Are Latin Americans the happiest and most positive people on the planet? Despite a lack of material wealth, high life expectancy or access to higher education, nations in Central America and northern South America topped a recent Gallup poll measuring positive emotions across 148 countries.
The poll, released Wednesday, shows that nations in Latin America scored well above famously happy Bhutan and accounted for seven out of the top 10 countries for positive emotions worldwide. Only Trinidad and Tobago (at No. 5), Thailand (at No. 6) and the Philippines (at No. 8) were able to displace Latin American nations in the top 10 (though Trinidad and Tobago lies within the same region).
“These data may surprise analysts and leaders who solely focus on traditional economic indicators,” Gallup researcher Jon Clifton noted. “Residents of Panama, which ranks 90th in the world with respect to GDP per capita, are among the most likely to report positive emotions. Residents of Singapore, which ranks fifth in the world in terms of GDP per capita, are the least likely to report positive emotions.”
Paraguay (No. 2), El Salvador (No. 3), Venezuela (No. 4), Guatemala (No. 7), Ecuador (No. 9) and Costa Rica (No. 10) all joined Panama on the top of the list.
The poll shows that higher income levels and more stability do not necessarily equate to greater well-being. In Guatemala, decades of civil war left a legacy of societal violence that gives the largely impoverished nation one of the highest murder rates in the word. Moreover, the U.N.’s Human Development Index puts Guatemala near the bottom of its list, on par with Iraq. Yet, Guatemalans appear to be some of the happiest people on the planet.
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The survey results match up to a similar theory devised by Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman and Princeton economist Angus Deaton. The pair found that in the United States, money only makes people happier up to a point: about $75,000 annually. After that, further income does not make much of a difference. In theory, this metric could be applied to other countries by adjusting the income level.
Clifton believes societies like Singapore that are doing well on traditional economic indicators “need to do more to incorporate well-being into their leadership strategies.” Other surprisingly low-ranking developed nations include debt crisis flashpoints Greece and Italy as well as South Korea. Canada, Netherlands, Ireland and Denmark, meanwhile, all cracked the top 20.
As for the United States, it comes in at 33rd, tied with Chile, Sweden, China and Swaziland.
Gallup’s poll complements research from other outlets in the relatively new and somewhat controversial field of "happiness economics." In April, world leaders gathered for a high-level event at the U.N. General Assembly in New York hosted by the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan to look at the happiest countries in the world and discuss how to put happiness on the global agenda.
So what happened in Turtle Bay? More than you may think. It turns out happiness research is one of the hottest fields in development economics, and the government in the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu may just have a thing or two to teach our world leaders.
Nearly 40 years ago, the grandfather of the current constitutional monarch, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel, initiated the idea of an alternate model to GDP as a measurement of national progress. The 800,000-person kingdom -- where the per capita income is an estimated $670 -- has become a Mecca for Western policymakers seeking knowledge on national happiness in the globalized world.
Indeed the debate is growing over how to best set public policy to boost well-being. But how exactly does one put metrics to such an intangible. The data-based World Happiness Report delivered to the U.N. in April, for instance, does not include a single Latin American nation in the top 10, but rather a collection of wealthy Northern European countries, plus New Zealand and Australia.
Gallup, however, went straight to the source. It compiled its list by asking 1,000 people in each of the 148 nations surveyed five questions about whether they experienced a lot of enjoyment the day before and if they felt respected, well-rested, laughed and smiled a lot, and did or learned something interesting.
Gallup found that 85 percent of adults worldwide felt they were treated with respect all day, 72 percent smiled and laughed a lot, 73 percent felt enjoyment most of the day and 72 percent felt well-rested.
Overall, the results paint a positive picture of a generally happy planet. The World Happiness Report also found that happiness is on the rise. While the researchers may see different nations as leaders, they both agree that happiness, no matter how overly idealistic it sounds, should be used as a measure of a successful government.