Iceland – the Happiest Country?

As with any happiness or life satisfaction league table, who comes top depends on exactly what’s being measured and how. In this article by The Observer journalist John Carlin, Iceland is referred to as the happiest country in the world. How can this be? We all know that it’s Denmark!

Carlin’s conclusion is based on Iceland’s ranking in the Human Development Index (HDI), one of the four United Nations assessments of human potential – it measures three basic dimensions – a long and healthy life, education and a decent standard of living.

1. Health is measured by life expectancy at birth,
2. Education is measured by a combination of the adult literacy rate and the combined gross enrolment ratio in primary, secondary, and tertiary education,
3. Standard of living is measured by Purchasing Power Parity (PPP US$).

So the HDI isn’t actually quantifying either happiness or life satisfaction, and it’s questionable (in Positive Psychology terms) whether health, wealth and education significantly contribute to happiness anyway.

In fact there are some elements of Icelandic society which would contradict the conclusion that it’s one of the best countries in the world to live in, for example, the highest divorce rate in Europe. However, this doesn’t mean they have unhappy families – in fact writes Carlin, “The kids will be just fine, because the family will rally round them, and likely as not, the parents will continue to have a civilised relationship, based on the usually automatic understanding that custody of the children will be shared”.

The article provides further insights into those character traits which might explain why Icelanders are generally happy people (if not the happiest), for example, optimism, resilience, self-confidence and a can-do attitude. That said, if we follow Lyubomirsky’s “Happiness Pie” model, after genes (50%), what we chose to do with our time is the largest contributor (40%) to our happiness – do we have any readers who could comment on how the average happy Icelander spends his/her time?

Whether or not it’s the happiest country, Iceland takes first place in the 2007/08 HDI, followed by Norway, Australia, Canada and Ireland. The USA is in 12th position, Denmark 14th and the UK 16th. At the bottom , not surprisingly are the West African countries of Guinea (175th), Burkina Faso (176th) and Sierra Leone (177th). For the full list, see here.

Image: Gúnna

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