How happy is Iceland?

by on May 21, 2008 at 6:15 am in Philosophy | Permalink

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…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.

Here is much more, interesting throughout, and I have been an admirer since I visited the country in the mid 1990s.  The author emphasizes that Icelandic women have kids when they want to, often at young ages, and they accept that the father may not be around much but the whole family steps in to help out.

I was wondering whether the proclivity of Icelanders to leave their country (many are highly educated and speak fluent English and thus pursue opportunities elsewhere) somehow counts against these happiness claims.  But oddly I think not.  In part it is their intelligence and balance that makes them want to explore other locales.  In percentage terms, hardly any Japanese leave Japan but this counts against the happiness of the country rather than for it.  Country-specific capabilities can in the long run be stunting or reflect stuntedness.

I’ve not yet thought through what this means for the economists’ tendency to use revealed preference as a measure of value.  There are perhaps two margins of rejecting: the people who are not very good at enjoying something or not able to enjoy it because it is bad, and the people who are very good at enjoying something wonderful and thus wish to build upon that strength and move on to something else.

It is perhaps a Buddhist idea to suggest that the happiest country in the world is a totally empty one.

Pointers are from Seth Roberts and Nadav Manham.

Anonymous May 21, 2008 at 6:57 am

the happiest country in the world is a totally empty one == immigrants

Joan May 21, 2008 at 7:42 am

Some anthropologist believe that the natural unit for child rearing is the extended maternal family which they think was the organizing principle in early hunter gatherer societies and only economic pressures and social control maintains the nuclear family. Once women become financially self sufficient they need a babysitter not a breadwinner to raise children after the child is weaned, and men by their nature want to move on to other women. If this is true one would expect the happiness would be greatest in countries like Iceland, and that the family value advocates are fighting a losing battle.

Matt May 21, 2008 at 8:22 am

I guess the key is to rid the nation of dumb shit males once they impregnation function is finished.

Why not just use artificial insemination and enslave the men?

Maybe, Icelanders feel they should let men have one small moment of phallic glory, sort of a socialist thing.

Ned May 21, 2008 at 9:13 am

I visited Iceland last year and found it captivating. The country has a pristine natural beauty. The Icelanders were friendly and almost all spoke good English (with only about 300,000 native speakers, not too many books get translated into Icelandic). The population is very homogeneous, which is probably why everyone gets along. There is virtually no crime. About 90% of the Icelanders belong to the state (Lutheran) church, though, of course, not all attend regularly. Historically, not having any armed forces has been a mixed blessing. Iceland has little in the way of natural resources except fishing and geothermal power, and most other nations ignored it. Iceland was initially a part of Norway and then Denmark, from which it declared independence in 1944. In World War Two, Iceland’s location made it a strategic prize in the battle of the Atlantic. The British sailed into Reykjavik harbor and basically took over the country in 1940 – the Icelandic government protested but really couldn’t do anything about it. The British said this was done to forestall occupation by the Germans, which may have been true – Iceland’s geographic location made it a superb air and naval base. In 1941, the British passed control to the Americans, who occupied Iceland with 40,000 troops, which exceeded the number of adult male Icelanders. The Americans just pulled out a few years ago. Iceland is a member of NATO but obviously doesn’t contribute much except its location.

K. Williams May 21, 2008 at 9:26 am

Robert, I gather from your comment that you’re not a parasite. You’re out there manning the barricades to defend the rest of us? And I guess you played a major role in inventing the technologies that drive our economic prosperity, too — now I remember, it was Robert Speirs who invented the microprocessor!

When it comes to these things, Dylan had it right: “Show me someone who’s not a parasite, and I’ll say a prayer for him.”

Ann Oliveri May 21, 2008 at 9:59 am

Better to empty your head than your country. Eric Weiner’s Geography of Bliss factors in expectations when measuring happiness and contentment, putting the Danish on top of the charts. Modest expectations produces greater contentment. Ohm.

Ted Craig May 21, 2008 at 10:32 am

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

Funny how that doesn’t work in U.S. inner cities.

Besides, isn’t having the highest birth rates in Europe a bit like being the tallest kid in the third grade?

Iceland sounds like a really exclusive suburb more than a country to be emulated.

