atlantic, you would be, too. They have a healthy attitude towards failure (“We embrace failure,” is how one person put it.) and that is serving them well now. Icelanders are a famously tight-knit bunch—more of an extended family than a nation. And, from what I can tell, those relationships remain intact, despite the financial hardship and, in a way, because of it. Here’s what Karl Blondal, deputy editor of the main newspaper in Iceland, said to me in an email:

There is a lot of communal feeling, people address each other in a more caring way in the morning, neighbors inquire how each other is doing. One thing about living in a small community is that everyone you know, family and friends, is within reach—those who lose their jobs are not isolated, the risk of estrangement is not the same as it would be in bigger societies. Living standards will not be as luxurious, but this was an economic disaster, not a natural disaster. The infrastructure is intact, houses are standing, life will go on. As for happiness? Now we can wipe the slate clean. Who knows—this might just as well be an opportunity to forge a better, more open society where power is more diffused, and the old vested interests and economic blocks have been cleared out of the way.

Icelanders, I suspect, are immersed in a state of “worried happiness,” a phrase coined by Ruut Veenhoven, who heads the World Database of Happiness in the Netherlands. “We can deal with hardship and even thrive when challenged to cope with it,” concludes Veenhoven. “Paradise is not a prerequisite for happiness.”

And that’s a good thing, given the state of the world these days. Gaza, Wall Street, your 401(k). It’s all bad, all the time. 

But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re miserable. Happiness bubbles are made of sterner stuff than real estate or stock bubbles. It takes a lot to shake a nation’s happiness. Even the attacks of Sept. 11 didn’t do it, according to surveys conducted shortly thereafter. Of course, the recession affects more people, and if you’ve lost your job or your home, you’re not likely to be happy. But for most of us that is, thankfully, not the case. We might be anxious about the economy, but that doesn’t mean we’re despondent. Like the Icelanders, we might be in a deep state of worried happiness. Not the ideal place to be, perhaps but, given the alternative, it’s downright blissful.