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Where would you find the happiest people in the world?

Published Dec 20, 2012 09:12am


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Clowns pose for a group photo before a mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. A poll released Wednesday of nearly 150,000 people around the world says seven of the world’s 10 countries with the most upbeat attitudes are in Latin America.-Photo by Reuters

MEXICO CITY:  The world’s happiest people aren’t in Qatar, the richest country by most measures. They aren’t in Japan, the nation with the highest life expectancy. Canada, with its chart-topping percentage of college graduates, doesn’t make the top 10.

A poll released of nearly 150,000 people around the world says seven of the world’s 10 countries with the most upbeat attitudes are in Latin America.

Many of the seven do poorly in traditional measures of well-being, like Guatemala, a country torn by decades of civil war followed by waves of gang-driven criminality that give it one of the highest homicide rates in the world . Guatemala sits just above Iraq on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, a composite of life expectancy, education and per capita income. But it ranks seventh in positive emotions.

“In Guatemala, it’s a culture of friendly people who are always smiling,” said Luz Castillo, a 30-year-old surfing instructor. “Despite all the problems that we’re facing, we’re surrounded by natural beauty that lets us get away from it all.”

Gallup Inc. asked about 1,000 people in each of 148 countries last year if they were well-rested, had been treated with respect, smiled or laughed a lot, learned or did something interesting and felt feelings of enjoyment the previous day.

In Panama and Paraguay, 85 per cent of those polled said yes to all five, putting those countries at the top of the list. They were followed closely by El Salvador, Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago, Thailand, Guatemala, the Philippines, Ecuador and Costa Rica.

The people least likely to report positive emotions lived in Singapore, the wealthy and orderly city-state that ranks among the most developed in the world . Other wealthy countries also sat surprisingly low on the list. Germany and France tied with the poor African state of Somaliland for 47th place.

Prosperous nations can be deeply unhappy ones. And poverty-stricken ones are often awash in positivity, or at least a close approximation of it.

It’s a paradox with serious implications for a relatively new and controversial field called happiness economics that seeks to improve government performance by adding people’s perceptions of their satisfaction to traditional metrics such as life expectancy, per capita income and graduation rates.

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan famously measures policies by their impact on a concept called Gross National Happiness .

British Prime Minister David Cameron announced a national well-being program in 2010 as part of a pledge to improve Britons’ lives in the wake of the global recession. A household survey sent to 200,000 Britons asks questions like “How satisfied are you with your life nowadays?”

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which unites 34 of the world’s most advanced countries, recently created a Better Life Index allowing the public to compare countries based on quality of life in addition to material well-being.

Some experts say that’s a dangerous path that could allow governments to use positive public perceptions as an excuse to ignore problems. As an example of the risks, some said, the Gallup poll may have been skewed by a Latin American cultural proclivity to avoid negative statements regardless of how one actually feels.

“My immediate reaction is that this influenced by cultural biases,” said Eduardo Lora, who studied the statistical measurement of happiness as the former chief economist of the Inter-American Development Bank

“What the empirical literature says is that some cultures tend to respond to any type of question in a more positive way,” said Lora, a native of Colombia, the 11th most-positive country.

For the nine least positive countries, some were not surprising, like Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Haiti. For others at the bottom, Armenia at the second lowest spot, Georgia and Lithuania, misery is something a little more ephemeral.

“Feeling unhappy is part of the national mentality here,” said Agaron Adibekian, a sociologist in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. “Armenians like being mournful; there have been so many upheavals in the nation’s history. The Americans keep their smiles on and avoid sharing their problems with others. And the Armenians feel ashamed about being successful.”

The United States was No. 33 in positive outlook. Latin America’s biggest economies, Mexico and Brazil, sat more than 20 places further down the list.

Jon Clifton, a partner at Gallup, acknowledged the poll partly measured cultures’ overall tendency to express emotions, positive or negative. But he said skeptics shouldn’t undervalue the expression of positive emotion as an important phenomenon in and of itself.

“Those expressions are a reality, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to quantify,” he said. “I think there is higher positive emotionality in these countries.”

Some Latin Americans said the poll hit something fundamental about their countries: a habit of focusing on posivites such as friends, family and religion despite daily lives that can be grindingly difficult. Singapore sits 32 places higher than Panama on the Human Development Index, but at the opposite end of the happiness list. And things weren’t looking good to Richard Low, a 33-year-old businessman in the prosperous Asian metropolis.

“We work like dogs and get paid peanuts. There’s hardly any time for holidays or just to relax in general because you’re always thinking ahead: when the next deadline or meeting is. There is hardly a fair sense of work-life balance here,” he said.

In Paraguay, tied with Panama as the most-positive country while doing far worse than Panama by objective measures, street vendor Maria Solis said tough economic conditions were no reason to despair.

“Life is short and there are no reasons to be sad because even if we were rich, there would still be problems,” she said while selling herbs used for making tea. “We have to laugh at ourselves.”


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Comments (10) Closed

Francis Dec 20, 2012 03:28pm
My reply to you is above.
Cynical Dec 20, 2012 09:42am
I am gravely disappointed. I expected at least one Islamic country among the top ten, if not at the top. The path to true happiness is to follow the message of our creator and submitting to his will. How is it possible for a non believer to be happy? Unless, we define happiness, in terms of un-religious para meters.
Iqbal khan Dec 20, 2012 04:56pm
You have a point?
peter turner Dec 20, 2012 05:02pm
Why no details on Pakistan in the happiness report or did I miss it?
asif Dec 20, 2012 07:20pm
I wonder where Pakistan is on the list?
abbastoronto Dec 20, 2012 07:32pm
Pakistan is 19th. Not a bad spot for a country beset with Civil War for the last 30 years Ahead of India, and the USA. Why? The Central Question of existence is Survival, Growth, Evolution. And religions provide the optimal strategy to answer that question. Each religion came for an age. In Pastoral times it was the Law of Moses. In Agrarian times the Love of Jesus. In Exchange and Trade era that we are in today - the Justice of our Prophet. Moses was a shepherd, Jesus an artisan in the Fertile Crescent, our Prophet a businessman trader. The 3 Prophets were the Chief Economists of their Eras. They founded the best systems. Islam succeeds because it is Efficient not wasteful. Compare yourself with your Muslim neighbour, and see how he has more children, lives a healthier, saner, longer life with fewer resources. Happiness is achieving a lot with little. The Bible says - to whom more is given, from him more is expected. If they do not, no happiness.
Uma Dec 20, 2012 08:25pm
Clearly that is not the case. There is more crime, corruption, cruelty, inhumanity, despair, and overall lack of empathy, compassion and civility in Muslim countries than most other places. Not to mention that Muslims are all too eager to kill each other off.
Rizwan Dec 20, 2012 09:53pm
Apparently it is very possible for a non-believer to be happy. Please stop projecting "non-believers" as sub-human creatures. What exactly do you mean by un-religious parameters?
Cyrus Howell Dec 21, 2012 02:32am
Trinidad and Tobago has my vote for number 1, and Costa Rico gets my vote for number 2.
Sue Sturgess Dec 22, 2012 02:05am
perhaps Pakistani happiness should be measured when its cricket team is winning?