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Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Latin Solution: "Don't Worry, Be Happy" Americans

So, you are one of the unhappy Americans? You just can't seem to find true happiness, and you feel as if you have been cheated?

Then, you perceive yourself to be among many, many others in the United States. In a poll of nearly 150,000 people around the world, the United States was ranked 33rd in countries with the most positive outlook.

Gallup Inc. asked about 1,000 people in each of 148 countries if they were happy because of the following:

1. They felt well-rested,

2. They felt they had been treated with respect,

3. They smiled or laughed a lot,

4. They learned or did something interesting, and

5. They possessed feelings of enjoyment.

Would it surprise you to learn
that seven of the world's 10 countries
with the most upbeat attitudes are in Latin America?

In Panama and Paraguay, 85 percent 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. For example, Germany and France tied with the poor African state of Somaliland for 47th place.
Many of the seven "happy countries" 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."

(Michael Weissenstein, "Happiest People On Planet Live In Latin America, Gallup Poll Suggests," The Huffington Post, December 19 2012)    

Of course, some say the Gallup poll is 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.

Jon Clifton, a partner at Gallup, acknowledged that 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 believe the poll says
something fundamental about their countries:
a habit of focusing on positives such as friends,
family and religion despite daily lives
that can be grindingly difficult.

Here is what the survey reported about one individual about a happy man in Panama City:

"Carlos Martinez sat around a table with 11 fellow construction workers in a Panama City restaurant sharing a breakfast of corn empanadas, fried chicken and coffee before heading to work on one of the hundreds of new buildings that have sprouted during a years-long economic boom driven in large part by the success of the Panama Canal. The boom has sent unemployment plunging, but also increased traffic and crime.

"Martinez pronounced himself unhappy with rising crime but 'happy about my family.'

"'Overall, I'm happy because this is a country with many natural resources, a country that plays an important role in the world,' he said. 'We're Caribbean people, we're people who like to celebrate, to eat well and live as well as we can. There are a lot of possibilities here, you just have to sacrifice a little more.'"

And here is another response about happiness 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.'"

(Michael Weissenstein, "Happiest People On Planet Live In Latin America, Gallup Poll Suggests," The Huffington Post, December 19 2012)    

My Take

How can prosperous nations be deeply unhappy ones while poverty-stricken ones are often awash in positivity, or at least a close approximation of it? That seems to be the puzzling question everyone would like to solve.

Many sociologists are looking for the answers. In fact, a new field called "happiness economics" 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. These scientists realize that health, money, and education are not the only keys to a happy existence.

I believe it is true: much of the adult population in the United States perceive themselves to be unhappy. Why would so many healthy, comfortably affluent people (by standards of the present world) face each day without a smile? So many Americans seem clueless to how to live rewarding lives.

To me, it seems that despite their efforts to be happy, so many Americans just can't find anything that allows them to maintain that "happy" standard. At best, happiness to these people is fleeting -- a "come and go" experience. In fact, I believe few people have any idea of how to discover those things that provide their true satisfaction, a lasting state of joy.

I recently read a blog entry in HubPages by Sarah (Rose) Varnado. She wanted to know how she could find happiness, so she decided to do some serious soul searching. Like me, she began by looking for an answer on the Web. Sarah started her quest by reading articles; watching videos; and studying Christianity, Kabbalah, Buddhism, and behavioral science.

Soon, Varnado began to ask herself what the source of her unhappiness was. After close inspection, she discovered the source was not in her environment, her social or economic status, her love life, or her circle of friends.

Sarah found that what happiness is, is really a matter of perception. I'll let her tell you why in her own words. Varnado says...

"For example, Scientist Dan Gilbert conducted several studies on our perception of happiness. One of them was a study involving lottery winners and accident victims that had become paraplegic. When asked how happy both sets of people were a year after their winnings or their accident, it was found that both groups were equally as happy as the other.

"How could that possibly be? A paraplegic just as happy as a lottery winner? However, the more I searched for the answer to happiness it made perfect sense. The lottery winner would gain more burdens, and the paraplegic would gain more help. Also, for a person that can't fend for themselves, even the smallest joys would seem enormous.

"We live in a world where we are constantly being reminded of what we don't have, and that somewhere out there, other people have better. Yet, when you look at the people who seem to have everything, they seem more unhappy than the majority of people we know. Could it be that the desire for self fulfillment in itself could be the cause of our unhappiness?

"Please don't get me wrong here. I'm not saying that we should not strive for happiness. What I am saying, is that maybe as a society we are so self absorbed, and looking for more so much that we can't see the small joys in life anymore."

We all inherently feel we have been created to fulfill our own unique desires for happiness. We believe it is our right to do so as distinct human individuals. But, at the same time, we all seek affirmation, love, and recognition from others. Can you see the problem? Selfishness and envy cloud our view. We cannot see pleasure and happiness as distinct entities. Thank you, Sarah Varnado, for pointing out that...


"In order to be truly happy, we need to step away from ourselves and seek to create happiness in others without expecting anything in return, including recognition for our actions.

"We also need to distinguish between happiness and pleasure, as they are both completely different things and know that when we are unaware of anything greater than what we have, nothing that we have is unsatisfactory to us.

"...  it does make sense to me that finding happiness outside of my own desires would be my first step to understanding what being happy really means."

And, Lord knows, this "first step" is not the total answer for embracing happiness. But, I believe sacrifice is the key to making us much more satisfied with ourselves and much more content in our relationships with others.

Sacrifice allows us to step away from our own elementary perceptions of a very complex personal emotion and acquire new and improved perspectives. To know ourselves better, we often must walk a sufficient distance from our own "skins" with their own selfish desires and look back to discover that we are just a part of a world panorama full of different but simple, happy souls.

Click to read Varnado's article:
Click to read the Huffington Post article:

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