The Geography of Bliss, creativity, and Iceland


I’ve just been reading The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner. It’s about which countries are happiest – and unhappiest – and why that is. Surprisingly – to me, at any rate – one of the happiest countries in the world is Iceland, which is up near the top of the league table in these things, despite spending half the year in almost total darkness.

When I visited there several years ago, they certainly seemed like happy people. We took an unauthorised trip into the interior – unauthorised because our hire car wasn’t insured to go there. The ‘road’ was literally made up of rubble and you could only drive at 5mph if you didn’t want to be shaken up like a James Bond cocktail. That was the good bit. Once you left the main road, all bets were off and you could end up having to drive through small rivers and other less pleasant natural hazards. Every so often we’d see a coach juddering along the roads, looking totally unexpected and out of place. At one point we saw one stuck in the mud; a party of schoolchildren were at the back of the coach, pushing it, and we had to stop while they got on with it. One of the accompanying teachers came over to our car and told us, mischief in her eyes, that the coach wasn’t really stuck at all and that they were just teasing the children. She laughed enthusiastically at this very good joke and waved goodbye. Well you wouldn’t get that happening in the UK, would you? Heavens, just think of the health and safety issues.

So it’s always seemed to me that the Icelanders are quite a jolly lot. But why? Well, Weiner has some theories on this and a lot of them revolve around the Icelandic culture. For a start, Icelanders love their language – they just love it to bits. They love it like the French love theirs, but without getting all precious about it as the French are wont to do. Weiner says ‘everything wise and wonderful about this quirky little nation flows from its language’ and to the Icelanders their language is a great source of joy. Any time there’s a new invention, they don’t import the foreign word for it but find a way of expressing it in their own Viking tongue. So a television is a ‘sight caster’ and an intercontinental ballistic missile is called a ‘long distance fiery flying thing’. But one of the best things about the language is that instead of saying ‘hello’ they say the equivalent of ‘come happy’ and when they say goodbye they say ‘go happy’. That might be enough on its own to explain a few things.

Anyway, I’m taking a long time getting round to the most interesting bit, which is that Iceland is one of the most creative places you’re ever likely to come across. Everyone writes, for a start – everyone – and there’s a real creative vibe throughout the island that extends to all the arts. Weiner asked a native why he thought the place was so seething with creativity compared to most other places on the planet, and it seems we could learn something useful from the answers. The first is that, in Iceland, people don’t suffer from creative envy. They don’t try to keep their discoveries and innovations to themselves but share freely with each other, so that each can build on what the others have discovered. In other words, instead of competing they share, and this is a very different attitude from most other places. This was also true of turn-of-the-century Paris, says Weiner, which was another hotbed of immense creativity. In a different context this attitude is often found on the web, where open-source software is produced by people collaborating and working together and has led to some extremely creative programmes being produced. There are also amazing sites like Wikipedia, which is a project that relies on free sharing of knowledge. Unfortunately it doesn’t work this way in most cultures and people are more likely to defend their own little patch against anyone who might want to ‘steal’ it from them.

So that’s one thing; what else? Well, they admire failure. More specifically, what’s admired is trying and getting out there and having a go even if you’re not much good. If you’re an Icelandic teenager, you can expect your parents to be supportive when you want to start a garage band. Everyone is encouraged to do whatever they want to do and not criticised if it doesn’t quite work out. “There’s nobody on the island telling them they’re not good enough, so they just go ahead and sing and paint and write”, says Weiner. Of course, he admits, they produce a lot of crap, but as he also says:

“….crap plays an important role in the art world. In fact, it plays exactly the same role as it does in the farming world. It’s fertiliser. The crap allows the good stuff to grow. You can’t have one without the other. Now, to be sure, you don’t want to see crap framed at an art gallery, any more than you want to see a pound of fertiliser sitting in the produce section of your local grocery store. But still, crap is important.”

In most other cultures you’re discouraged from doing anything creative unless you show signs of talent right from the start, and you’re certainly not encouraged to keep doing it if you’re no good at it. So we end up with a culture where people are more likely to listen to music than play an instrument or sing, or to look at and criticise art rather than pick up a brush and paint. We’ve become a nation where most people are observers and consumers of creative end products, rather than creators themselves and therefore miss out on the joy that comes from expressing themselves through the arts.

People in Iceland love doing creative things – and who wouldn’t if they were constantly encouraged, weren’t worried about being criticised, and there was an ethos of sharing and supporting each other? Iceland puts to rest once and for all the myth of the unhappy, struggling artist and replaces it with one in which everyone can be creative and have a high old time. It’s beginning to sound quite enticing, isn’t it?  Add in a few other things, like a community small enough to establish strong connections but big enough to be interesting; swimming in naturally heated, geothermal pools with the snow softly falling around you; geysirs, bubbling mud, and some of the most gobsmacking waterfalls you’ve ever seen; and the Icelandic tolerance for different ideas and philosophies, and I’m rather tempted to go and book my plane ticket right now………I’m just not sure I could ever cope with six months of darkness.

Steaming river, Hveragerdi

Steaming geothermal river, Hveragerdi