In search of a happy place

Buying a car won’t make you happy. This may seem like an odd statement for a car manufacturer to make. But it’s true. What a car gives you, however, is the opportunity to discover new places, meet new people and experience life on your terms. It’s these experiences and the memories and friends you make along the way that will bring you happiness. Our cars are simply a way of helping you find it. We took ourselves, and our trusty XC90, to Iceland, where we set off in search of happiness.


Among the happiest in the world

We’ve come to Iceland to look for happiness. To help us in our search we have a fully equipped Volvo XC90, a well-thumbed tourist guide and meetings arranged with an Icelandic professor and a Swedish philosopher. The rest we will leave to fate. But first things first: why Iceland?

When you think of happiness, this small country in the North Atlantic, with its remote geographical position and reputation for rain probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind. Cold and dark it may be, but over the years the people of Iceland have been regularly voted as being among the happiest in the world. So let our search begin. Into the XC90 and onwards to happiness!

The weather in Iceland changes like...well, the weather. During the first couple of days alone we are treated to an exhilarating mix of snow, rain, hail, gales and sunshine. Iceland’s landscape also appears to be ever changing – much like the concept of happiness itself. Peoples’ idea of happiness depends on who you talk to and where they come from. In Sweden, which is often rated as one of the most contented countries in the world, happiness is often defined by quality of life, peace of mind and general wellbeing. But how do the people of Iceland define happiness?



Kings of their own little kingdom

"Happiness is a difficult concept to define and open to individual interpretation,” says Óttar Guðmundsson, psychiatrist at the Kleppsspitali Psychiatric Hospital in Reykjavik. “But for most of us, happiness is being healthy, living in a safe society, taking care of our loved ones and having a purpose in life. The feeling that we have a role to play in society, and what we do benefits others, this makes us happy.”

But what about population? Does it play a significant role in a country’s happiness? According to Óttar Guðmundsson, it does. “As there are so few of us, we see ourselves as kings of our own little world.” Who wouldn’t be happy to feel like a king now and again?
There’s no arguing with the fact that, at just over 300,000 people, Iceland has a small population – there’s even an app called Islendinga-APP, which lets you know if you and the person you have just met are related. It seems relatively small population are something the world’s happiest countries have in common, but we’ll come back to that.



Top of the happiness hit parade

According to the annual World Happiness Report, which lists the world’s happiest countries, the people living in the harsh climes of Scandinavia have been rated the world’s happiest on numerous occasions, while the sun-blessed citizens of southern Europe in countries such as Italy and Portugal are shown to be notoriously dissatisfied with life. Obviously, reports such as these should be taken with a pinch of salt, but they make interesting reading nonetheless. I have to say though, as the rain batters against the windscreen of our XC90, I’m not feeling particularly cheery. And as the rain turns to hail, I can’t help but wonder if I would feel a little happier at this moment if I was Icelandic?

In the World Happiness Report 2016, the country who came out on top was actually Iceland’s neighbour, Denmark. Switzerland came second and Iceland was ranked a respectable third. Now, this is where population comes into the picture. All three top ranked countries are small, with relatively or very small, populations. Could this somehow be linked to happiness?

In search of an answer, we contacted Bengt Brülde, Swedish philosopher and happiness researcher. “It comes as no surprise that Icelanders consider themselves happy,” explains Brülde. “This is something that all the Nordic countries have in common. We are wealthy and democratic and we have great confidence and trust in one another and in our authorities. We have a high degree of individualism and excellent opportunities to live the life we choose to live. These are some of the varying factors that contribute to feelings of happiness.”

“I believe it is our own choices, striving to go your own way, that makes us happy. For me, it is all about freedom.”

Zlatana, tourist from Sarajevo visiting Iceland for the first time.


Are you happy?

Not only do we have different cultural interpretations of the word “happiness”, studies reveal we also interpret the concept of happiness in different ways depending on age: older adults measure happiness in terms of life satisfaction, while younger adults define it much more in terms of exhilarating activities and feelings of euphoria. Of course, there is one way of measuring happiness regardless of where we come from or how old we are. And that is to ask: “Are you happy?” So we take our own advice and do just that.

“Are you happy?” we ask Zlatana, a 28-year old tourist from Sarajevo who is visiting Iceland for the first time. “Yes!” she answers. Simple. Zlatana’s home country, Bosnia and Herzegovina, is ranked 87th on the 2016 World Happiness Report and is a very different country to Iceland in a number of ways. But what makes Zlatana happy? Is it the same things that put a smile on the faces of the people of Iceland or is it something completely different? “For me, happiness is a state of mind. A place within myself that I can only feel if I stay true to myself” says Zlatana.


Don’t worry, be happy

Happiness is measured in terms of meaningful experiences. And it’s these experiences that can help us lead a happier life. We want to help each other, have someone to care about and regard our role in society and the lives of others as important. Similarly, meaningful experiences also influence the modern perception of luxury – be it in our cars or in our everyday lives. Volvo Cars has actually published a report called “The Evolution of Luxury”.

“The Evolution of Luxury” tells us that people born in the 2000s, the “Millennials,” are not simply out to get more. Instead, they’re looking for authentic and meaningful experiences. Luxury nowadays is not measured in material possessions, it is about finding time to nurture our relationships and develop as individuals.



Happiness is in our nature

A number of researchers into happiness claim that humans are programmed to look for happiness. What makes us happy is good for us and has helped us preserve our species. Being happy is part of our natural make-up. Most of us have a strong and deep positive energy inside us, even if training and guidance is sometimes needed for it to surface and develop. Meditation and positive thinking are some popular paths towards the achievement of happiness. Nature also has a significant impact on our well-being. This might be why the inhabitants of Iceland are so happy. The country is full of stunning scenery, such as glaciers, waterfalls, geysers and volcanoes as well as rich in beautiful wildlife, such as elegant Icelandic horses and an abundance of birds and unique marine life.

Nature is also something that makes Zlatana happy. So we will let her have the final word. Over to you, Zlatana. “I love how nature can make you feel anonymous. Like the power of a waterfall. If I wake up feeling unhappy, I always make my way to the forest. Taking photographs, smelling the earth, feeling the rain on my skin. I always feel energised and filled with positive feelings afterwards. Life’s challenges are what makes the feeling of joy so rewarding. No matter who you are or what you do. You can always find happiness if you’re prepared to go out and look for it.”

So, it’s not all about possessions. Happiness and wellbeing can’t be bought. We have to go out and find it for ourselves. It’s a modern luxury that comes from living life on our own terms. A life filled with adventure and meaningful experiences. This is the true road to happiness.

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