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.

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