During the half-century since Iceland became an independent nation, the standard of living has improved greatly and is now comparable with the highest in the world.
Great emphasis is placed on the worth of every individual in society: it is important in a small nation, and a difficult land, that each and everyone makes a contribution. Most people work long days and it is common for young people to work part-time while at school. Industriousness is considered to be people’s prize quality and energy or motivational drive is probably what people are most praised for. This is, however, not all good: long workdays, surely often entailing suffering where parents have young children, has its dark side. The desire for top quality material goods, the so-called race for the good things in life (in Icelandic, the “lífsgæðakapphlaup”) seems to many to have gone too far. It may be interesting at this point to look at the way Icelanders see themselves.
What is Meritorious in Icelandic Eyes?
In the autumn of 1999 a survey was undertaken to discover what virtues Icelanders valued most. The impetus for the survey was the 1000th anniversary of Christianity in the country. An attempt was made to find out the personal position of all. The poll made it clear that Icelanders reckon the following to be the most important qualities: honesty, frankness, a positive attitude, confidence, energy and drive, strong friendships and family bonds, and health. Honesty was the merit which most people wanted to have themselves, and they felt it was what they particularly wanted to see in the character of others.
The results of the survey suggest that Icelanders rely on their own motivational drive or efficiency and prize family and friendship greatly. In both their own conduct and that of others, they most value qualities which concern relationships and a positive attitude to life. According to the survey, they value family ties and bonds of friendship more than, for example, education, health, and career advancement. This goes hand in hand with the intense family and genealogical concern which is distinctive of Icelanders and which manifests, amongst other things, in genealogical research and the large quantity of publication of all kinds of genealogical books. Further, Icelanders are energetic in holding family gatherings, popular with both the young and old.
Throughout the centuries, Icelanders have boasted that they are scholars and authors, that they preserve the old tales, and that they are more cultured and learned than other nations. This is not really consistent with the little value they appear to attach to education. When questioned as to what people might value most in the characters of others, less than 1 percent nominated education or knowledge. This is clarified somewhat if one looks at answers to more precise questions: it then comes to light that 70% of people believe that education is less important than the desire to do what is expected of you, and 65% believe that a self-educated person is as good as those who have a long schooling behind them. This suggests that Icelanders trust their own common sense and do not think too much of formal education.
One may assume that the smallness of the society and its isolation has some influence on the emphases which were revealed by the survey.