Beyond the fulfillment of basic needs, having more technology and possessions doesn’t lead to happiness. Americans who’ve spent time living with poor people living traditional lives in Africa comment on their happiness and lack of complaining, even when dealing with prolonged hunger. For example, a development expert commented in her book, “I was awestruck by the Ugandans’ ability to endure suffering and still embrace great joy.”[i] In Havana, I was told that Americans have a lot of material things, but Cubans enjoy life more, dancing, going to the beach, and spending relaxed time with family and friends. In general kids seem happier, as studies show they laugh a lot more than adults. Women tend to laugh more than men and men are the best laugh-getters, states Robert Provine in Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. (It’s good for our health, increasing the healthy function of the tissue lining the blood vessels, reports a 2005 study at the University of Maryland.)
Europeans work less, have less stuff, and have more time and quality of life than Americans. The slow food movement started in Italy and other slow campaigns aim to calm the hectic pace of urban life in both Europe and the US. The Take Back Your Time Campaign was started in Seattle to change workaholic patterns with techniques such as described in a how-to book.[ii] The WIN-Gallup International Global Barometer of Happiness surveyed 58 countries and found no relationship between income and happiness; what influences well-being is social status compared to peers.[iii]
A Gallup Poll released in 2012 reported that Latin America stood at the forefront for positive emotions, with Panama, Paraguay and Venezuela at the top.[iv] Thailand and the Philippines also scored high for positive emotions. Negative emotions were highest in the Middle East and North Africa, with Iraq, Bahrain and Palestine topping that list. Singapore is very prosperous but the people were the least emotionally expressive, illustrating again that money doesn’t buy happiness. The countries of the former USSR also scored low on expressing emotions. The poll asked 1,000 people age 15 and older in 148 countries questions like “Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday? Did you feel a lot of enjoyment, physical pain, worry, sadness, stress, or anger?”
A World Happiness Report, presented to a 2012 UN conference on creating a new economic model, found that happiness is more strongly associated with community engagement, social networks, mental health, and individual freedom and lack of corruption than with money–once basic needs are met.[v] In this framework, individualism and social support are not opposites as both are helpful. Costa Rica is an example of a happy poor country. In the Happiness Index of 170 counties, the wealthy US ranked at a low 150.
As usual, Scandinavian countries were among the top of the list of good outcomes, among the happiest, while the lowest are poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa indicating poverty of course diminishes life satisfaction. The UN report authors advocate “adopting lifestyles and technologies that improve happiness (or life satisfaction) while reducing human damage to the environment.” An example of taking action towards this goal, Brazilian youth are trained to conduct happiness surveys and practice altruism, resulting in new neighborhood activities to take action when needs are identified. Schools near San Paulo teach compassion and wellbeing, encouraging children to be “doctors of joy.”
[i] Jacqueline Novogratz. The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World. Rodale Press, 2009, p. 19.
[iv] Jon Clifton, “Latin Americans Most Positive in the World,” Gallup World, December 19, 2012. http://www.gallup.com/poll/159254/latin-americans-positive-world.aspx