We visited northern Iceland this summer. In two backwater cities on northern coast, Sigulfjorour and Isafjourour we found stories that were both familiar and instructive.
These towns are the most barren, desolate, remote places on the arctic circle. They date back to Leif Ericsson, a thousand years ago to when humans first discovered the island. The towns weren’t even towns for most of their history,- more like a small number of fishing shacks hanging on the cliff over the sea. Men in rowboats headed out in summer and winter with hooks and lines. They clawed a subsistence living of fish for breakfast, lunch and supper. Cheerios and Egg McMuffin came much later.
Boom times came during the late 1890s. Row boats were quickly replaced by diesel powered, net dragging trawlers. Catholic Europe’s demand for fish begin to rise. As cod exports doubled and doubled again the money rolled into Sigulfjorour and Isafjourour.I find it unimaginable that catching, gutting, salt packing and shipping cod could bring millions of dollars of prosperity to a an arctic circle village. But it was just like our California Gold Rush. The small villages became a modern electrified cities of 4,000 or more. The small harbors would see as many as 1,000 commercial fishing ships tied up.
The First World War brought further prosperity to the towns. The cod boom carried Iceland from the once hopelessly poor man of Europe, into middle class prosperity.Then followed the cod crash. It came about from overfishing, a Gulf Current shift, or global warming. Maybe it was all three, but by the 1960’s the fishing boom died. With no more cod to cut, crate or ship and all those the factories closed down. By the 1970’s the trawlers disappeared and the harbors became quiet. Iceland unemployment rose to 50% and the fishing towns’ economies reverted to pre boom misery, somewhat like 1930’s Dust Bowl U.S.A.
Desolation had always been a common thread throughout Icelandic history. From the Black Death plagues, to periodic volcanoes and economic depression the island had taken many hits in addition to the 17 hours of darkness, ice, and snow that came every winter.Americans can relate to hardship and disruptions. That’s not unique to Iceland. But do their misfortunes make them grim, fragile, or humorless?Not at all.
The United Nations surveys tell us that Icelanders are among the happiest, upbeat people of the 157 countries in the survey. From 2014 to 2016 they were the third happiest populations in the world. The U.S. by contrast has never reached the top ten. That part of the story is less easy for us to understand. How can those Vikings endure months of snowy darkness interrupted by a plague or volcano and still come out with such a sunshiny upbeat attitude? Don’t they look out their frost covered windows?
We all know there’re no guarantee of comfort. What’s guaranteed is the need for resilience, innovation and the ability to stand up to adversity. These two Arctic villages tell us that tough times don’t last- tough people do. But how on earth do they do it with a smiley face?
The subject’s been studied at length and suggestions include:
- Their focus is on future purpose over the present, with a high priority of protecting the land. They concentrate on preserving their environmental legacy for future generations, and less on their immediate comfort.
2. “Hygge” is a word they use when acknowledging a feeling or moment. It must be cozy, charming or special, like a sauna on a cold day, sipping mull wine by the fireplace, Danish pastry or anything else that gives you a cozy feeling during the dark times. Hygge brings them happiness.
3. They simply have lower expectations from the weather, nature or the economy. Rather than focus on Hollywood happy endings they accept the Japanese ying yang saying “Seeds of happiness are sadness; the seeds of sadness are happiness”. This allows them to get through life’s ups and downs more easily.
As a post script, I should mention that, Sigulfjorour and Isafjourour are both enjoying a happy ending. Whereas once the great fishing trawlers unloaded a wealth of cod, today even larger cruise ships bring prosperity and some happiness by unloading hoards of wealthy tourists that flood the shops, restaurants and sightseeing busses.