"HOW HAPPY ARE YOU THIS YEAR, on a scale of zero to ten, if ten is very happy and zero is no more hay to eat?"
It was three in the afternoon on Wednesday, December 17, in the far southeast of Iceland. A group of Icelandic ponies were standing mute in a pasture wedged between the man-made harbor of Höfn and the sprawling, mist-shrouded Vatnajökull glacier. The vibrant white of their hides stood out against swirling, milky-white clouds.
For the past three days, I hadn't been lounging in hot springs or tramping on glaciers. I'd been hitchhiking. Full-time. All four hours a day. Starting outside Reykjavík, I'd been thumbing counterclockwise on Highway 1, hoping to cruise the full 830 miles of the coast's island-circling Ring Road in a week. Along the way, I was asking everyone I met the same question about happiness. The happiest person so far was Joey, a sheep farmer, at 9. The least happy, at 6.5, was an unemployed plumber named Gylfi.
Initially, rides came as sweet and regular as the notes in a Gershwin tune, but here, 200 miles from Reyky, only the occasional dump truck was going my way.
"I'll take your silence to mean happy," I said to the ponies. "A 10. So happy you're speechless."
Just then, a microscopic 4x4 pulled to the side of the two-lane road, stopping beside my bags. Out popped Fatty and Skinny.
"Gódan daginn," I yelled.
Fatty was Peter and Skinny was Krispin. Both were Capuchin monks on their way back from a session of "spiritual renewal" in the capital.
Without waiting, I lobbed the happiness query. "Ten," said Krispin. "Life is beautiful."
Magically, Krispin produced three Cuban cigars. Windows rolled up, we hotboxed it north for four hours, past free-roaming reindeer herds and the devastatingly grand scenery of the eastern fjords.
EVERY FEW YEARS, researchers from organizations like the Pew Research Center do what I did well, probably without the stogies and canvass a broad swath of that dazzling mess called humanity to find out which nations are happiest. We Americans have been pursuing happiness since men wore wigs, but it turns out we're not so good at it. Over the past 50 years, our happiness level has remained flat. The richest, freest country in the world (U-S-A!) isn't even in the top 15.
Iceland, on the other hand, has consistently ranked as one of the happiest places under the sun or under the clouds, in its case. The 300,000 souls on this tiny, barren rock in the middle of the storm-racked North Atlantic are rated more buoyant than the lucky Irish, the Carnaval-mad Brazilians, and even Italians living la dolce vita.
At least, they were until last year.
In October, the country imploded. Following the evaporation of international credit, Iceland's three huge banks failed, unable to guarantee deposits in branches across Europe. The British responded by cracking jokes What's the capital of Iceland? £6.50! then declaring it a terrorist nation, freezing its assets until the Brits got their money back. With rumors circulating that Russia was going to buy them, Icelanders ate crow and accepted a $2.1 billion loan from the IMF. Meanwhile, new construction stopped mid-story, retirements and pensions wheezed goodbye, and there was an alarming rise in both unemployment and inflation. "Iceland is broke," a Time article concluded, "but it's got geothermal heating, so at least no one will freeze to death."
Yikes. Suddenly, Iceland began to look like a real-time happiness proving ground. How were they bearing up? Had bankruptcy soured the national mood?
I decided to go find out. I had no idea how Icelanders would respond to a nosy Yank, but I hoped to find them happy. As the U.S. economy slid further into recession, I also hoped, perhaps naively, to pick up a few trade secrets.
I SPENT THE FIRST two days in Reykjavík, "putting my finger on the pulse of the city" i.e., getting twisted at bars while questioning hipsters. The tiny capital appeared to be doing OK. At a bustling mall, an entertainer in silver lamé pants sang pop songs to kids while parents shopped. A handful of boom-time Range Rovers, now called "Game Overs," still rolled the streets. And at 5 A.M. on Sunday, beautiful women in cocktail dresses still teetered out of bars to vomit in the slushy streets.
Not all was as it should be, though. A photographer friend had his home loan frozen. No one was vacationing in the Caribbean. And on Saturday afternoon, some 1,000 protesters gathered in front of the parliament building with signs that read OUT WITH CORRUPTION.
Then, an hour later, they dropped their signs and wheeled their baby strollers off to meet friends at cafés.
Despite the anger in the streets which in January led to the resignation of Prime Minister Geir Haarde people seemed happy enough. The average was around 7.5, including barroom responses that ranged from 5 to 9.4, sometimes in a single person.
I hit the road on Monday, when a friend dropped me at a lone gas station 15 miles southeast of town. I warmed my soggy jeans under the restroom's hand dryer and then I was off. The driver of a red cargo van pulling away from the gas pump motioned for me to get in.
"Ég heiti Eric," I said, in what I thought was perfect Icelandic.
"My name is Lalli," he said, apologizing for his English, which was perfect.
We scooted over snowy hills. A hulking, soft-spoken fourth-generation carpenter, Lalli said, "Anyone can be a carpenter, but a good carpenter can correct his mistakes."
Apropos of nothing, I asked him the happiness question. He smiled, grew reflective, and then noticed that I was filming him from two feet away, aiming my camcorder at his face like a shoulder-fired missile launcher. "I'm doing OK," he said, looking extremely uncomfortable.
RIDES LIKE THIS CAME one after the other that first day old man, fat couple, confused woman, dad going to the gym as I made my way through the smattering of little towns in the gravelly delta east of Reykjavík.
