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Good Reads: Volcanoes, guillotines, and the key to happiness

A look at modern France, and a profile of revolutionary villain Maximilien Robespierre; the American recovery and the very happy people of Iceland. Here are this week's good reads. 

By Scott BaldaufCorrespondent / August 18, 2012

Happy people

Close your eyes. Now, imagine your vision of the happiest place on earth. It’s an island, of course, but it’s a volcanic island, so there is a faint smell of sulfur in the air, and the chance of getting buried in hot ash. You’ll love the long summer nights, but you’ll need a bit of fish oil to see you through the long winters, because you’re close to the Arctic Circle.

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Yes, Iceland is the third-happiest place on earth, after Denmark and Costa Rica, according to Robert Lavine, writing in The Atlantic magazine. What makes Icelanders so happy, writes Mr. Lavine, a clinical psychologist from Virginia, is not the lack of challenges – indeed, Icelanders have cold winters, a shaky economy, and the threat of volcanic annihilation – but rather the fact that they meet these challenges with stoicism and a communal spirit. Faced with difficulty, Icelanders know they need each other to survive, and they find that they actually enjoy each other’s company.

In the midst of an American election campaign, where vice-presidential candidates are debating the merits of the self-interest theories of novelist Ayn Rand, what can one make of the happiness of a place like Iceland? Surely the country’s European-style social-democratic policies, with nine-month paid paternity leave, life-time health care, long life expectancy, low crime rates, and expensive clean-energy policies would be a one-way ticket to demographic disaster, right?

Wrong. Iceland’s economy, which crashed in 2008, is now growing at a respectable 2.8 percent. Economists, you have some explaining to do.

Not-so happy people

Here in the United States, Americans might wish they lived in the shadow of volcanoes to get a sliver of Icelandic happiness. America's economic recovery – the subject of much debate in this presidential election year – appears to be slowing, meaning that America’s relatively high unemployment rate of 8.2 percent may be around for a while.

This is a great time for people with calculators and pie charts, but not so great for people who like things explained to them with words. The helpful economists at Deutsche Bank inform us that economic recoveries generally run out of steam after 39 months, so America’s 36-month expansion may be coming to an end.

The Council on Foreign Relations has a handy set of graphs that compare our current economic recovery with past recoveries, which again, is unlikely to make one break out the credit card in celebration.

But the news is not all glum, and Michael Grunwald, a senior national correspondent at Time magazine, writes in this week’s Foreign Policy magazine that the Obama administration’s financial policies have performed better than they have been given credit for by conservative critics. There is no question that times are bad. But without fiscal stimulus, they could be a lot worse.


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