Adventure Islands Iceland Iceland Reykjavik Philosophy

The Sound of a Happiness Revolution?

Written by Stuart Wickes

Is this the sound of a happiness revolution?

After making music with carrots, I figure I should be able to cope with an Icelandic Happiness Workshop for families. Not that I feel I need it, I don’t feel unhappy, but I am curious; why is happiness is on the festival agenda and what exactly will they do to me to make me feel happier? What is the connection between happiness and money? And could this be the start of a happiness revolution?

No pots and pans but drums in Reykjavik’s City Hall

I am sitting in a circle, sweating and banging a drum as loud as I can. Outside the sun bounces off Lake Tjornin and streams into Reykjavik’s City Hall, pushing up the temperature and forcing me to squint. Around me thirty kids and parents are drumming away, including my lot. Matthew’s on his feet next to me beating the taut skin of a djembe like it was his brother, while Cameron’s beating him back on a bongo. Hannah’s tinging a triangle and Kirstie’s giving a hand drum what for. It sounds surprisingly good; rhythmic, energetic, pulsating; happy. And I feel good.

Drumming Workshop Reykjavik Children's Festival

I feel happier when he hits the drum rather than his brother

I wonder if the Icelandic pots and pans revolution sounded like this? That protest, following the collapse of the Icelandic economy in 2008, took place very near City Hall. I don’t think people were smiling then. But they are now. At least in this circle.

What happens when a beat becomes a crash?

The crash of 2008 was disastrous not just for the Icelandic economy but for the Icelandic people. It touched everyone and wiped out any sense of financial well being or security. Organiser of the Reykjavik Children’s Cultural Festival Karen Maria Jonsdottir told us they had to rethink many things after the crash. “In one split second everything was gone and it was really clear that it was not coming back. It was interesting to see what happened when everything was taken away. We had to look within and ask what can we do here? We had the space to think differently.”

She thinks it made people re-assess what matters in life, reminded them of the importance of family, nature, simplicity, and sustainability. Made them question the links between happiness and money. Perhaps the resurgence of wool here symbolises something of this, the desire to use something real and natural to create something warm, useful, practical, comforting. Perhaps that’s why guerrilla knitting is so in fashion too.

Guerilla Knitting in Reykjavik

Guerrilla knitting seems to be quite in vogue around Reykjavik

Can happiness be passed in tiny squeezes?

I am sitting in a circle holding hands with strangers. The drums are all gone now and I’m looking out upon a new set of faces. There’s maybe fifteen of us, adults and kids, filling the circular space between us with smiles. I’m not quite sure how I ended up here, passing happiness around the ring in tiny squeezes of each other’s hands. But it feels good. It’s simple and connecting. And, surprisingly, it does seem to generate happiness.

When the crash happened many Icelanders weren’t sure how they got there and weren’t happy about it either, hence the pots and pans. During the boom years many people gave up traditional Icelandic trades to get a slice of the money sloshing around Icelandic banks. It was easy then to swap fishing for flash cars, funky apartments and fat bank accounts. Some came to believe they had it all; the dream life, all the gadgets money could buy, happiness in abundance and not just on the Friday night runtur. And then the boom went bust.

Looking out towards wilds of Iceland from Reykjavik bay

Where do you look for happiness when it seems like you’ve lost everything?

The Icelandic experience of the crash seems to hold important reminders about money, materialism and happiness. And sitting in this little circle, watching mums, dads and kids squeeze giggles of happiness around the ring, I can see, hear and feel how family is an important part of the ongoing recovery here.

Iceland’s not your normal ‘family friendly’

Family is important in most island communities and so too in Iceland. Judging from what we’ve seen at this festival in Reykjavik, parents here love to do things with their children, whether it’s playing board games, making elf-houses or making music with carrots.

And this family oriented culture rubs off on the tourist industry too. But it’s not your normal ‘family friendly’ – you won’t find things like theme parks or fun factories in Iceland; they don’t really do ‘attractions for kids.’ But Dora Magnusdottir, Marketing Manager for Visit Reykjavik says that’s because attractions are everywhere, “You have to embrace what you see. The core idea for family tourism is simplicity.”

Family Games day at Reykjavik Children's Festival

Hundreds of people turned up to play family board games in City Hall

Simplicity doesn’t mean no fun. You can take the kids walking behind a waterfall at Seljalandsfoss in the south. You can swim in hot pools just about everywhere. You can play on big black sandy beaches without having to compete with the sunbed brigade. You can rent bikes and explore deserted gravel tracks that seem to lead to the moon. The ingredients for happiness are everywhere.

Happiness is not a fast car, flash apartment or five figure salary (although I still think all of those sound great); happiness is in nature, simplicity, family and friends. And in a smile and a tiny squeeze passed from one person to another.

Happiness is free. Do you want some?

This post is part of our Iceland Season.  We visited Reykjavik for the Children’s Culture Festival and spent a summer exploring the wilder parts of the country expedition style by car and bike.  We’re grateful to Visit Reykjavik, Icelandair and Icelandair Hotels for support in helping to bring you stories from the Reykjavik Children’s Culture Festival. 

Read more from our Icelandic Spring Reykjavik Children’s Festival season:


About the author

Stuart Wickes

Stuart's the adventure addict half of the team, always trying to persuade the family to get out, do more, go further. As co-founder and co-director he handles the business, creative, design, technical and publishing aspects of the project. He is our chief photographer and videographer. With training as a professional learning and development consultant. an engineer and musician, his contribution is eclectic and unpredictable!


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We're Kirstie & Stuart. We share an adventurous spirit, a passion for indie travel and 3 kids. The Family Adventure Project is our long term experiment in doing active, adventurous things together. Find out more...


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