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Looking for the Most Positive People on the Planet? Start with Panama


So, just how happy are you?  Do you feel respected?  Well-rested?

What about yesterday?  Did you smile a lot?  Or laugh?  Did you learn or do anything interesting?

These are some of the questions participants were asked in Gallup’s recent survey, which compiled respondents’ “yes” answers into a Positive Experience Index.  The survey queried residents of 138 countries and, not surprisingly, a whopping 9 out of the top 10 most positive countries are in Latin America.

Central America Dominates the Leaderboard

More specifically, of the 7 countries in Central America, 6 of them appeared in the top 11 slots.  Panama took #2 with an estimated 86% of its population claiming positive emotions.

(The missing Central American nation was Belize.  Only because it wasn’t one of the countries surveyed.  And we’d easily argue that there are some darn positive people there as well.)

Paraguay, in South America, topped the charts for the 3rd year in a row, with 87% of respondents reporting positive emotions on the previous day.  After Panama came a 3-way tie between Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Ecuador (83%) and then another tie (at 82%) between Costa Rica, Colombia, and Denmark (the only non-Latin American country in the top 10, which consistently reports high levels of happiness and well-being).

Honduras, El Salvador, and Venezuela, each of which has been plagued by political unrest and slow economic growth, came in next with 81% of their residents reporting positive feelings.  The U.S. tied with 8 other countries for 19th place, at 78% positive.


Proof that Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness

What’s interesting about these results is that, while Latin America is certainly known for its laid-back atmosphere and satisfying quality of life, the region (particularly Central America) is also home to some of the world’s highest rates of poverty, murder, and social and economic inequality.  Those are stats that aren’t often met with exuberance.

However, the survey’s results found that, while money does seem to influence people’s happiness levels, it’s only to a small extent.  In the U.S., for example, previous research found that a higher income does impact an individual’s overall happiness, but only up to $75,000.

Beyond that amount, income seems to have little effect at all.  In fact, the population least likely to report positive emotions was that of Singapore (36%), one of the wealthiest and most developed nations in the world.

So it would appear that some of the most prosperous nations in the world can also be some of the most unhappy ones.  While those whose residents live in the depths of poverty bask in positivity.


Is It All a Facade?

You may be tempted to ask, as many critics already have, whether Latin America reports more positive emotions merely due to a cultural tendency to hide behind a smile and try to focus on the positive.  It’s possible, as the region does seem to generally try to avoid negative statements regardless of their true feelings.

This naturally positive outlook could easily cause them to respond to these, or any, types of questions in a more favorable way than some of their counterparts.  A valid point, but you’d have a hard time making a case for why that’s a bad thing.  

Contrast this with countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Haiti where feelings of unhappiness are what’s socially acceptable.  Or Armenia, for example, whose residents feel ashamed about positive experiences such as success.

Other critics claim that Latin Americans, while unarguably positive, are perhaps just emotional in general.  This is evidenced by the fact that they also scored the second highest as a region (after the Middle East) in negative emotions.

Sure they laugh a lot, but they also claim to experience a considerable amount of emotions such as anger and worry.  In response to this polarization, some Latin Americans agreed that the findings merely highlighted their culture’s habit of focusing on positive elements like family, friends, and religion despite leading day-to-day lives that can often be incredibly challenging.   

happiest people in the world

Funky Tee

What Latin Americans Have to Say About the Results

Nothing explains the survey’s findings better than the words of the respondents themselves.  Take the 33-year-old businessman from wealthy Singapore who said the following about his outlook on life:

“We work like dogs and get paid peanuts. There’s hardly any time for holidays or just to relax in general because you’re always thinking ahead: when the next deadline or meeting is. There is hardly a fair sense of work-life balance here,” he said.

Compare this to a 30-year-old surfing instructor in Guatemala, a country that barely ranks higher than Iraq on the U.N.’s Human Development Index, which measures factors like education, life expectancy, and per capita income.

“In Guatemala, it’s a culture of friendly people who are always smiling. Despite all the problems that we’re facing, we’re surrounded by natural beauty that lets us get away from it all.

Perhaps no one said it better than the street vendor in #1 ranked Paraguay who wasn’t discouraged at all by the country’s tough economic conditions.

“Life is short and there are no reasons to be sad because even if we were rich, there would still be problems.  We have to laugh at ourselves.”

It’s true that much of Latin America has struggles that first-world countries know nothing about.  But this data proves those difficulties are doing little to get them down.

And if putting on a smile and facing one’s troubles with the world’s documented most positive outlook is wrong, then we don’t want to be right.


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