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Good Reads: Volcanoes, guillotines, and the key to happiness

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Happy people

Close your eyes. Now, imagine your vision of the happiest place on earth. It’s an island, of course, but it’s a volcanic island, so there is a faint smell of sulfur in the air, and the chance of getting buried in hot ash. You’ll love the long summer nights, but you’ll need a bit of fish oil to see you through the long winters, because you’re close to the Arctic Circle.

Yes, Iceland is the third-happiest place on earth, after Denmark and Costa Rica, according to Robert Lavine, writing in The Atlantic magazine. What makes Icelanders so happy, writes Mr. Lavine, a clinical psychologist from Virginia, is not the lack of challenges – indeed, Icelanders have cold winters, a shaky economy, and the threat of volcanic annihilation – but rather the fact that they meet these challenges with stoicism and a communal spirit. Faced with difficulty, Icelanders know they need each other to survive, and they find that they actually enjoy each other’s company.

In the midst of an American election campaign, where vice-presidential candidates are debating the merits of the self-interest theories of novelist Ayn Rand, what can one make of the happiness of a place like Iceland? Surely the country’s European-style social-democratic policies, with nine-month paid paternity leave, life-time health care, long life expectancy, low crime rates, and expensive clean-energy policies would be a one-way ticket to demographic disaster, right?

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