Iceland Mag

3 Reykjavik

Iceland Mag

Culture

NYT finds geothermal public pools key to social harmony and well-being in Iceland

By Magnús Sveinn Helgason

  • The best Iceland has to offer Visiting Iceland without visiting one of the great public pools is like visiting New York and stubbornly refusing to ever look up at the skyscrapers. It just makes no sense. Photo/Lily Stockman.

A large feature about Icelandic public pools in the New York Times Magazine argues that the 120+ geothermally heated public pools are a key reason for Icelandic happiness and well-being. The pools are of course a place where people can swim, but they also offer a shared public space where people gather to meet others and discuss current affairs or spend time in introspective relaxation, the author finds.

Read more: In deep waters: Iceland's best swimming pools

The author, Dan Kois, is fascinated with the culture of Icelandic swimming pools and their centrality to Icelandic society and Icelandic culture.

"Every Icelandic town, no matter how small, has its own pool. There areramshackle cement rectangles squatting under rain clouds in the sheep-strewn boonies. There are fancy aquatic complexes with multilevel hot tubsand awesomely dangerous water slides of the sort that litigious American culture would never allow. … These public pools, or sundlaugs, serve as the communal heart of Iceland, sacred places whose affordability and ubiquity are viewed as a kind of civil right. Families and teenagers and older people lounge and chat insundlaugs every day, summer or winter."

Study after study has found that Icelanders are remarkably content with life, despite long and dark winters, coupled with rainy, cold and short summers. A recent study found that Icelanders are among the happiest people in the world, and a second study found that the ease of communication between Icelandic children and young adults and their parents is among the greatest in the world.

Read more: Study: Ease of communication between Icelandic children and their parents among the greatest in the world

Read more: Icelanders more pleased with life than most nations

The NYT article argues positive social characteristics like these could be explained by the public pools.

"The more local swimming pools I visited, the more convinced I became that Icelanders’ remarkable satisfaction is tied inextricably to the experience of escaping the fierce, freezing air and sinking into warm water among their countrymen. The pools are more than a humble municipal investment, more than just a civic perquisite that emerged from an accident of Iceland’s volcanic geology. They seem to be, in fact, a key to Icelandic well-being."

The most important contribution the pools offer, the article argues, is that they force people to bathe in the nude, something which fosters both a sense of social harmony and solidarity, as well as individualistic self-awareness:

"But near-nudity, by encouraging a slight remove from others, also allows the visitor to focus, in a profound and unfamiliar way, on his own body, on its responses and needs. Despite its being a social hub, the pool also cultivates inwardness."

Read more: Video: Beware of the Icelandic vigilante shower wardens

At the same time the pools and the mandatory washing in the nude reminds people that bodies and people come in all shapes and sizes:

I admit I found this disconcerting at first, but eventually there was something comforting about seeing all those other chests and butts and guts — which for the most part belonged to normal human-¬being bodies, not sculpted masterpieces. And that comfort extends out into the pool proper, where you might be covered — only a little, in my case — but are still on display.

Head over to the NYTimes to read the full thing – it’s a great essay on Iceland and Icelandic culture!

 

Related content

Editor's Picks