Monday, March 30, 2015

The Happiness Paradox of Latin America

Paraguay can't catch a break.  It is where a 19th century war wiped out half the male population; one of the poorest and most unequal countries in the hemisphere; 60 years of military dictatorship and one party rule, a brief interlude from which ended (kangaroo court style) in 2012.  And it is landlocked. 

Paraguay should be the most miserable place on earth -- and yet a recent Gallop poll shows that it is the happiest, at least in terms of a positive emotional feeling (what we term "hedonic happiness"). 

Highest Positive Emotions WorldwideIn fact, all of the top ten countries on Gallop's Positive Experience Index this year are in Latin America.  Guatemala (#4), Honduras (#5), and El Salvador (#9) all make the list -- and yet this Central American triangle is by far the most violent place on earth right now.  What gives?

If Job were a country, it would have to be Guatemala. This little land (the size of Tennessee) suffers plagues of biblical proportions so frequently as to become mundane if not banal. Seismic instability gives rise to the picturesque landscape, and the lush valleys are shadowed by active volcanoes and lay on top of major fault lines. And, looking a bit beyond the verdant fields and colorful dress of the natives, we find crushing poverty.

The murder rate in Guatemala City is 108 per 100,000; this is twice the rate for Baghdad; the comparable figures for New York and Berlin are 6.5 and 1.5. Over 1 in every thousand people in Guatemala City is killed every year—and virtually no one is prosecuted.

And yet, Guatemalans report high levels of quotidian happiness.  As I argue in my new book The Good Life, this is partly explained through adaptation to circumstances -- our hedonic happiness is relative to the norms of daily life.  We adjust our daily expectations to what is “reasonable” for us and our circumstances, and adapt our daily contentment and hedonic happiness to that norm.  It is also a function of culture, of aspirations and visions of the future.
A lot gets lost in translating the lived experiences of wellbeing and deprivation (joy and pain, hopes and fears) into the numerical metrics of such rankings. From an anthropological perspective, what is lost is often what is most important: a subjective understanding of what people value, what their view of the good life is and could be, the pathways they see for realizing their aspirations. Perhaps the subjective aspects of wellbeing are fundamentally different from the more objective and material factors (such as income and health), even if those material conditions partially determine the horizons of one’s aspirations.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Third Wave Coffee: How your gourmet coffee habit affects the livelihoods of producers

Americans are drinking much less coffee than they did in the 1940s and 1950s — down by almost half from a peak in 1946. And such changing trends in Northern countries have profound impacts in the global South where coffee is produced.

The sharp U.S. decline has leveled off in recent years, buoyed by a dramatic rise in specialty coffee (defined as scoring above 80 on a 100 point cupping scale). The very best of these specialty roasts are what the cognoscenti term "Third Wave coffees." (Barista Parlor's Golden Sound coffee shop in Nashville, TN is pictured at right.)

Retailing for $20-$50 a pound (and going much higher), third wave coffees usually come from single farms, with provenance, terroir, and cup quality discussed in the language of fine wines. Coffee's complex flavour profile is especially sensitive to climate, moisture, and soil conditions; and third wave coffees are varietals provenanced from single estates. . . . Read full article on PopAnth here

Friday, March 6, 2015

Happiness Isn't (Just) a Personal Responsibility

In a recent interview on Wisconsin Public Radio, I made the case that our happiness depends on the happiness or the well-being of people around us.  We often think of happiness and wellbeing as an individual responsibility, a view fueled by self-help books and pop psychology.  But actually, wellbeing is tied up with aspirations, morals, dignity and a sense of purpose. In order to feel those things, the right social structures have to be in place.  Read and/or hear the interview here