What is the best country to live in? Which nation can boast the happiest people or the most generally satisfied population? What countries provide the highest standards of human development or social and environmental progress?
What you believe to be the happiest region in the world all depends on where you get your information and what you believe happiness actually is.
What the different surveys say: looking to Latin America
- In a 2014 Gallup Poll measuring self-reported positive emotions over the course of a single day (the day prior to being surveyed), the entire top 10 consisted of Latin American countries. Paraguay scored the highest with a “Positive Experience Index Score” of 89. Colombia, Ecuador and Guatemala followed with 84 each; while Honduras, Panama and Venezuela scored 82; and Costa Rica, El Salvador and Nicaragua rounded out the top 10 at 81.
- A happiness study by Canadian conservative think tank the Fraser Institute equates “economic freedom” with happier people. It ranks Hong Kong at the top if its list, followed by New Zealand, Canada and Jordan, with the U.S. and UK tied for 5th place. The study ranked Venezuela as the least economically free and therefore the unhappiest.
- The third and latest World Happiness Report by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which is based on various Gallup polls, puts Switzerland on top, followed by Iceland, Denmark, Norway and Canada. Costa Rica and Mexico are the highest-ranked Latin American countries on the list, at 12 and 14, respectively.
- The Satisfaction With Life Index is a metastudy by an analytic social psychologist at the University of Leicester, combining self-reported happiness with other indicators such as GDP. It ranks Denmark, Switzerland, Austria and the Bahamas as its top five, with Costa Rica at 13.
- Latin America does very well in the New Economics Institute’s Happy Planet Index, completed in 2012. Costa Rica occupies the number one spot, with Colombia (3) Belize (4), El Salvador (5), Panama (7), Nicaragua (8), Venezuela (9) and Guatemala (10) rounding out a Latin America-heavy top 10.
- The United Nations’ Human Development Index measures the life expectancy, literacy, education, standard of living and quality of life of 185 countries. The only Latin American nation to be included in the Index’s “very high human development” category is Argentina, which occupies last place of that category at number 49. The top 5 consists of Norway, Australia, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the US.
- The 2015 Social Progress Index, which uses the social and environmental needs of citizens instead of economic factors, sees Uruguay as the highest among Latin America countries, but at number 24 it is well outside the index’s overall top scorers. Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Iceland and New Zealand make up the SPI’s top five nations.
Which happiness study is right?
Things can get a bit complicated when it comes to country-by-country rankings in terms of things like happiness or life satisfaction. While areas such as economic mobility and social progress at least have statistics to back them up, actual happiness is less measurable and generally relies on self-reporting.
Though it is obvious that famine and extreme poverty do not lend themselves to happy lives, we should be skeptical about studies that rely on equating political or economic systems — or even indicators — with feelings of happiness, as they may tend to be more ideological than fact-based.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be so skeptical about what people say about their own lives. Maybe self-reporting is in fact the most accurate way to measure life satisfaction. Sure, a healthy economy can provide more security and opportunity, but a healthy dose of sunshine and fresh fruit — more abundant in Latin America than in much of the world — surely does its bit to help.