Happiest Nation on Earth - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Happiest Nation on Earth

Happiest Nation on Earth

Published July 28, 2006

This June, Iceland found out that it was, indubitably, the happiest place on Earth – fuck Disney World, Iceland blows it away, with Australia following somewhere as a distant second.

When announced casually in a June 2006 Guardian article, the Icelandic media had a field day. Had we only read headlines, or only read the papers, we would be sure Iceland was happy.

The thing is, the word on the street did not side with the Guardian.

June was a cloudy, abysmal month, weather wise, to say nothing of a month that saw inflation to a degree that the political entities in power are beginning to question whether they will still be around after the economy corrects itself. (Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson, in the past an Independence Party pundit, contacted for this article by the Grapevine mentioned, casually, that, “I am not sure that the governing parties will win,” a sensible comment from a sensible man, except Gissurarson rarely concedes any hint that the Independence Party won’t be in power for eternity.)

In other words, June was a very bad month. When a report claimed Iceland was happy, blogs lit up. On Malefnin.com, we read “This has to be caused by eating some happy-pills. It can’t be the fact that people are just happy and satisfied.”

A blog on Visir.is continued the idea of antidepressants, then pointed out, “You only need to walk the streets of Reykjavík to see the pout on everyone’s faces and it is quite clear those kinds of surveys are more than a little bit faulty.”

Eoe.is summed up the frustration over the survey the best: “Is everyone except me on Prozac?”

And here you see the genuine frustration that arises now and then in Iceland when ridiculous surveys make headlines. Oddly enough, when we finally decided to research the survey, we found very little to be upset about. Truthfully, we found very little… to care about at all in the survey, or meta-survey, as it turned out.

An academic exercise by a pair of Australian economics professors at the Wharton School of Business in America, we had some difficulty understanding what the hell the survey proved.

Justin Wolfers, the assistant professor of business and public policy at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, who conducted the survey, tried to explain the matter to one of our reporters. Here’s the transcript:

/// How do you even begin to measure something as subjective as ‘happiness’?
– That’s definitely a challenge, not everyone can agree on the meaning of a concept like happiness. We may be speaking the same language right now, but we no doubt have very different cultural traditions. Where I live, in the United States, you rarely if ever hear people openly say that they are miserable, whereas that may be commonplace in another society.

/// We’re asking you this because all the Icelandic media outlets just translated a Guardian article claiming Iceland is the happiest place on Earth.
– I have a couple of friends in Iceland, and that’s what they told me as well. It’s a particular shame because the Guardian piece was exceptionally poor and quite misleading.

/// In what way do you think people are misinterpreting your results?
– Iceland is a happy place, relatively speaking, but it is in no way clear from any of our data that you’re necessarily the happiest. There are so many factors to consider, sampling error for one, and whoever is #1 today could be #10 tomorrow. We use surveys to measure a lot of different things, like unemployment, but they are just tools and not necessarily an accurate measure of intangible or debatable concepts.

/// One would think that happiness would have something to do with standard of living, and indeed a lot of your results seem to confirm that, but how do you account for aberrations like Nigeria or Tanzania?
– A few desperately impoverished nations nonetheless rank fairly high on the happiness scale, but what you have to look at is the fact that they still rate their standard of life as miserable. Being satisfied with your standard of living and being happy are not the same thing, although one does tend to correlate with the other. Let’s say you live in a well-off country that still measures as marginally unhappier than some impoverished African nation – would you want to pick up and move there? Obviously not, so you need to employ some common sense when interpreting these kinds of rankings.

/// Speaking of interpretation, isn’t there a concern that the results of this kind of work could be perverted for political purposes?
– I’d say there are two main political implications of this kind of research. One is positive, in that I believe policy makers should make informed decisions and strive to make their citizens as happy as possible and having accurate data is surely helpful to that end. For example, the issue of inflation versus unemployment is one of the oldest in economics, but do real life people prefer low inflation or low unemployment? Research indicates that human beings greatly prefer living under economies that have inflationary problems to those where unemployment is the main concern – and that is the kind of thing I’d hope policy makers would take note of.

On the other hand I can see how easy it would be for, say, the prime minister of Iceland to proclaim himself the greatest leader on earth because his people are so happy.

/// Seeing as you are the expert on the happiest places on earth, where would you like to live?
(laughs) – I guess I would say Australia is the best place, since I’m Australian. You would probably say Iceland.

Is everything crystal clear? No, not remotely.

The guy who did the happiness survey believes that happiness isn’t easy to evaluate, but that, ultimately, people will just claim the happiest place to live is wherever the live.

