In pursuit of happiness

In pursuit of happiness

Our Faith
Welcome to Iceland

It's that little spit of land out in the North Atlantic, slightly smaller than the state of Kentucky and with a population the size of Erie, Pennsylvania. The mean temperature all year round in the capital, Reykjavik (where Bobby Fischer once played chess), is 41 degrees, snow falls 100 days a year in the northwest, and on other days the island is subject to torrential gales and blinding fog. Much of Iceland is covered with glaciers, and its great profusion of volcanoes have produced 33 percent of the world's lava in the past 500 years. One eruption in 1973 destroyed most of a midsize city.

So why is Iceland the happiest country on earth? That remains one of the mysteries of the modern world. According to the researchers at the World Database of Happiness, headquartered at Erasmus University in Holland, Icelanders regularly express higher rates of satisfaction and contentment than do citizens of other countries, including the U.S. Yet the people on this remote, unstable piece of real estate are not particularly affluent and experience a considerable measure of social as well as geological instability. Some 61 percent of the children are born out of wedlock. The island is 95 percent Protestant, mostly Lutheran, and only 1 percent Catholic.

Iceland seems to illustrate the absence of a correlation between happiness and characteristics such as wealth, education, and a pleasant climate. Since 1946 the Dutch pollsters at Erasmus have been asking representative samples in dozens of countries, "Taking all things together, would you say you are very happy, quite happy, not very happy, or not at all happy?" Scores ranging from 4 for "very happy" to 1 for "not at all happy" are assigned to each participant.

The mean score in Iceland has been 3.4 in recent years, placing it a tad above other happy places like Ireland, Australia, and the Netherlands. The relatively wealthy United States comes in at a respectable 3.3, in a virtual tie with Sweden, Denmark, and Belgium.


More intriguing are the unexpected disparities elsewhere. Nigerians are happier than Germans, those in Ghana are happier than Italians, and the swarming populations of India rate higher on the scale than those in Israel, Hungary, or Russia. Near the bottom are countries like Estonia, Armenia, and Belarus, where the average citizen rates life just above "not very happy."

The Gallup organization takes the happiness poll of Americans on an almost monthly basis, with very little change reported. On a three-tiered scale (very happy, fairly happy, and not too happy), 89 to 95 percent of the population habitually place themselves in the top two tiers. The highest "not too happy" score (12 percent) came in 1990. The responses change only slightly when the question is asked, "In general, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in your own personal life?" Satisfied respondents have very gradually increased from 76 percent in 1979 to 86 percent in 1998.

How important is religious belief to happiness? A lot apparently depends on how the question is put, who is asking it, and who is answering. A major survey in the late 1970s, which elicited more than 100,000 replies from readers of Psychology Today and Good Housekeeping, indicated little or no relationship.

More recent studies come to diametrically opposite conclusions. A Gallup study in the 1980s found that people who agree that "God loves me" and that "Religion is the most important influence in my life" are twice as likely to say they are "very happy" than those who disagree with the above statements. A 1988 National Opinion Research Center study found a very direct connection between religious faith and the maintenance of joy among people who had experienced divorce, unemployment, or loss of a loved one.


Meanwhile, researchers find less and less correlation between acquired wealth and happiness. According to one study, the Forbes 100 richest people plus a group of recent lottery winners are only a tiny fraction happier than the average American. In fact, psychologists recently reported that young millionaires in the technology industry are experiencing something called "Sudden Wealth Syndrome," a condition of restlessness and worry bordering on paranoia.

About the author

Robert J. McClory

Robert McClory is professor emeritus of journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and author of Radical Disciple: Father Pfleger, St. Sabina Church, and the Fight for Social Justice (Lawrence Hill).

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