Latin America – what is it that makes you so happy?

Some might say that the people that live in Latin America are happier and more satisfied with their lives than they otherwise should be. The people that might generally say this are those that equate better material standards of living with greater happiness and life satisfaction.

Although there is some trend between material wealth and happiness and life satisfaction many countries in Latin America seem to do much better than the trend.

Take Costa Rica, for example, the citizens their reported in 2016 an average life satisfaction rating of 7.3 on a scale of 0 to 10, yet in 2016 there was on average less than $10,000 per person per year. The level of life satisfaction in Costa Rica is comparable to, if not better than, countries with much higher material standards such as Canada (life satisfaction: 7.4), the USA (7.0), the UK (6.9), and Germany (6.7).

Other Latin American countries – Mexico (life satisfaction: 7.3, <$10,000), Brazil (6.9, ~$12,000), Panama (6.9, ~$10,000), Chile (6.6, ~$15,000) – similarly do well despite their relatively low material levels. Countries that have very low average incomes per person, such as Peru (life satisfaction: 5.8, <£7,000) and Bolivia (6.0, <$3,000), do have relatively low life satisfaction but still their life satisfaction is not as low as one might expect when compared to other low income countries.
GDP wellbeing graph

Material standards are not so important. . .

As I’ve been cycling around Latin America these past 9 months I have a fairly good idea of why happiness and life satisfaction are comparatively high here. In fact, from all the research that I’ve carried out over the years, I had a pretty good idea before I even began my journey as to why that is. But nevertheless it has been refreshing to have left the academic world and spent some time with people and see first-hand what my research kept on suggesting.

The bottom-line is that ever higher material standards of living do not equate to more happiness and satisfaction with life. When material standards are so low that there is a struggle to meet basic needs then the link between material standards of living and happiness and satisfaction with life can be quite important. However, once basic needs are obtained this link becomes much less important.

Often much of the relationship between material standards of living and happiness and satisfaction with life is driven by other accompanying factors – good governance and democratic institutions, better health, and access to education, for example.

This is why a country such as Costa Rica can produce such happy citizens – Costa Ricans have good access to health (average life span of 79.1 years), education is universal, free and mandatory, there is relatively little corruption, and citizens enjoy a fairly high freedom to express themselves.

Wealth in community

I’ve met some very happy people as I’ve cycled through Latin America. What strikes me is the togetherness of families, and the willingness for people to help one another. I’ve experienced that willingness to help first hand on so many occasions. Often I’ve been invited into people’s homes, sometimes eating dinner (once a home that housed four generations of a family), other times to stay the night.

In Latin America there is wealth but it is a different form or wealth than what I am used to – it is a richness in relationships, a wealth in community. And the research illustrates time and time again just how important social relationships are for happiness and satisfaction with life – whether it is the amount of time a person spends with friends and family or their willingness to help a stranger.

There used to be more togetherness in our communities – more trust – but something changed. Some might say we grew materially richer and along the way the need to relate to one another became less essential (though no less important) for daily life.

In Costa Rica many people end a conversation with the words “pura vida” which encapsulates a pride in the simple life – we don’t have much but we’re happy. Much can be learnt from Latin America when it comes to happiness.

11 comments

  1. Having spent a large portion of my childhood living in Uruguay and the other half in England, I can confirm there is a massive difference in attitude. This article really highlights the difference in priorities in the two parts of the world, and it’s why I’ve always loved Latin America.

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  2. Interesting adventures and observations indeed, Christopher. I agree with some of your comments regarding people’s happiness being affected by their national circumstances, however my own observations are that it is still entirely down to the individual at the end of the day. Far too deep to discuss here, so keep up your search and don’t forget to look within yourself, as well. We can no doubt talk together once you are back in Blighty. We’ll get your Old Man to buy the beers, which in itself will make us both very happy indeed! Good luck for the rest of your incredible journey. All the best from Paul Dayrell

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    • Hi Paul, very nice to hear from you and I hope you are well. I am glad to hear you found my adventures and observations interesting. Thank you. And yes the extent to which an individual is influenced by their circumstances and how much it is personal responsibility is an important question and indeed one I’d certainly enjoy to deepen upon at some point. Actually I’ve been trying to write a blog post based around this idea since January but it is very complex – perhaps your comment will re-inspire me to go back at it. It would be great to catch up upon my return. Christopher

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  3. All my experience can be drawn from Peru, so it’s interesting what you’ve said about the country, and other comparisons such as good health, corruption, and freedom to express yourself. Peru seemed mixed when it comes to kindness of people. Many are paranoid, but probably for good reason, but every now and then the kindness runs extremely deep.

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