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Are Colombians really that happy?

Photo by: Luza under a CC Licence.

It’s happened again. Despite falling four places, Colombia came in at a barnstorming number six in the New Economics Foundation’s latest Happy Planet Index. Just like the last time this index was released, Colombian intellectuals and observers alike have been scratching their heads. How could it be that in a country with a 40-year-long civil war, 4 million displaced people, and rampant poverty and inequality, everybody could be so ridiculously happy? Surely this was some kind of joke, or at least a conspiracy by the Ministry of Tourism?

Latinos are every bit as materialistic as Europeans, and in some ways even more so

Contrary to popular belief, the idea of the Happy Planet Index (HPI) is not, however, to find out which is the happiest country. The point is to analyze the relationship between happiness and ‘ecological footprint’, something which essentially reflects a country’s level of industrialization. Rich countries, regardless of how ‘happy’ their citizens are, don’t stand a chance on this index, because their level of consumption is so high that several more planets would be required for everyone in the world to live at that level. US and British citizens, according to the Index, actually voice slightly greater ‘life satisfaction’ than Colombians. The difference lies in the fact that Colombians use up considerably fewer resources to achieve a similar level of life satisfaction, and are thereby deemed more ‘efficient’.

Interpreting the index

There are different ways of interpreting the index, but it is unmistakable that nine out of the top ten countries are in Latin America and the Caribbean. The standard explanation for this is that Latin Americans retain strong families, and strong communities, things that are viewed as being crucial for people to be happy. At the same time, whilst poverty levels are high, they are far lower than in Africa, where a far greater percentage of the population lives in extreme poverty. In Colombia, the majority of the population lives in stratas 2 (generally considered to be poor) and 3 (lower middle class). Whilst these people are obviously considerably poorer than the average European, their levels of poverty still do not generally deprive them of basic rights like shelter, healthcare and nutrition.

Moreover, Latin American countries have made great advances in terms of life expectancy, which has risen along with urbanization. So while the level of poverty in Latin America is high, it is not so high as to drastically reduce people’s perceptions of their own lives (compared to Africa). Many rural-urban migrants, for example, may feel that their lives have improved significantly on account of greater coverage of services, even if they find themselves living in areas of the city that middle-class people would consider to be deprived.

The relatively high levels of ‘happiness’ are rooted in culture, rather than any particular policies or even economic structures

One of the claims made by the New Economics Foundation is that Latin America’s relatively high life expectation is related to its people being less materialistic. Has the person who made this comment ever been to the continent? In my own experience, Latinos are every bit as materialistic as Europeans, and in some ways even more so. If we consider, for example, the ever-increasing popularity of cosmetic surgery in countries such as Colombia and Venezuela, or the general way in which people’s physical appearance is prioritized, it seems to me that many Latinos are certainly materialistic. The tendency to ostentatiously spend money seems high, as is the desire to make lifestyle choices which overtly demonstrate social advancement (a good example is the drugs-related “new rich” known as traquetos in Colombia). Moreover, if Latinos were simply happy to be poor, how could we explain the high levels of emigration to developed countries (prior to the economic crisis)? To add a typically Colombian tale, the pyramid/money laundering crisis that exploded last November suggests that broad swathes of Colombians do want to live the good life, and are prepared to take considerable risks to achieve it.

What about our rights?

One of the worrying things about the HPI is the things which it doesn’t take into account. The extent to which things like human rights, women’s rights, gay rights, or just about any other rights don’t make it onto the HDI’s radar can be summed up by one bewildering reality: Saudi Arabia comes in at number 13. With respect to Latin America, what on earth happened to equality? Anyone looking at the HPI’s Top 10 could not fail to conclude that, contrary to the claims made by social-democratic pundits and intellectuals in the developed world, inequality really doesn’t seem to impact much on people’s happiness at all. On the other hand, and perhaps to the relief of moderate Leftists across the world, Costa Rica, with its extensive welfare state and lower levels of inequality, came in at number 1. Yet the table doesn’t really tell us whether Latin Americans genuinely don’t care about the inequality that persists in their societies, or whether, as I suspect, they manage to enjoy life in spite of that inequality (and would, perhaps, be even happier if their economies were more like Costa Rica’s). Beyond that, did anyone mention violence? Latin America repeatedly shows levels of violence, particularly youth violence, that far surpass the rest of the world. It’s hard to deal with the possibility that a society where a considerable percentage of young people find themselves involved in violence – and a considerable proportion of other people are victims of it – can possibly be the same romantic place where people look after each other and everyone talks to their neighbours.

Maybe it’s just the case that Colombians are relatively free of the hand-wringing, self-important, ‘I had a really deep chat with my shrink last week’ angst that makes Europeans constantly believe they are less happy than they should be

Clearly, the relatively high levels of ‘happiness’ are rooted in culture, rather than any particular policies or even economic structures. Few would deny that Latin Americans know how to enjoy themselves, even when times are bad. It could also be the case that Latin Americans, having lived through numerous social and economic crises, are far better at coping with things when life gets tough. It might also be worth asking, though, whether Latinos are also more culturally conditioned to declare themselves as happy people relative to other cultures, and whether this cultural conditioning is really the same thing as ‘happiness’. On the other hand, maybe it’s just the case that Colombians are relatively free of the hand-wringing, self-important, ‘I had a really deep chat with my shrink last week’ angst that makes Europeans constantly believe they are less happy than they should be.

Treat with caution!

Clearly, the Happy Planet Index has to be treated with caution. It achieves its primary function, which is to demonstrate that people actually can live long, happy lives without tearing up the planet. But whether or not that means that Europeans or Americans could genuinely reduce their levels of consumption without becoming miserable is, I fear, rather doubtful: It is one thing being happy with less, but it is quite another make do with less than what one is accustomed to. In terms of other policy implications, the HPI is not particularly helpful to Latin America: it implies that everything is going swimmingly when it clearly isn’t, and I’m not sure how meaningful it is to Colombia. Still, we could speculate that the lesson is for such countries to adopt the Costa Rican model, entailing a high level of social expenditure and environmental protection, thereby building on culturally inspired ‘happiness’ with real and lasting improvements in society. In the meantime, Colombians should celebrate the aspects of their culture which allow them to enjoy life even when times are bad. By no means, however, should it be interpreted as ‘proof’ that negative phenomena, like inequality, or violence, don’t really matter.

Rachel Godfrey Wood has a Masters in Globalization and Latin American Development, and has been living in Colombia for the past year, where she helps in a foundation for demobilized child soldiers. She also writes on her own blog at rachelincolombia.wordpress.com, and is about to start an internship with the International Institute for the Environment and Development.


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