With an irrelevant survey depressing thousands in the Reykjavík area, the Grapevine tracked down a number of political opinion makers, and asked them what they thought of this particular survey, and surveys like it.

Members of all major parties needed no reminding of how prominent the survey was. Speaking toward where his interests typically lie, Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson segued quickly into using the survey to prove the efficiency of his favourite party, the Independence Party. He claimed the survey revealed two facts about Icelanders, “One… that they live a good life and that they are generally quite satisfied with their lot. From 1991 (the year the Independence Party got into office), Iceland has gone through an unprecedented era of economic and legal reforms… a lot of entrepreneurial energy has been released.”

Funny enough, even while stumping for his favourite political party, he couldn’t help but acknowledge a brutal truth about this particular survey – that nobody in Iceland would believe it. Gissurarson’s second fact about Icelanders: “It is in the Icelandic mindset not to complain, at least not in public, but to put a brave face on circumstances.”

Obviously, even Gissurarson could see the happiness survey was irrelevant, even if he had just corrupted it to claim his government was responsible for the non-existent happiness.

Opposition party members agreed with Gissurarson’s second observation. Recently defeated city council candidate, Social Democrat Dofri Hermannsson had a string of candid, if depressing, responses that seemed to perfectly encapsulate the Reykjavík-area’s response to the survey.
Here is the sum content of our interview with him:

/// Do you believe this survey to be accurate? Is Iceland the Happiest Nation on Earth?
– It doesn’t matter if you ask an Icelander who just so happens to be looking for some rope to hang himself with – when asked how he’s doing, he’s still going to respond with the classic Icelandic “Really good, thanks!”

/// Do you frequently come across these types of surveys about Iceland?
– There are 300,000 Icelanders and about 6 billion foreigners in the world. In all likelihood, millions of surveys such as this one are conducted every single day, and some of them are bound to include Iceland. Icelanders, however, find any news of themselves as told by foreigners fascinating. We are sensitive to criticism from the outside world, just as we swell with pride when complimented by it.

/// Does one survey about Iceland stand out, for you, that accurately portrays the Icelandic mindset? Does one stand out as being inaccurate?
– No, I think Icelanders have a strong tendency to lie in surveys – and to use surveys to lie. An example of the former would be when we were asked if we were religious, and everyone said they believed in god. Everyone knows Icelanders are heathen dogs that believe in elves, ghosts, the supernatural and forces of nature. An example of the former came when aluminium champion said that over 95 percent of women in the eastern fjords would work in a smelter. He ‘forgot’ to mention that the actual question in the survey was, “If an interesting position was offered, would you or would you not consider working at the Alcoa Fjarðaál plant?”

Left-Green Vice President and TV personality Katrín Jakobsdóttir offered the best way for a foreigner to understand Icelanders in surveys.
“There was this survey on the TV show Þeytingur on RÚV where people in different regions of the country were asked who had more sex. The answer was always that the number was just a little bit higher than the last region.”

So are Icelanders the happiest people on Earth? Yes, just a little bit more than Australians.

Stats to Make an Icelander Happy
Gross Domestic Product (nominal)
Per Capita:
1st place: Luxembourg (75,130)
181st place: Myanmar (97)
Iceland ranks: 3rd (53,472)
(CIA World Factbook)

The United Nations Human
Development Index:
1st place: Norway (0.963)
177th place: Niger (0.281)
Iceland ranks: 2nd (0.956)
(United Nations)
Corruption Perception Index:
1st place (least perceived corruption):
Iceland (9.7)
159th place: Bangladesh/Chad (1.7)
Iceland ranks: 1st (9.7)
(Transparency International)

Likelihood of terrorist attack:
1st place: Colombia
186th place: North Korea
Iceland ranks: tied with Andorra, Belarus and Liechtenstein at 181-184
(World Market Research Centre)
Press freedom:
1st place: Finland, Iceland, Norway,
Netherlands (0.50)
139th: North Korea (97.50)
Iceland ranks: Tied for 1st (0.50)
(Reporters Without Borders)

Economic freedom:
1st place: Hong Kong (1.28)
157th: North Korea (5.00)
Iceland ranks: Tied for 5th with the United Kingdom (1.74)
(Heritage Foundation)
Lowest average age for losing virginity:
1st place: Iceland (15.6 years)
41st place: India (19.8 years)
Iceland ranks: 1st (15.6 years)
(Durex Global Sex Survey)

Highest average number of sexual partners
1st place: Turkey (14.5)
41st place: India (3.0)
Iceland ranks: 4th (13.0)
(Durex Global Sex Survey)

by Bart Cameron with reporting by Gunnar Hrafn Jónsson, Steinunn Jakobsdóttir and Sindri Eldon photo by Skari


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