When the headlines started pouring in, I had to suppress a little eye roll:
Panama Rated Happiest Country in the World by Gallup Global Well-Being Poll!
Don’t get me wrong– I love Panama. My being here has been a major factor in my personal happiness, success, and wellbeing.
But Panama is still a developing country, with a moderately high poverty rate (37%) and, amongst the rural and indigenous communities, even extreme poverty (19%.)
I’ve witnessed this poverty first-hand during my backpacker days and time spent volunteering; from a Westerner’s perspective, it’s ghastly.
The Westerner’s Assumption
My first assumption was that the Gallup Poll simply left out the portion of the population that is financially deficient. Countless naysayers assumed the same, and took to bashing the article across digital networks.
I noticed something interesting, though. The majority of people I saw rejecting the claim were expats, often well-to-do or at the very least middle class. Panamanians were, from my observations, much more supportive of the poll results.
For the most part, the expats (myself originally included) said the same: How could Panama be the happiest country when so much of the population is living in poverty?
This sentiment, I’ve learned, is indicative of a very “Westernized” mindframe.
A Closer Look at the Gallup Global Well-Being Index
The articles I could find on the survey left me unsatisfied. I decided to do some digging myself.
So I downloaded and read the whole damn report.
To my surprise, Gallup didn’t “leave out” the impoverished portion of Panama, as were my original assumptions. In fact, the poverty statistics above are pulled right from the report itself.
Gallup uncovered some tidbits about Panamanian culture that, on the surface, I knew and appreciated. Still, I failed to truly grasp the impact these cultural tendencies could have on everyday life and long-term happiness.
I’ve compiled some of the actual findings from the report, in hopes it might help us understand exactly why Panama got ranked #1.
A Few Key Points About the Poll:
- The Global Well-Being Index is “a global barometer of individuals’ perceptions of their own well-being– those aspects that define how we think about and experience our daily lives.”
- This is an important note for us naysayers out there. The survey sought to uncover only the particpant’s personal opinion on their own well-being…not what an outsider would assume.
- The Global Well-Being Index includes the five elements of well-being. Notice that wealth (or lack thereof) accounts for only 1/5 of the elements measured.
- Purpose: Liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
- Social: Having supportive relationships and love in your life
- Financial: Managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
- Community: Liking where you live, feeling safe, and having pride in your community
- Physical: Having good health and enough energy to get things done daily
- Results were categorized as either thriving, struggling, or suffering.
- Thriving: A well-being that is strong and consistent in a particular element
- Struggling: Moderate and inconsistent
- Suffering: Low and inconsistent
The Actual Results:
Below are screenshots of the survey results, taken from the original Gallup-Healthways 2014 Global Well-Being Index.
The biggest take-away? 61% of Panamanians are “thriving” on at least three measures of well-being– a higher percentage than any other country (runner-up was Costa Rica at 44%.)
Factors Contributing to Panama’s Peak
According to Gallup, the factors contributing to Panama’s peak level of global well-being may include:
- Panama’s Latin American cultural predisposition that is associated with higher levels of positivity than other regions
- A previous Gallup poll found Latin Americans in general and Panamanians in particular have the most upbeat attitudes, based on things such as smiling and laughing a lot and enjoying life.
- In socially and family-oriented Latin America, social well-being is the best performing element with 43% of the population thriving.
- Panama’s relative political stability
- A strong and growing economy with an unemployment rate of 4.5% in 2013
- Panamanians were the most likely in the world to say it was a good time to find a job, reflecting a growing economy driven in part by the current Panama Canal expansion.
- Investments in national development
- Panama’s ability to invest resources in other areas of the state rather than a full security system (the country does not have a standing army; Panama receives security support from the U.S to help safeguard the Panama Canal.
What about the Financial Aspect?
Let’s take a moment to consider Panama’s results in the financial category, which sought to find if people are “generally satisfied with their overall standard of living:”
- 32% are considered thriving
- 42% are struggling
- 26% are suffering
Clearly, the Gallup survey was not picking-and-choosing poll participants to misrepresent the country’s financial inequality (my original concern.)
In fact, the report made a special mention of the issue:
Despite Panama’s strong economy, the percentage of Panamanians thriving in financial well-being (32%) is roughly half as high as the percentages thriving in purpose, social, and physical well-being….Financial inequality is also pervasive, with rural and indigenous populations particularly vulnerable.
Now we’re faced with the question, how can a country in which the majority of the population is “financially struggling” still statistically have the highest level of well-being?
According to the survey, “Panamanians have extremely high levels of purpose, social, community, and physical well-being.” A glance at the above poll results confirms this: Panama ranks #1 in all four of these elements, even though it didn’t make it into the top 10 for financial.
I’ll spare you from the “Money can’t buy happiness” cliche. Mostly because I can’t claim to believe it, at least not 100%. The presence of money itself might not create happiness, but it can enhance the conditions that do have a direct impact on our wellbeing (which, according to Gallup, include physical, social, community, and purpose.)
It seems, then, that Panamanians have figured out a way to maintain satisfaction within these four elements, even (and often) without the presence of financial wellness.
As to how? Well. This little Gringa-in-paradise has no idea… but she is damn inspired, and impressed.