When it comes to happiness, people in South America lead the way globally, with in particular inhabitants of Panama living in their view a thriving existence. Overall, well-being in Central and South America outperforms Western markets – people are generally healthier, more social and live with a sense of purpose. Afghanistan is regarded as the least attractive place to live.
Gallup-Healthways, an international research firm, recently released the 2015 edition of its annual ‘Global Well-Being Index’, a study that aims to find the places in the world where people feel the most well-being in their daily existence. To define ‘well-being’, the researchers developed a model based on five key wellness metrics*: sense of purpose, social relationships, financial situations, community involvement and physical health, with each of the five categories rated along the lines of "thriving", "struggling" or "suffering". For this year’s index, Gallup-Healthways surveyed 146,000 people aged 16 years and over in 145 countries and territories.
The highest ranked country on the index is Panama where 53% of its citizens are “thriving” in three or more of the wellness metrics. The small nation’s people "report a lot of daily happiness, a lot of daily smiling and laughter, and a lot of daily enjoyment without a lot of stress and worry," according to the authors. For Panama’s people, it is the second year in a row at the top. Part of the reason for Panama's high ranking may be that people there, and in Latin America in general, tend to report experiencing positive emotions more often, and negative emotions less, compared with people in other parts of the world, says Dan Witters, research director at Gallup-Healthways. Panama also had a growing economy in 2014, and is relatively politically stable.
Second on the list is Costa Rica at 47.6% followed by Puerto Rico at 45.8%. Switzerland comes in fourth, with 39.4% of the population thriving. Besides Denmark (37%) and Austria (35.6%) much of the list’s top locations are in South America, with Belize (38.9%), Chile (38.7%) and Mexico (35.6%) all in the top 10.
The authors note that in North America, and especially for the US, well-being is fast declining. The US fell from the #12 spot last year to #23 this year, according to Witters because "fewer people being satisfied with their feelings of community as well as reporting less positive social ties". Those thriving dropped 3% from 33% to 30% since the previous year’s report, and the US has not made a top 10 position in any of the sub-indices, just as the United Kingdom.
Afghanistan is the worst place to find oneself existing in terms of likelihood for a thriving well-being, with 0% of its people thriving in three or more of the metrics. This is followed by Bhutan at 3% thriving, Cameroon at 3.1% and Togo at 3.9%. Gallup-Healthways interestingly notes that a good wealth score does not necessarily correlate with a good well-being score, even if it does help. Guatemala for instance, one of the world’s poorer countries, scores among the top 10 in overall well-being.
"Many countries struggle to achieve high well-being. This represents a huge opportunity for country and community leaders, employers, insurers and any population health stakeholder," comments Peter Choueiri of Healthways International. "There are proven interventions that these leaders can and should leverage to improve the health and well-being of their population.”
While the report aims to bring an unbiased assessment of thriving and suffering, one issue with its methodology is the subjectivity of how the questions posed by researchers are interpreted. The authors emphasize that they have attempted to minimise the varying perceptions by translating questions and using interview and telephone survey techniques, nevertheless the cultural dimension should be kept in mind when interpreting the data.
* A definition of the five key metrics:
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;
Physical: having good health and enough energy to get things done daily.