With winter just around the corner, we can end up feeling a little down. Three in 100 suffer from depression due to the cold weather, with many others feeling sapped of enthusiasm and energy.
But freezing Iceland consistently ranks among the world’s top-five happiest countries – so if anyone can teach us about enjoying life, it’s Icelanders. Here, Nína Björk Jónsdóttir and Edda Magnus reveal their tips for staying optimistic when the plummeting temperatures threaten to drag down our moods too…
1. Enjoy ice-cream trips
“The ‘ísbíltúr’ is a well-known (perhaps even a cultural) phenomenon in Iceland. It consists of going for a drive with the sole intention of going to the ice-cream shop.
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“It’s something families do on a Sunday, or a couple might do on a date. Whether it’s cream or milk-based, yoghurt or vegan, ice-cream shops make sure all Icelanders can enjoy their favourite comfort food in lots of different flavours.”
It seems royals – the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as well as the Duke of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, who have been snapped a few times enjoying the frozen treat, are onto something.
2. Remember you’re one piece of a giant world
“The Icelandic outlook is shaped by the natural elements. We’re constantly reminded the human being is tiny compared with the gigantic forces of nature. We know there’s nothing you can do but wait until a storm passes or a road is cleared of snow.
“Perhaps knowing how small we are has given us the gift of not taking ourselves too seriously. We’re not afraid to try new things and are good at learning and adapting to change.”
3. Stick together
“Over the centuries, life in Iceland has been difficult. We’ve made it through famine, hardship and lots of bad weather. We stick together through thick and thin. If an Icelander is doing well overseas, we’re all proud.
“When the Icelandic men’s team played in the finals of the UEFA European Football Championship in 2016 – the smallest country ever to make it that far – the whole country stood behind ‘our boys’. A staggering 10% of Iceland’s inhabitants travelled to France to support them. When we all get together anything is possible.”
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4. Value everyone
“In 2020, for the 11th year running, the World Economic Forum named Iceland the most gender-equal country in the world, having closed almost 88% of its gender gap. Icelanders are proud of this but also mindful the battle is not, and may never be, fully ‘won’ – ensuring a gender-equal society is an ongoing task.
“Perhaps the key is that Icelanders have discovered the benefits of equality for everyone, not just women. It’s about making sure that all people have the same opportunities. Engaging men and boys in promoting equality and as agents of change is crucial.”
5. Take the time to indulge in reading
“Reading and storytelling is part of our DNA. Today’s Icelanders read an average of 2.3 books each month, according to a recent study, and it’s sometimes said that one in 10 Icelanders will write a book in their lifetime. Reading books is almost a national sport!
“Christmas without a new book to read is unimaginable for Icelanders. It’s like Easter without chocolate. A long-standing tradition is that everyone should receive at least one new book under the tree on Christmas Eve. The night is often spent snuggled up in bed reading.”
6. Relish cold nights
“Many parents took up the concept of ‘nammidagur’ a couple of decades ago. ‘Sweets day’ is the only time in the week when Icelandic children are allowed to get their sugar fix, usually on a Saturday. Often, this means a dedicated trip to buy the most desired sweets, with supermarkets giving special Saturday discounts.
“However, there are signs that nammidagur might be on its way out, with many making the (obvious) point that eating a week’s worth of sweets in one day does not equal a healthy lifestyle. Slightly better is the important ritual of the ‘kósíkvöld’, or ‘cosy evening’, when, especially during the dark winter months, families sit down together with a bowl of sweets, popcorn or ice cream to watch something good on TV.”
7. Work hard
“‘Vinnan göfgar manninn’ (‘work makes a man worthy’) is a popular Icelandic saying. The idea of working hard is deeply rooted in our culture, probably a remnant of centuries of living and labouring in a harsh terrain, as well as the Protestant belief that the way to heaven is through hard work.
“Recently, efforts have been made in Iceland to shorten the working week from 40 hours to 36, but the average working week there is still longer than that of any other country in Western Europe (44 hours in 2019).”
8. Know it will work out in the end
“If Iceland had a phrase that summed up the population’s attitude to life, it would certainly be ‘þetta reddast’ – which roughly translates as ‘everything will work out in the end’.
“Icelanders have learned to approach life’s challenges with a combination of self-reliance, stoic acceptance and a dash of optimism. Icelanders today, with their geothermally heated homes, general comfort and high standard of living, have come a long way from their ancestors, who battled the elements from turf huts.
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“However, a 2017 poll by the University of Iceland found that nearly half of Icelanders report living their lives according to þetta reddast – proof it’s still a relevant and needed philosophy for modern life. Over half of the survey’s respondents also confirmed feeling ‘very lucky’ or ‘rather lucky’.”
Why the Royals love of ice cream could be the key to true happiness according to Icelandic health experts