Sorry if I sound skeptical, but I am. I think a lot of these happiness studies are B.S.

Slocum May 21, 2008 at 12:15 pm

“Some anthropologist believe that the natural unit for child rearing is the extended maternal family.”

Yes, that is a pattern seen in some hunter-gatherer tribes, but by no means the most common pattern for hunter-gatherers, let alone more developed societies. Where men cannot be at all confident of paternity, they don’t invest in ‘their’ children (they don’t even know who their children are), so they pay more attention to nieces and nephews.

I have to say that as a male (and a father), this pattern does not strike me as ideal for happiness (not mine, anyway). I certainly value my children much more highly than any hypothetical possibility of ‘moving on to other women’ — especially women who aren’t interested in being together for any length of time (children or not, which may be mine…or not). If I found myself living in such a country, I think I’d also lean toward emigration.

londenio May 21, 2008 at 12:44 pm

Let´s accept for a moment that Icelanders are the happiest people in the World. Is that because of the country of because of the Icelanders themselves? I have had a few Icelandic friends and visited the country one Summer and became fascinated by it. Yet, I have heard that most non-icelandic people living there have a really tough time adapting to the weather, lifestyle and society. In other words, we do not see a long line of people queuing to immigrate to Iceland and be happy. A possible conclusion is that there is something of being an Icelander that makes you happy wherever you live, even places with low divorce rate, private health-care and racial heterogeneity.

And by the way, why is it that every time we read a post about Scandinavian type of societies someone points to the fact that their model works only in a racially homogeneous society. Scandinavian countries have as many foreign-born residents as countries like America or the UK (similar orders of magnitude). Is racial heterogeneity such a bad thing for social harmony?

Grant May 21, 2008 at 1:24 pm

Just a guess, but I would think many Icelanders want to leave their country for the same reason so many Americans move to California or Florida: its really #$%&ing cold in Iceland!

Scott P. May 21, 2008 at 6:51 pm

It is entirely conceivable that countries with higher divorce rates and lower levels of religiosity are “happier” than countries with lower divorce rates and higher levels of religiosity, while at the same time people in each country who have higher religiosity and lower divorce rates are happier than their fellow countrymen.

At least in the U.S., religiosity is negatively correlated with divorce rate (i.e., the more religious get divorced more often).

steve May 21, 2008 at 10:44 pm

Because the nights are 22 hours long?

Steve

BobN May 22, 2008 at 12:49 pm

How odd not to mention Iceland’s social safety net. It’s a lot easier to be happy when you’re not so stressed about your health, old age, education, etc.

Anonymous May 22, 2008 at 9:28 pm

End italics?

AGMycroft May 23, 2008 at 2:38 pm

Let’s not forget which country has the most chess grandmasters per capita.

Thor October 5, 2008 at 9:28 am

I´m actually from Iceland. And I can tell you folks that Icelanders aren´t all that happy. There is alot of depressed people in Iceland. Alot of divorces and anger towards the government and employers.
I like most of my friends (in their 20s) moved away from Reykjavik to Copenhagen, London, Berlin and other places. The reason is that Iceland is a very small country with very few opportunities. Nothing to do, like a small town in the US where everyone is more or less bored. Its only the “born into a rich family” people who are perhaps happy. And their mostly happy because they can afford to travel abroad all the time.
It dark in Iceland, so dark, for long periods and I for one need sunshine. I longed for sun, trees and beaches when I was a kid. When I was 22 I finally said “to hell with it, Im moving” and thats what I did.

I think that Icelanders are really proud of their heritage but that doesnt make them happy. Yes we score well on “happy-polls” but thats mostly because we dont really tell the truth. We like to have others believing that we´re really happy and free of worries.
I find that people in other European countries like Sweden, Austria, Ireland on others are much happier, just in a different way. Icelanders like to behave like Texas oil kings, you know, livin´large. And we compare material wealth to happiness. While in Europe people are more content and I think that is what happiness is really about. Icelanders always want more, more of everything and that is not being happy in my opinion.

online games May 10, 2009 at 1:58 am

I think the better argument, suggested in other comments here, is that Iceland, perhaps due to its small size and its links with many other much larger, less happy countries, successfully sheds its malcontent population, leaving only the people who are content to live in a country of 300,000 people where everyone’s related to you.

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