The Mystery of Human Well-being in Nicaragua

  • 3/19/17

    International Happiness Day, Monday, March 20, first launched in 2012 when the United Nations voted unanimously to promote “a more inclusive, equitable, and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness, and the well-being of all peoples.” It’s a day that will probably pass with little fanfare in Nicaragua, but it’s worth noting that Nicaragua holds a very special place on the world happiness stage: The Nicaraguan people, according to some well-being researchers, are among the happiest people in the world.

    In 2015, The Happy Planet Index listed Nicaragua seventh out of 140 countries worldwide for its ability to provide long, satisfying, and sustainable lives for its citizens. In 2014, The Gallup World Poll, the largest worldwide survey of human well-being listed Nicaragua tenth out of 143 countries in its Positive Experience Index. In that same survey, all top ten countries were in Latin America. The mystery of how Nicaragua, the “second poorest country in the western hemisphere,” could outrank almost all affluent countries world-wide in human well-being has perplexed well-being researchers for years. Only in recent decades has research begun to get to the bottom of this great mystery.

    In 1974, economist Richard Easterlin set the well-being research world ablaze with his finding that happiness was not significantly associated with income beyond a basic level. The “Easterlin Paradox,” the most written about topic in the study of human well-being, drove a new generation of researchers into the field to survey people worldwide, and after confirming Easterlin’s findings, researchers faced a new question: If money could not buy happiness, what could? Much of their research was in Latin America, where neither high crime, poor health, inadequate housing nor low education could suppress the indomitable spirit of people who consumed little and seemed to live large on gratitude for what little they had. Nicaraguans may have a lot to teach the world about living the good life.

    In 2015, well-being researchers collaborated to publish the “Handbook of Happiness Research in Latin America,” a 637 page compilation of thirty-two research papers that offer insight into the root causes of high human well-being. Today, general well-being concepts are well understood, but if researchers agree on one thing it’s that research offers no magic bullet, only clues to how diverse cultures and individuals answer life’s most basic question: What is happiness? Your answer to that question may have a lot to do with how happy you are. It has a lot to do with why Nicaraguans rank among the happiest people in the world.

    Nicaraguans are collectivists. They share with many other Latin Americans the idea that well-being is not something that one owns and holds inside. Well-being is interactive, group reliant, a harmony with others. Researchers believe that human relationships in tough economic environments are welded super-strong by economic necessity. This contrasts with how affluent, individualistic cultures, like those of the US and Western Europe, understand well-being. Affluence, or at least freedom from basic want, makes many relationships discretionary and allows those from individualist cultures to pursue personal goals with minimal regard for others. Consider the concept of the “self-made-man.”

    To Nicaraguans, the idea of the “self-made-man” might seem to include a rather large discounting of the contributions of family, friends, and associates throughout life. So, one clue to perceived high well-being among Nicaraguans may be that no individual succeeds or fails alone. They do so with others. This has the practical effect of buffering anxiety, since no individual is left fending for themselves, or feeling that failure is profoundly personal. Collectivist cultures may also partially immunize people from experiencing negative emotions like anxiety – dampening emotions which cognitive science researchers agree carry far more weight in people than positive emotions. There’s also a positive effect from this collectivist strategy. Anyone who has enjoyed success knows how much richer success can be when co-owned or shared with others.

    Individualist cultures often seem to booby-trap well-being by connecting happiness with emotionally extraordinary events, by defining happiness as great joy, excitement, or intense emotion – life as the pursuit of a bases loaded home-run in the bottom of the ninth, a three pointer at the buzzer. A culture of celebrity promotes a drive for often unattainable, lofty achievement. Latin Americans define happiness as feeling at peace, as feeling fulfilled, as feeling content. They’re not pursuing the next big emotional wave, possibly because they are already are, according to researchers, the most highly emotional people in the world. Riding the gentle, emotional swells of life may fit well with who they are.

