Icelandic Happiness

The Satisfaction with Life Index. Blue through red represent most to least happy respectively; grey areas have no reliable data available (Image via Wikipedia)

In his book The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner travels around the world in search of the secrets of happiness. Everywhere he goes, he asks the people he meets if they are happy. When he asked this question in Iceland, one person’s reply was, “Yes, but I cherish my melancholia.”

Another Icelander agreed. “You nurture your little melancholia, and it’s like a buzz that makes you feel alive. You snap yourself a little bit, and you feel this relief of how fragile life is and how tremendously fragile you are.”

Weiner asked, “So you can have this melancholia and still be happy?”

“Absolutely!” was the reply.

Weiner continues:

Modern social science confirms what the [second Icelander] says. The psychologist Norman Bradburn, in his book The Structure of Psychological Well Being, describes how happiness and unhappiness are not opposites, as we often think. They are not two sides of the same coin. They are different coins. It is possible, in other words, for a happy person to also suffer from bouts of unhappiness, and for unhappy people to experience great moments of joy. And here in Iceland, it seems, it is even possible to be happy and sad at the same time.

This is a partial answer to a question I’ve been asking these past two months: What does it mean to be a happy person? This piece of the puzzle suggests that one can be a happy person and still feel sad sometimes, and that one can be an unhappy person and still feel happy sometimes. I wonder, which am I? Happy with bouts of sadness, or unhappy with bouts of joy?

Another piece of the puzzle, also from Weiner’s book:

Martin Seligman, founder of the positive-psychology movement, discovered that happy people remember more good events in their lives than actually occurred. Depressed people remembered the past accurately.

I have a suspicion I’m one of the people who remembers her life accurately. But I’m not certain that “depressed” is the opposite of “happy”. Gretchen Rubin certainly doesn’t think so, and says so explicitly in The Happiness Project. “I came to another important conclusion about defining happiness: that the opposite of happiness is unhappiness, not depression. Depression, a grave condition that deserves urgent attention, occupies its own category apart from happiness and unhappiness.”

Is Seligman using a different definition of “depressed”, or is it Weiner’s word, and I can substitute “unhappy” and the basic claim is still the same? I suppose to some degree it’s irrelevant. My aim is to feel happier, so doing things that happy people do is working towards that aim, regardless of what all of those unhappy or depressed people do.

I’m not sure if I prefer to delude myself about my life in the interest of feeling happier, but I could certainly try to place more emphasis on the happy things and less on the unhappy things. Yet another argument for a gratitude practice of some sort. And also an argument for reframing my experience of unhappy events. I’m getting ready to read Man’s Search for Meaning, in which Viktor Frankl talks about logotherapy, which involves changing one’s attitudes about one’s life experiences. Maybe I can get some more ideas from Frankl about how to embrace my melancholia as they do in Iceland.

3 Replies to “Icelandic Happiness”

  1. Thanks for your comment, Lisa, and the clarification about affect. That makes a lot more sense. I had a feeling there was a layer there that I wasn’t catching.

    I didn’t know about The Geography of Bliss either until someone recommended it through this blog. I love when people share the books they love with me!


  2. I think that there is a difference between happy / unhappy and “positive affect” and “negative affect”. It is not really possible, as far as I understand, to feel happy and unhappy at the same time. They are opposites. Yet it is possible to have high positive affect (the ability to feel positive emotions) and high negative affect (the ability to feel negative emotions) at the same time. Previously, psychologists had assumed that you were either high pos affect OR high neg affect. Seligman’s work, and subsequent studies, are showing that isn’t true – they are independent dimensions. You can be high or low on either one without it affecting the other. Some people are low on both (they experience very little pos or neg feeling) just as some are high on both. And, of course, many people are high on one and low on the other.

    Thanks for the great blogpost – you’ve alerted me to a new book I didn’t know was out there!


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