The secret to Icelandic health and happiness

Issue: BCMJ, vol. 61, No. 8, October 2019, Page 308 Editorials

Icelandic police officer: “Would you care to explain why you have three sheep in your car?”

Me: “I rented the economy car so the fourth one wouldn’t fit.”

I spent 2 weeks in Iceland this summer. Not only was I looking forward to viewing that country’s untouched natural beauty (which we drove around and polluted with fossil fuels), but I was very curious to meet these remarkable islanders. Iceland consistently ranks high on worldwide health scales. According to the 2019 Bloomberg Global Health Index, Iceland is the world’s third-healthiest country. Canada ranks sixteenth. Iceland also rated fourth in the 2018 World Happiness report.

I began my study of these healthy, happy locals as I emerged jet lagged from Icelandic Air flight one (maybe it was two). My first opportunity for evaluation was the car rental attendant who much to my surprise didn’t have blond hair or blue eyes. I gained his trust by smooth small talk.

“How will traffic be?”

“Shouldn’t be bad as many people are at the island festival.”

“So Icelandic people like festivals?”

“I wouldn’t know as I am Polish.” (Poles make up 3% of the population.)

Clearly, I would have to dig deeper.

After finding our bed-and-breakfast, which wasn’t easy as it is common to get directions in Iceland such as, “Our road isn’t on GPS so find the second gate past the two sheep,” I decided to do some research.

Perhaps, I thought, the secret to Icelanders’ health and happiness is the health care system. However, similar to our own system, in Iceland health care is a publicly funded and divided into health regions. They also have had problems with retention of physicians and other health professionals due to lower salaries than other Scandinavian countries—so I guess health care isn’t the reason for their happiness after all.

I thought, maybe the answer lies in Iceland’s natural wonders. Mountains, rivers, and waterfalls (which in Icelandic is a foss) are plentiful. I saw Dentalfoss, Permafoss, Candyfoss, Jackfoss, and more. But BC is beautiful as well—it even says so on our licence plates.

How about bad habits? Smoking rates in our two countries are similar, and when it comes to alcohol, Icelandic people are descended from Vikings so horns of ale abound. I decided the answer must lie in the local diet so I scanned in detail the first restaurant menu I was given—mostly lamb, fish, and cheese. Farther down the list I noticed I could order shark, whale, horse, and puffin. Other cultures consume the first three, but cute little puffins? (By the way, it takes a few to make a meal.) Fruit and vegetables are rare, likely due to the fact they are hard to grow on cold volcanic rock. Icelandic people also love hotdogs, which don’t appear on any top 10 healthy lists. I had one, which was delicious mostly due to the crumbled Icelandic delicacy lining the bun—I think they are locally known as Doritos. So the mystery isn’t revealed in the diet.

Perhaps the people are in better physical condition. I did notice a lot of pools and gyms. They also love soccer (football) and 10% of the population accompanied their team to last year’s World Cup. I haven’t heard of any famous Icelandic cyclists as their 90 km per hour paved roads don’t have shoulders, so they are probably all dead. But Canadians are a pretty fit bunch as we all play hockey. (Well, I don’t, but the rest of you do.)

So maybe the answer was to be found in a couple of other interesting Icelandic facts. Iceland has the lowest population density of any European country at three people per square kilometre. Also, Icelandic couples often don’t get married—they just don’t see the need for it.

Perhaps the secret to health lies in the abundance of sheep, I next wondered. You can hike up a remote mountain, and around some corner sitting in a crevasse will be three sheep staring back at you. Apparently the farmers put them out in the late spring and round them up in the fall. They are all tagged to show which farm they are from, so the mischievous part of me wanted to pack a few of them in my car, drive them to the other end of the country, and release them there. The chance of being pulled over by police was slim; I saw only two officers (they don’t carry guns) during the whole trip and, you guessed it, it was at a bakery (donut shop). However, Canada also has a lot of sheep and even more cows, so I don’t think the answer lies in cloven hoofs.

So after 2 weeks of extensive scientific study I concluded the secret to health and happiness is this: don’t get married, don’t have neighbors, do eat puffin. Either that or drink like a Viking.     

David R. Richardson, MD. The secret to Icelandic health and happiness. BCMJ, Vol. 61, No. 8, October, 2019, Page(s) 308 - Editorials.

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