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Contentment, it seems, is the gift of poverty

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According to a recent poll, of all the people in the world, Icelanders are about the most contented with the quality of their lives. There might be an island in Polynesia where people are happier -- and who would not be happier on some warm Pacific atoll than on a wind-swept piece of rock in the North Atlantic? -- but if there is, it doesn't show up in this Capacent Gallup poll.

"Happy Icelanders" sounds a little bit -- quite a lot, actually -- like an oxymoron. The New York Times once referred to Icelanders as a notoriously lugubrious breed, and the immigrants who came to Canada in the 19th century brought that same sense of solemnity with them. If you have ever heard a joke about Icelanders or Icelandic-Canadians, please share it -- as an Icelandic-Canadian, I would like the opportunity to stop taking myself so seriously.

According to the poll, however, people in Iceland are almost twice as happy as people in Canada and the United States. Or, more accurately, there are per capita twice as many happy Icelanders as there are happy North Americans.

It might be just something in the volcanic ash that lingers in the air or in the steam that spouts out of the glaciers that accounts for it, but an astonishing 73 per cent of Icelanders claim to be content with their lives as compared to 33 per cent of North Americans.

Around the world, only about one of every two people claims to be content with life as they know it, 13 per cent are positively discontent (another oxymoron, perhaps) and 31 per cent can't decide, although how you couldn't know if you are happy or not is a bit of a puzzlement. A sensible three per cent of the people told the pollsters to mind their own business.

Even more curious than the idea of happy Icelanders was what the poll indicated about the levels of contentment elsewhere in the world. Arabs are the unhappiest people on the planet, as one might expect, given the nature of their governments; only one-fifth of them are content with life.

And in eastern Europe, still struggling with the legacy of communism, only 25 per cent of the people think that things are going well. Life is better in western Europe where, even though the economy is not doing as well as in North America and governments are going bankrupt all over the place -- take the PIGS as an example, Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain, which are all in trouble -- people are happier than North Americans, with 50 per cent of them saying that, despite all the troubles they are experiencing, they are as happy as PIGS in poop.

To return to Iceland for a minute, that country suffered more from the last recession than most European nations. In fact, it is still being dogged by its European creditors -- if there were a debtors' prison for nations, Iceland would probably be in it. The economy tanked, banks went broke, unemployment skyrocketed in a country that was already one of the most expensive in the world to live in. I once walked through an Icelandic supermarket and was so astounded by the prices that I wondered how people could afford to live. "We all work two jobs," shrugged the man I asked.

Even more astonishingly, in the poorest parts of the world, Africa and Latin America, the level of contentment with life is almost as high as Iceland's -- 66 per cent. If there is any message at all in this poll, it may be that money doesn't matter as much as we might think. The theme song to an old radio show was "be happy, be healthy, to heck with being wealthy." Maybe it's true.

tom.oleson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 7, 2012 A17

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