People in Latin America are surprisingly happy given the region's high levels of inequality, poor governance, and often high crime rates. What is their secret?

Author: Luca Ventura

INTRODUCTION

The peoples of Latin America know how to squeeze the most happiness out of life. Their sense of subjective wellbeing is quite high not just in comparison to other regions of the world, but to what their per capita income suggests. Add to that strong inequality rates, weak political institutions, exposure to crime and the latest addition and the worst villain of all—the Covid-19 pandemic—and such an elevated level of perceived happiness appears even more baffling.

Yet it is no mistake or statistical anomaly. Edition after edition since it was released for the first time in 2013, the United Nation's World Happiness Report confirmed these findings. High GDP per capita, social support in times of need, absence of corruption in government, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity or charity towards others: these are the six key variables that the researchers have used over time in their report on global life satisfaction. Can you guess which one matters the most when everything else is not so great?

The presence of supportive social relationships trumps all other measures when it comes to happiness, and the enjoyment of these positive relationships—even when taking into account all intra-regional differences—seems to be central in people’s lives all across this continent of more than 650 million.

This is not to say that social and economic problems don’t put a dent in their happiness. Lower happiness, however, does not necessarily mean low happiness. Nurturing interpersonal relations, the researches at the U.N. explain, is the best way to prevent problems from overwhelming us. Family satisfaction is very high in Latin America and the Caribbean, and close and warm relations do also extend to friends, neighbors and colleagues.

To be sure, the ability to rely on others can’t make all problems disappear. Rather, that means that happiness could be even greater if the social and economic issues affecting the region were properly tackled.


#5 | MEXICO

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The pandemic took a heavy toll on Mexico. Yet Mexico fared well compared to Brazil. Nonetheless, Mexico dropped many more spots in the happiness ranking: 12 to be precise, to the 36th position. How come?

Mexico tends to rank low in the subcategories of healthy life expectancy, income and perception of corruption in government, but it echoes the more general findings about Latin American nations scoring high when in terms of quality of personal relationships.

Faced with climbing coronavirus cases, Mexico—unlike Brazil—enacted some of the strictest lockdown measures in the continent. While doing so saved lives, it cost Mexico dearly in the happiness ranking for one simple reason: depriving people of family gatherings and get-togethers with friends tends to make them extremely unhappy even if it is the right thing to do.


#4 | BRAZIL

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Some of the variables used by the researchers at the United Nations can help understand how a nation will behave when presented with a collective challenge. Brazil is one of the countries hit the hardest by Covid-19 globally. An unmistakable link, the happiness report points out, emerged between exceedingly high infection and death rates within a country and skepticism about the severity of the virus at the highest political level. Confidence in public institutions is an important component of happiness, and the study shows how the level of institutional trust in Brazil—eight times lower than in a country like Singapore, which was able to successfully control the coronavirus—directly translated into more suffering for the entire population.

Yet happiness is always the aggregate result of many factors, and Brazilians feel quite satisfied with their income levels, freedom to decide how to live and interpersonal relations. It is true that even in the most difficult circumstances there are moments of joy, and Brazil lost only three spots in the global ranking from a year earlier falling to the 35th position globally.


#3 | PARAGUAY

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This nation of just 7 million at the very heart of the continent has many of the same problems experienced by its neighbors: political instability, crime, inequality. At the same time, it shares with its neighbors the focus on life’s positives and—along with a competitive ranking in the World Happiness Report—it also conquered the top spot in the most recent Gallup’s Global Emotions Survey, which aims to measure the frequency with which we experience intangibles such as positive feelings.

For most of 2020, Paraguay also distinguished itself for how effectively it managed to keep the coronavirus pandemic at bay. Everything changed at the beginning of 2021: cases soared, hospitals ran out of medicine and protests spilled in the streets. Indeed, there is a chance that Paraguay will fall in the next edition of the happiness ranking. Yet, as the researchers at U.N. often reiterate, happiness does not mean absence of problems. If anything, the experience of many countries hit particularly hard during the pandemic shows how adversities often result in an increased sense of collective empathy and solidarity.


#2 | GUATEMALA

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Guatemala is a land of contradictions: beautiful Mayan ruins, active volcanoes, spectacular lakes and lush green forests on the one hand, and violence, corruption and poverty on the other. What is not in doubt is the population’s positive attitude towards life.

This country of roughly 18 million people has suffered a 36-year-long civil war and is still battling all sorts of economic and social maladies—yet it consistently ranks well in the World Happiness Report. Roughly one-half of the population is indigenous and their heightened sense of community is directly related to high levels of life satisfaction and to feeling valued. Remarkably so: in the latest Global Emotions Report, Guatemala ranked second, tying with El Salvador among 140 countries (in case you are wondering: Panama was at number one in a top 10 almost entirely made up by Latin American nations).


#1 | COSTA RICA

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About 5 million people living on this thin stretch of land between Nicaragua and Panama are among the happiest on earth. Although one in four citizens is estimated to live below the poverty line, Costa Ricans exhibit higher wellbeing than the residents of many rich nations (including the US, and second only to Canada in the Americas as a whole). The happiness experts partially credit their levels of life satisfaction to the existence of a good welfare system that includes universal access to health care, primary and secondary education, and relatively high pension benefits.

How does the government pay for all that? Costa Rica abolished its military in 1949, and has since invested those savings in its people. Along with the presence of strong family ties, beautiful landscapes and perfect weather, it is no wonder that Costa Ricans are quite content with their way of living.

Happiest Countries in Latin America

 

Global Rank

 

Regional Rank

 

Country

16 1 Costa Rica
30 2 Guatemala
31 3 Uruguay
35 4 Brazil
36 5 Mexico
37 6 Jamaica
41 7 Panama
43 8 Chile
49 9 El Salvador
52 10 Colombia
55 11 Nicaragua
57 12 Argentina
59 13 Honduras
63 14 Peru
66 15 Ecuador
69 16 Bolivia
71 17 Paraguay
73 18 Dominican Republic
102 19 Guinea
107 20 Venezuela
143 21 Haiti
Source: The UN's 2021 World Happiness Report.