The next day, as I headed for the ribbon of pastureland south of the central plateau, people took me on scenic detours to see booming waterfalls or random steam vents in snowy fields. We talked cordially about whatever crossed our minds their families, their favorite hot springs, the insanity of the head of Iceland's central bank. Even Gylfi the unemployed plumber, the saddest man in Iceland wasn't so glum that he couldn't pick up a forlorn hitchhiker. Granted, it took him a while. His blue van passed me by in the middle of nowhere, disappeared in the fog, and then reappeared five minutes later.
"No one was going to pick you up out here," he said with a smile, smacking his gum. The average happiness score crept closer to 8.
In The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World, former NPR correspondent Eric Weiner wrote a delightful chapter on why Icelanders are happy. His most scientific finding was that they're uniquely immune to seasonal affective disorder, but his anecdotal insights also rang true. Icelanders love the arts, embrace all kinds of spirituality, and are highly literate (it's said that one in ten will write a book in his or her life). Virtually everyone is genetically related, so they try to help each other out.
After two days of research, I can add that, almost to a person, Icelanders are really nice. They are generous, candid, and when sober, at least dignified. What they aren't is funny. Any visitor from anywhere temporarily holds the title of Funniest Person in Iceland.
But you gotta love 'em anyway. After Gylfi dropped me off, a sweet mother with a grade-school son picked me up, and I squished in beside a chocolate layer cake nestled in a laundry basket. Once the happiness subject was broached, she said, "I think we have to follow hope, don't you think?"
"Mmmm especially when the weather is this bad."
"Then we just get happier. We are Vikings!" She raised her fist lamely and said, "Yeah. Hmmm." We both laughed.
EVERY TIME SOMEONE picked me up, I felt like a success as if hitchhiking involved some skill other than periodic standing. But the truth is I wasn't setting any land-speed records.
On day three, I scored the longest ride so far four hours, with the monks and we wound our way north along fjords that were a cross between Yosemite Valley and Big Sur. I was especially curious to interrogate the residents of Reydarfjördur, a town of 1,400 in a region that my guidebook described as having "a general lack of cheer."
Reydarfjördur was a tidy collection of one-story homes at the mouth of the fjord. As I was wandering around, a chain-smoking tugboat captain (a 9) invited me aboard. After learning that I spoke sailor, he showed me every moving part in the engine room. (Who knew the fire extinguisher pumped 3,000 liters of seawater per minute?) Next I walked into a dry-cleaning establishment, where an elderly husband-and-wife team told me they were a 9.5. Later, I met a truck driver who didn't care much for the Icelandic art-rock band Sigur Rós but thought his own life rated at least an 8. The Reydarfjördurans were the happiest folks I'd met so far.
Why? The town was home to a humongous, one-year-old aluminum smelter operated by Alcoa, and everyone thanked its high wages for their glee. I walked a couple of miles along the narrow, steep-walled bay, crested a hill under clear skies, and bam! there it was in a valley. A severe megalopolis of long windowless buildings and high-voltage power lines, the factory was bigger than Reydarfjördur.
Inside, a plump secretary rated herself a 10. The all-in-black PR woman who swooped in gave herself a 9.
Any decent journalist would've pressed the "money buys happiness" issue, especially since the smelters and their giant hydropower reservoirs are by far the most controversial developments in the country. (Apolitical singer Björk recently penned an angry op-ed with the headline "After Financial Meltdown, Now It's Smeltdown.") But I didn't want to start a ruckus. I was willing to take the wealthy, happy residents of Reydarfjördur at their word.
ON DAY FOUR, I WENT elf hunting. After following Highway 1 inland to Egilsstadir, I couldn't get a ride back out to Borgarfjördur the reported home of Iceland's elf queen. I shimmied with my palms up. I made one of those pathetic hitchhiker signs with the scribbly name of my destination. Nothing worked, so I eventually rented a car.
At 9 P.M., I arrived in Borgarfjördur, and even by moonlight I could see that it was a gorgeous little seaside town, a handful of houses enclosed by a horseshoe of tall peaks. The next morning, Skúli, my guesthouse owner, informed me that my $20 attic room also came with a tour of the fish-processing plant! There, they processed and produced the Icelandic delicacy hákarl, cubes of shark that sit in a box for six weeks, turning putrid.
While following Skúli to a back room, I did what he did and lobbed a die-size cube of pink flesh into my mouth. Immediately, the top of my throat moistened with bile. I clutched a table for balance. I thought I'd been poisoned.
"You don't like it?" asked Helga, an older, doughy woman who carves up the sharks.
"It's not that bad," I lied. "And it's supposed to make you ?"
"Strong," she said, flexing.
"Long," corrected a nearby man.
I changed the subject to elves, and Helga's face suddenly got very serious. Someone the monks, maybe had warned me not to joke about elves.
"There are lots of stories," she said, adding that there were "one or two stories" of people seeing the elf queen.
"What do they look like?" I asked.
"They look like us, but always beautiful, dressed in gold."
"Does everyone believe in elves?" I asked.
"Most people, deep inside."
"I don't know," she said, and looked as if she genuinely didn't.
When I flew back to RKV later that day, reeking of shark, I tallied my results. Out of 26 interviews, the average non-horsey happiness score came to an amazing 8.9 out of 10. I learned later that my stupid question was similar to a formal survey method developed at Princeton called the Cantril Ladder. Experts using this scale consider anything above 7 "thriving." Even as Iceland's economy down the toilet, her people stood squarely in the "thriving" category, especially those in the countryside.
So what, in the end, is the Icelandic secret to happiness? Visit! It's still cheap. As for plug-and-play answers, the best appears to be nothing more complicated than this: Be good, work hard, and appreciate what you got even if that includes rotten sharks and fairies.
"On a scale of zero to ten, how happy are you?" I finally asked Helga.
"Twelve," she said, as if it should have been obvious all along.