From Iceland — The Joy of Failing Miserably, or: Why Icelanders Really Are Happy

The Joy of Failing Miserably, or: Why Icelanders Really Are Happy

Published February 9, 2007

The Joy of Failing Miserably, or: Why Icelanders Really Are Happy

Award winning journalist Eric Weiner has seen a lot of the world. His post as a foreign correspondent for respected U.S. radio station NPR (National Public Radio) has brought him to over fifty countries, as far as Tokyo and New Delhi, covering a wide range of topics including growing tensions in Iraq and the rise of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan. Now on leave from some of his journalistic duties, Weiner is researching a book he has in the works, entitled ‘The Geography of Bliss – One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World’. And the self-proclaimed grump’s search brought him to Iceland for two weeks this January.
/// What inspired your search for the happiest places on Earth? And what does such a search entail?
One reason is that I’ve been visiting a lot of places where bad things are happening, which is what you do as a foreign correspondent. I saw some amazing things, but it’s a depressing job, because by definition you’re pretty much going to places where people are unhappy. Where they’re killing one another, dying of disease. And if you go to a happy country, you look for the tensions, where things are falling apart. That’s where journalism is; we’re negatively oriented.
And this gets depressing. About a year ago, I thought to myself, why am I travelling halfway around the world to interview people that are more miserable than myself, which is basically what I do for a living. So I thought, what if I spent a year only travelling to the happiest countries and got a publisher to pay me for it? That’s what I’ve been doing, travelling to about a dozen countries, trying to figure out if they really are happy. If A, the surveys and ‘science of happiness’ are right. B, if so, then why? And C, if there are any lessons for the rest of us, for America, in terms of what they’re doing in Iceland, Switzerland or India; are there any life lessons to be found there. It’s like flipping journalism over, I’m actually looking for the good stuff in the country.
Where has your trip taken you, and why? And why Iceland?
I’ve visited, or will visit, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Iceland, Indian Bhutan, Thailand, Qatar, Moldova – the least happy country in the world, by the way, I went there for comparison. All these happy places were getting me down, so I went to Moldova and I can tell you, they’re really unhappy there. When I go someplace, I’ll pose the question, could I be happy here? I try not to behave like a tourist, but not like a journalist either. So I set up shop here and pretended to live here for a couple of weeks, not doing touristy things. Also, I’ll do some reporting in the U.S., look at America, why people move to certain cities, and why they are considered the most liveable.
And that’s all based on…?
I partly base my criteria on happiness research. I am in Iceland mainly because the surveys consistently show that Iceland ranks as one of the top three happy countries in the world. Denmark scores a little higher, but I thought Iceland was more interesting, and it’s more counter-intuitive. Iceland is a more interesting country than Denmark, and then you have the artistic scene, which you really don’t have in Denmark to such an extent. You’ve got some weird characters too, strange people that make for some interesting stories.
Take Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, who I just met for the second time. He’s a musical composer and head of the Ásatrúar sect. He’s a character, in a good way. Here’s a guy that composes the most amazing musical scores for Hollywood, and he’s also a heathen. In America that has really negative connotations, but over here it’s just another religion and respected as such. He was interesting, as was just about everyone I’ve met, you know. You meet a lot of people who’ve done like five different things and their CV is all over the place. I think that’s common in Iceland, and when investigating what makes Icelanders happier I think one of the main differences lies in that, the flexibility in careers you see here.
The possibility of change?
Yeah, you don’t get pigeonholed here, and you can always start over. And you can fail. That’s a big thing I’ve discovered here, that failure is always an option. And it seems that Icelanders like failures, people who have failed, the heroic failure. Not that they want to fail, but it’s OK to fail.
Wouldn’t that be a result of the Social Democratic system that has been prevalent in Scandinavia, and is rather on the decline?
Yeah, that is a part of it. Is the trend towards fewer benefits these days? Even still, compared to the U.S., you’re working with a net. We’re working without one. Ironically, America is supposed to be the land of opportunity and risk-takers, but the system is actually set up to discourage risks, to discourage someone from quitting their job at the insurance company to become an artist, because then they won’t have health insurance and a net. But I don’t think the differences in welfare systems tell the whole story.
There’s also the familial safety net.
That’s true. One of the people I interviewed told me that in Iceland you never fall into a black hole, and this is true. There is a sense of belonging that other countries don’t have, and I think that’s a source of happiness for people. It may get a bit claustrophobic at times, but then that’s what you have the airport in Keflavík for, so you can get out. I think there’s a reason why Iceland is happier at this moment of time instead of twenty years ago, you’re wealthier and there’s a freedom of movement that maybe wasn’t here for your parents’ generation.
So you’ve concluded that Icelanders actually are happier?
Yes. Statistically, you have a good combination of capitalistic opportunities and a social safety net. You’re halfway between the U.S. and Europe, geographically, of course, but also in other ways. Culturally. You have the American can-do attitude and entrepreneurial spirit, which a lot of European countries lack, and you have the social safety net.
Not to say that those things cancel each other out, but we certainly don’t have the same amount of social safety we used to. The extremes are growing. Someone will take a chance and succeed, and that will move them further away from the general population…
Next thing you know they’re flying in Elton John to perform at their birthday! That’s a good point, that’s why I think happiness is a fluid thing and there is such a thing as geography of happiness, it’s geography and points in time. And Iceland, maybe you’re enjoying the success of five or ten years ago. People and nations tend to be their happiest when about to achieve something great, not when they’ve already achieved it. Afterwards, you feel a bit lost; you don’t know what to do next. Right before, that’s a good place to be, and maybe you’ve already passed that curve.
Then again, Reykjavík is a good place to be young and artistically inclined right now, bursting with energy, some say.
Definitely, and that’s what I’ve been trying to answer, first of all: does that contribute to happiness? And yes, the artistic scene contributes to it, but why?
Couldn’t you just as well say that having a safe and happy nation would contribute to the artistic scene?
That’s true. I’ve heard a lot of answers; that sense of safety, that it’s OK to fail, the histories and the Sagas, which give people firm ground to stand on, and the land itself, which for someone like Hilmarsson provides a lot of inspiration. The land shapes the culture, and I think the people in 101 Reykjavík still have that element of the fisherman in them, however far removed. But those are all fuzzy concepts.
I’ve chosen three words to frame my trip to Iceland: small, dark and hip. The dark would be the winter, which some people hate and others claim to thrive on, citing a beauty to the cold, dark winter. This was surprising, as the American concept of paradise is more along the lines of a tropical beach. The small part is, then, the family ties and connections, that village feel, which has some negative sides too. And there’s the hipness, this creative thing. Why are there so many writers, filmmakers and artists here? There are certain periods of history that are hotbeds of creativity, ancient Greece, Florence, maybe Reykjavík in the nineties was a place like that, everything was lined up and the right scene for creativity was born. Overall, I’d say that you guys are happier than you think you are. You take care not to say it too loudly.
But you’ve been interviewing a very specific portion of the population, artists and journalists, mainly, rather than the farmers and factory workers.
Yes, I have. I’m not trying to be comprehensive, and I haven’t gone to villages and talked to fishermen. I’ve talked to the people who work at my hotel, but you’re right, I am looking at a slice of the demography. But I still think that underlying with anyone I’ve talked to is a good, positive and mentally healthy attitude. You have all the ingredients; you’re a wealthy country, a fairly humanitarian one, a creative one… It’s sort of like all the stars are lined up for a happy country.

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