Lessons from Iceland



Iceland has long been regarded an enigma with respect to the national characteristics of other countries, namely the United States of America. On one hand, Iceland and the United States demonstrate various similarities in the historical, political, and economic sectors. As a result of these congruencies, the United States is able to learn from the problems Iceland has experienced and address similar issues at home. However, for all the features the United States and Iceland may share, the two nations greatly differ in terms of cultural and scientific matters. Fortunately, many of these differences have translated into positive lessons that Americans can take from the Icelandic experience.

Primarily, Jónsson (2009) outlines the various similarities between Iceland and the United States. He notes that both nations were founded by independent groups of immigrants, a fact which supplies the “curious parallel between the origins” of the nations (p. 7). This historical similarity is also reflected in the countries’ political realms. Remarkably, the words of Iceland’s and America’s founding fathers have persisted in the sagas and the Declaration of Independence, respectively. Moreover, the early Icelandic commonwealth resembled that of the Jeffersonian democracy in the United States (Jónsson, 2009, p. 7). In addition to historical and political likeness, Iceland and the United States also exhibit common themes in their national character. While citizens of the United States are notorious for exhibiting the “American ego,” Iceland is “distinguished by a relentless, sometimes crazed assurance today that a nation of 300,000 people can triumph over other nations…no matter how large the opponent looms” (Jónsson, 2009, p. 9). Unfortunately, these qualities provided the catalyst behind the economic demise of each nation.

Lewis (2009) describes how Icelanders themselves attribute their nation’s bankruptcy to their “natural superiority,” a notion reinforced by President Grimsson who claimed “our heritage and training, our culture and home market, have provided a valuable advantage” in the economic realm (p. 10). Iceland’s monetary woes are reminiscent of the American financial crisis as Icelanders, like Americans, bought “as many assets as possible with borrowed money, as asset prices only rose” (Lewis, 2009, p. 7). Although both countries experienced similar fiscal dilemmas, America was able to recover while the proportion of Iceland’s losses was too great for the nation to bear: “Iceland instantly became the only nation on earth that Americans could point to and say, ‘Well, at least we didn’t do that,’” (p. 2). Despite the varying degrees of turmoil felt in the respective countries, the parallel nature of both crises permits the United States to observe the aftermath of the Icelandic bankruptcy. America now may take appropriate measures to ensure that such a fate does not befall our own nation.

While comparable conditions in Iceland and America have yielded similar problems in the countries, both nations differ in cultural and scientific regards. Weiner (2009) analyzes the relative happiness that pervades Icelandic culture. Herein resides the fundamental cultural difference between the two nations; while Weiner reports that Iceland consistently ranks as one of the happiest nations in the world, he emulates the typical American “grump” on his quest for contentment (p. 142). The nation’s affinity for writing presents a potential source for Icelandic bliss. Virtually all Icelanders engage in some form of writing, and “as any poet (or blogger) knows, misery expressed is misery reduced” (Weiner, 2009, p. 158). However, Icelanders tend to wear many “hats” in addition to those of poets and bloggers. Working in several spheres of expertise is conducive to happiness, a concept which “runs counter to the prevailing belief in the United States…where specialization is considered the highest good” (p. 161).

In addition to the countries’ cultural distinctions, Iceland and the United States also vary in the scientific sector. This dissimilarity fundamentally lies in the nations’ research environments. Whereas America is marked by profuse heterogeneity, Iceland is a “remote island where nearly every genetic possibility could be examined with the kind of detail that would be impossible anywhere else,” including the United States (Specter, 1999, p. 41). As a result of the nation’s unique demography, Iceland serves as an arena for genetic studies whose outcomes will surely impact the rest of the world (Specter, 1999, p. 46). Alas, these studies have raised various concerns regarding medical ethics. Many Icelanders are worried about jeopardizing patients’ privacy and violating medical ethics standards (Specter, 1999, p. 44). This regard for conducting science in a morally conscious fashion is a principle which can be applied to numerous fields. Icelanders’ concern for the ethical management of sensitive genetic information is certainly a positive lesson that the United States can take from the Icelandic experience.

Interestingly, the nation of Iceland has afforded the United States various learning opportunities which have stemmed from similarities as well as differences between the two countries. We as Americans can learn from the Icelandic environment which in many ways starkly contrasts from our own. At the same time, we are able to apply Icelandic principles to our own practices thanks to the congruencies that exist between both nations. However, our ability to make comparisons between Iceland and the United States translates into understandings that reach beyond our own nation. In considering the historical, cultural, scientific, political, and economic matters of Iceland, we also stand to gain a holistic understanding, and even an appreciation for, the complexities and eccentricities of the nation, people, and culture of Iceland. Such an understanding will surely prove to be infinitely favorable in an age focused on global cohesiveness.


Jónsson, A. (2009). Why Iceland?. United States of America: McGraw-Hill.
Lewis, M. (2009). Wall Street on the tundra. Vanity Fair, 1-17. Retrieved from http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/.../iceland200904...
Specter, M. (1999, January 1). Decoding Iceland. The New Yorker, 40-51.
Weiner, E. (2009). The geography of bliss: One grump's search for the happiest places in the world. New York, NY: Hachette Book Group.


By: Michelle Maley
Major: Business Management & Operations, Political Science
Expected graduation date: May 2013
Hometown: Rosalia, WA

When one thinks of Iceland, some of the first things that come to mind are tiny ponies and recording artist Björk; at least that was the case for me. Fortunately, writing this review paper gave me the opportunity to broaden my knowledge of Icelandic culture and history. I was able to compare common features between Iceland and America, and to relate experiences in Iceland to similar events in the United States.