The Frontal Cortex

Iceland, apparently, is the happiest country on earth:

Highest birth rate in Europe + highest divorce rate + highest percentage of women working outside the home = the best country in the world in which to live. There has to be something wrong with this equation. Put those three factors together – loads of children, broken homes, absent mothers – and what you have, surely, is a recipe for misery and social chaos. But no. Iceland, the block of sub-Arctic lava to which these statistics apply, tops the latest table of the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Index rankings, meaning that as a society and as an economy – in terms of wealth, health and education – they are champions of the world. To which one might respond: Yes, but – what with the dark winters and the far from tropical summers – are Icelanders happy? Actually, in so far as one can reliably measure such things, they are. According to a seemingly serious academic study in 2006, Icelanders are the happiest people on earth. (The study was lent some credibility by the finding that the Russians were the most unhappy.)

This leads Tyler Cowen to make an interesting observation:

I was wondering whether the proclivity of Icelanders to leave their country (many are highly educated and speak fluent English and thus pursue opportunities elsewhere) somehow counts against these happiness claims. But oddly I think not. In part it is their intelligence and balance that makes them want to explore other locales. In percentage terms, hardly any Japanese leave Japan but this counts against the happiness of the country rather than for it.

I think you can understand this data as sort of a geopolitical version of attachment theory, where happiness and wandering go hand in hand. Pioneered by John Bowlby in the 1950′s, attachment theory is rooted in the idea of there being a consistent tradeoff between safety and exploration. Howlby noticed that, when young children felt safe, they were more likely to play, explore and keep themselves happy. However, as soon as they detected some ambient danger, they suddenly switched into safety mode, which often means clinging to mom.*

Mary Ainsworth, in a series of experiments in the 1960′s, provided the best demonstration of attachment theory. Here is how Jonathan Haidt, in his wonderful book The Happiness Hypothesis, describes it:

In about two-thirds of American children, [Ainsworth found that] the system does just what Bowlby said it should, that is, shift smoothly between play and security-seeking as the situation changes. Children following this pattern, called “secure” attachment, reduce or stop their play when their mothers leave, and then show anxiety, which the stranger cannot fully relieve. When the mom returns, these children show delight, often moving toward her or touching her to reestablish contact with their secure base, but then they quickly settle down and return to play. In the other third of children, the scene changes are more awkward; these children have one of two types of insecure attachment. The majority of them don’t seem to care very much about whether mom comes or goes, although subsequent physiological research showed that they are indeed distressed by the separation. Rather, these children seem to be supressing their distress by trying to manage it on their own…Ainsworth called this pattern “avoidant” attachment. The remaining children, about 12 percent in the United States, are anxious and clingy throughout the study…Ainsworth called this pattern “resistant”.

Ainsworth would later make some sweeping generalizations about how differences in mothering caused these behavioral differences. You can probably guess what she found: warm and responsive mothers had children with “secure” attachments, while cold and unresponsive mothers had kids with “avoidant” attachments. Finally, mothers who were unpredictable – they were sometimes warm but often not – had “resistant” children.

Obviously, these are tremendous oversimplifications. In fact, subsequent studies have found a very limited correlation between mothering style and attachment mode. (Genetics and peer groups probably play a more significant role.) The point, though, is that there is some sort of relationship between safety, happiness and a willingness to explore. It makes sense that Icelanders, much like young children, are more willing to travel abroad when they grow up feeling happy and secure.

*I wonder if growing up in a country with an established welfare state (ie, strong social safety net) makes you more willing to travel abroad. But then you’d expect lots of Japanese to live abroad, right?


  1. #1 Lab Cat
    May 21, 2008

    I agree with the attachment theory for immigration but you are making it too broad. The main reason I was able to move to the US from the UK was because my parents made me confident and secure. This effected me more directly than the British welfare state.

    Since, in Iceland, more women are working outside the home and people are generally happier and more confident, their children are too?

  2. #2 mogmich
    May 21, 2008

    According to the british magazine “The Economist” Iceland is also the most peaceful country in the world.

    See this “Global Peace Index”:

  3. #3 Manduca
    May 21, 2008

    It amazes me that people look at the correlation between “cold” mother and “avoidant” child and blame the mother for the child’s behavior. Correlation is not causation. Isn’t it just as likely that the “avoidant” child makes the mother less warm? (Being the parent of a child with Asperger’s, I actually see this second causation direction as more likely. How hard will someone push affection on a child who never returns it?)

  4. #4 Layla
    May 21, 2008

    Maybe they leave because they like whales

  5. #5 Robert
    May 22, 2008

    I lived in Iceland in the 70′s… the people are almost uniformly intelligent, thoughtful, and caring. The northern latitude and ensuing darkness for a good portion of the year does lead to depression and drinking. I wonder if a lot aren’t trying to leave that part behind. But I loved living there.

  6. #6 Rose Wilson
    May 22, 2008

    Is it possible that unhappy Icelanders go somewhere else, leaving the happy ones behind?