[Paleopsych] NYT: If No Icelanders Admit to Feeling Blue, Are They?

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If No Icelanders Admit to Feeling Blue, Are They?
NYT December 2, 2004

REYKJAVIK, Iceland - What do residents of the world's
northernmost capital do to stave off depression in the dead
of winter, when darkness settles over them like a shroud?

"Depression? I don't think I have ever experienced feeling
depressed," declared Gustaf Adolf Hjaltason, a maritime
surveyor who spends his evenings coaching a high-school
swimming team.

"When you survey a ship in the dark, in fact, you can't see
as much, and it's cold and it feels like the middle of the
night," he went on, trying to articulate what he likes
about winter, and beginning to sound a bit less chipper.
"Of course, you get used to everything."

Iceland demands that its residents get used to things, and
they respond with a Viking stoicism born of more than 1,000
years of living on inhospitable volcanic rock. They are
used to being scarcely populated - some 290,000 people, at
last count, spread over 39,756 square miles. They are used
to jokes about elves, and to eating things like reindeer
pâté and dried puffin strips.

Most of all, they are inured, as the great Icelandic
novelist Halldor Laxness put it, to "the monotony of
horizonless winter days."

Studies conducted over the last several years have found
that Icelanders suffer less from winter-related depression
than people in many southern climates, including those on
the East Coast of the United States.

"It seems they can manage and keep going in the wintertime;
they don't get slowed down and don't become apathetic,"
said Andres Magnusson, a psychiatrist at the University of
Iceland who has worked on several studies on Icelanders and
depression. While some have speculated that their
cheeriness is due to high fish consumption, Mr. Magnusson
said that it appeared to be a genetic adaptation, the
result of centuries of living in adverse lighting

Many Icelanders claim that winter, which lasts until May
and at its height provides only four hours of feeble light
a day, is their favorite season. They look forward, they
say, to snuggling up by candlelight in front of their
geothermally powered radiators. (Few Icelandic homes have

"It can be very romantic," said Bryndi Olfafsdottir, who
works at a public swimming pool. "Actually, though, I would
like to live in Spain."

To some, the darkness is a relief.

"As a matter of fact,
when summer is finished - when it has been two months of
nothing but brightness - then I'm waiting for the winter,"
said 26-year-old Theodor Kristjansson, frothing up some
cappuccinos at the Café Paris in downtown Reykjavik. "It's
more cozy."

Of course, "a lot of people just watch TV, sleep and work,"
he conceded. "When you wake up it's dark, and when you
finish work it's dark, and you never know what time it is.
I get very tired." He was almost ready to talk himself out
of his stated position.

"I'd like to go someplace that's not Iceland," he said
suddenly, "although I think I would always come back."

Sitting at his usual table at the cafe with his usual
entourage of five coffee-drinking friends, Gunnar Dal, a
renowned novelist and philosopher, described the darkness
as "just another shade of light." When you commune alone
with the cold and the dark under the starry Icelandic sky,
he said, "you're nearer to your own soul; you realize that
you're there for a purpose.

"Sometimes people say they get depressive, but for me
depression is a very powerful creator," he continued. "You
can be very happy even when you're depressed. Laughing
people aren't necessarily happy, and a crying man is not
necessarily sad."

Mr. Dal, 82, recommends daily swigs of cod-liver oil -
usually referred to here as Lysi, after the most popular
brand, as ubiquitous as Coca-Cola - as a surefire mood
enhancer, better than Prozac. "It's almost as good as
garlic," he said.

Across town, Siggi Gislason was partaking of his own form
of antidepressive therapy: soaking in an outdoor geothermal
pool in a tiny Speedo bathing suit as freezing winds
slapped him on the face. Chatting in such pools, which are
like hot tubs without the swingers (or Californians), is a
popular social activity during the long winter nights.

"There are nice things to the winter," said Mr. Gislason,
who is 26 and is studying for a master's degree in civil
engineering. "Yesterday, I was coming home from work and I
saw the Northern Lights. I felt like a small creature in a
big world, part of a great creation."

Handling the winter darkness, Mr. Gislason said, requires
the same set of skills as negotiating the giddy constant
light of summer, without the urgent need for heavy

Einar Arason, Mr. Gislason's 34-year-old neighbor in the
hot pot, said he liked staying at home and reading. Most
Icelandic books are published just before Christmas, when
book buying skyrockets.

"I'm not the outgoing type, always doing stuff socially,"
said Mr. Arason, a teacher. He has never considered the
dark an issue. "For we who live here, it's always been like
this," he said.

So, does the fact that no one in Iceland admits to being
depressed mean that no one is, in fact, depressed?

Don't believe it, said Bjorg Sveinsdottir, a
psychotherapist finishing her coffee at Café Paris.

Having overheard other customers extolling the joys of
darkness, she felt compelled to present an alternative
view. When the sky is black, she said, her patients can get
very blue.

"In many surveys, Icelandic people come across as happy
people," Ms. Sveinsdottir said. "Everyone wants to show a
brave face. If you say that you are sad, then you are seen
as being weak. It's a way of coping, with gritted teeth."

Ms. Sveinsdottir, who admitted to being perhaps "too in
touch with my emotions," said she was having trouble
readjusting to the Icelandic winter after living for a time
in London.

That city has its own light-related issues, but all things
are relative.

"In London, the climate was wonderful compared to here,"
Ms. Sveinsdottir said wistfully. "I felt I was living in


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