    Nicaraguans rank high in traditional well-being scores that are a mix of two components: objective and subjective well-being. Objective well-being scores come from statistics about life expectancy, education, income, crime, health, etc. These scores are rolled together with subjective well-being scores, which come from surveys that reveal how people themselves think and feel about their lives.

    Much well-being research today is focused on these surveys, which unravel the mystery behind well-being concepts like the “Happy Peasant- Unhappy Achiever” and the “Hedonic Treadmill,” both of which reveal not only a lot about Nicaraguans, but also about why perceived well-being in affluent countries lags most countries in Latin America.

    If you’re like most people, you can relate to the experience of having something new, like new clothes, or maybe a new smartphone. The buzz on day one feels pretty good. But researchers know, as probably you do too, that the buzz fades over time. After weeks or months, that buzz barely registers a blip on one’s well-being radar; what was once new becomes old, part of a new normal. People with incomes exceeding their day-to-day needs have disposable income that they often invest in trying to re-capture the buzz. Adaptation to new things and life improvements is the root cause of the “hedonic treadmill,” which as the name suggests is a road to nowhere, especially not a road to personal fulfillment. “Unhappy achievers” get ahead, adapt, take things for granted, seek more, achieve more, adapt etc. Well-being researchers agree that this cycle frustrates human potential for happiness and fulfillment. Consumer marketing drives the cycle.

    On the other hand, the “Happy Peasant” has little disposable income. Material life improvements may be few, aspirations and expectations for more may be low, so the happy peasant appears to adapt by simply being content with what they have. They do this through necessity, and never suffer the illusion, so common in the west, that happiness is a goal to be chased. Happiness, for them, is in the present. Happiness is being content with what one has.

    Well-being researchers not only study poor and affluent populations, but they also study countries in transition, countries like Nicaragua, as their economies improve, as education rises. And sadly, there is often a dip in human well-being among populations in transition, as more and more educated young people seek fulfillment of promises made by parents and others that good jobs and better lives await those who study and prepare. Heightened, unmet aspirations often drag down well-being in emerging economies, since economies rarely respond with jobs at the same pace as education’s ascent. This is undoubtedly one of Nicaragua’s greatest challenges ahead if it is to remain among the elite of the world’s happiest people. Education and jobs must work in harmony to fulfill heightened expectations and aspirations.

    In 2009, when Nicaragua was already at the top of the well-being heap, a global movement lent its high well-being scores even greater credibility. One of the world’s most renowned well-being research organizations, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), added sustainability to its national well-being scoring. The United Nations added carbon footprint/sustainability to its Human Development Index in 2010. The net effect of this global movement was to drive accepted standards of national well-being even further in the direction of another Nicaraguan strength – sustainability. Developing nations had won a long fought effort against the affluent west to finally include sustainability in measures of well-being. High well-being achieved by polluting a shared planet and consuming more than a fair share of global resources was no longer respected. New metrics required that nations’ well-being scores factor in their effects on the well-being of other countries, the planet, and future generations. Nicaragua, with a minuscule per-capita carbon footprint and a strong alternative energy program, shined even brighter in the new paradigm.

    Research into the well-being of individuals and nations is complex. Researchers routinely caution against generalized or simplistic conclusions that would minimize the complex interrelationships among education, gender, genetics, income, culture, politics, and scores of other variables. Well-being is a recipe, like a national dish. Still, with abundant reservations noted, Nicaragua’s unique recipe may offer cause for reflection to others on International Happiness Day.

    The same collectivist ethic underlying Nicaraguans’ high personal well-being also now underlies world standards for judging the well-being of nations. The well-being of anyone, or any nation, is inextricably bound up in the welfare of others. What is remarkable is that the “second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere” is a leader on both fronts.

    Chris Crane is a Co-founder of The Pulsera Project, a non-profit social enterprise based in the US and in Granada, Nicaragua.

    * For insight into how Nicaraguans think and feel about life in Nicaragua, check out the Latinobarometro, which for two decades has surveyed 1000 people in every country in South and Central America. Click the link, select Nicaragua and 2015 to see survey results. Also available in Spanish from the homepage.

    Chris Crane

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