If You’re Happy and You Know It

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are:

Still hanging out with youngest kid in Reykjavik. We went to see the volcano a few days ago; because of my ankle limitations, we did the shortest possible hike, meaning we saw a fresh lava flow, but not the actual erupting crater. Nonetheless, it was—for lack of a more creative word—kind of epic.

If You’re Happy and You Know It

One of our nieces, when she heard we were coming to Iceland, said she might want to join us, because Icelanders are apparently the second-happiest population in the world.

In the almost-three-months that we’ve been here, I’ve been trying to figure out what ‘happiness’ means in that context. I’m currently writing this in a busy coffee shop, and I’m looking around at the other customers, and they look … pretty normal. No one appears to be especially miserable or especially happy. Admittedly, it’s impossible to know anyone’s true emotional state from just watching them chat and drink coffee, but it does make me wonder what happiness really looks like, on a community level.

[Aside: this is the first time I’ve brought my computer to a coffee shop in a year and a half, so it’s possible that none of these people could possibly look as happy as I feel at this moment. Y’all, I’ve missed writing in coffee shops. So. Much.]

You would think there’d be a correlation between measurable indices of happiness and, say, smiling, but I’ve concluded that may not be the case. Thailand, for instance, is known as the Land of Smiles, but we’ve learned that those smiles are sometimes notoriously insincere. Luckily, I’m from the south. I’m comfortable with fake smiles.

It turns out Americans have a global reputation for being overly smiley. We read once that the people of whatever country we were in (maybe Russia?) assume anyone who walks around smiling is feeble-minded. My anecdotal experience confirms this: in much of the world, smiling is not the default expression. I find that a little challenging, to be honest. Like I said, I’m from the south. To my mind, there is something hospitable about a smile; it puts me at ease. Smiles help smooth out the bumps and rough edges of daily life. 

As far as I can tell, Icelanders are sort of reasonably smiley—they don’t necessarily walk around smiling at the world, but they seem welcoming enough, and willing to engage. As always, the very best way to elicit a smile is to say ‘thank you’ in the local language.

Maybe the people of Iceland are subtly happy, and maybe that’s because they look around their country and realize they’re lucky to be alive. This chunk of volcanic rock in the far north of the Atlantic can’t be an easy place to survive. This is humanity versus nature, at its most primal. Red-hot magma oozes from the earth, incinerating anything in its path. There are golf courses here where you have to avoid boiling water spewing out of the ground. Popular hiking trails wind through ancient lava fields, where black pumice will slice you open if you fall. The Icelandic language contains more than fifty words for wind, and they need them all. A bunch of people had to be rescued from a campground last weekend, because of heavy snowfall—in mid-June.  Iceland has it all: earthquakes, volcanoes, avalanches, noxious gasses, treacherous cliffs, icebergs, glaciers, months of darkness, months of light. There is, literally, a rift between two tectonic plates, running right through the middle of the country, gradually tearing it apart.

And yet, in every tiny town and hamlet, there’s a swimming pool (swimming and knitting are part of the curriculum in every elementary school). There’s always a playground, with fantastic equipment, often including a giant, in-ground trampoline. There’s an abundance of public art. As of this writing, about two-thirds of the population have received at least one dose of Covid vaccine. People who worked in hard-hit economic sectors (tourism and hospitality) received 80% pay during the worst of the shutdown.  We haven’t seen a lot of the trappings of ostentatious wealth, but we also haven’t seen grinding poverty.

The overwhelming vibe we’ve gotten from the Icelanders we’ve talked to has been pragmatism. Maybe that’s the only way to live in a place that is trying to kill you. We haven’t really seen road rage, or demanding customers, or refusal to follow rules. There’s enough space here that if you don’t like the trappings of society, it’s easy enough to go be a recluse. There’s also a strong expectation of common sense: there aren’t a lot of guardrails or safety regulations. Remember that thing about how nature is trying to kill you? Better be sensible.

I suppose happiness is more complicated than just public smiliness

Take care,

Lisa

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