Keys to Happiness

So many pages and ponderings have been devoted to pinpointing the source and supply of happiness. According to the UN’s World Happiness Report 2018, human connections, a sense of purpose and belonging are the fundamentals.

The report, which ranks 156 countries by their happiness levels, and 117 countries by the happiness of their immigrants, was released 14 March at a launch event at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in the Vatican. So, what is the secret to developing and maintaining a happy spirit?

Family ties and time with friends and connection to the community may well be the keys to true happiness, according to the latest World Happiness Report, an annual publication from the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, co-authored by Jeffrey Sachs.

The overall rankings of country happiness are based on the pooled results from Gallup World Poll surveys from 2015-2017, and show both change and stability. There is a new top-ranking country, Finland, but the top 10 positions are held by the same countries as in the last two years, although with some swapping of places. Four different countries have held top spot in the four most recent reports- Denmark, Switzerland, Norway and now Finland.

But the study’s authors found a distinct “happiness bulge” in Latin America, attributed to the depth and strength of family and other social relationships, and to the importance that people there attach to these relationships.

Mexican economist, Mariano Rojas, delved into the phenomenon of why the denizens of Latin America report the highest levels of reported “positive effect”. The central South American nation of Paraguay emerges as the world capital of positive emotion, followed by Panama, Costa Rica, Venezuela and El Salvador.

While the countries of Latin America are diverse and comprise over 650 million people, there is a commonality in the fusion of Spanish and Portuguese immigrants and local indigenous cultures which had a symbiotic relationship with the natural world.

According to Rojas: “This leads to a society that has a slower pace of life and that is not so focused on transforming and mastering nature and in generating economic growth as it is in living and enjoying life within the existing conditions. In addition, the extended-family values of the conquerors blended with the communitarian values of indigenous groups – where relatives tended to live together and to be in close contact.”

An international survey in 2001 asked people about the frequency of their contact with family members. In Brazil, more than two fifths of people said they had visited at least one uncle or aunt “more than twice in the last four weeks”. In Australia, the figure was less than 5%.

And it’s not just family. Latin Americans are also more likely to be in close contact with friends. Two thirds of Brazilians said they visited their closest friend on either a daily basis or “at least several times a week”. Just a fifth of Australians said the same.

“High happiness in Latin America is neither an anomaly nor an oddity. It is explained by the abundance of family warmth and other supportive social relationships frequently sidelined in favour of an emphasis on income measures in the development discourse.”

The culture that has emerged in Latin America can be characterized by: the focus on the nurturing of warm and close interpersonal relations with relatives and friends, the centrality of the family – both nuclear and extended – an effective regime that values and encourages the experience and manifestation of emotions, the existence of relatively weak civic relationships (those relations beyond family, friends, neighbours, and colleagues), a relative disregard for materialistic values, and weak political institutions.

The message here is clear: happiness has its foundations in the quality and breadth of connection with community, family and friends and our feeling of having our own place in the fabric of society.


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