The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Here’s what we can learn from Colombia — the happiest nation in the world

Jacinto Tapia tends to a banana tree growing on the farm in Tierradentro, Colombia, on Oct. 29, 2015. (Photo by Dania Maxwell for The Washington Post)
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The guy threw my girlfriend off her bike as she cycled to work, and took everything, the bike, her purse, her laptop. “That’s Colombia,” my friend shrugs, with some sympathy but no surprise. Then, when she told the man in the neighborhood bike shop, he built her a new bike out of spare parts and gave it her for free. “That’s Colombia,” my friend grins.

After living in Colombia for the past five years, I am used to these seamless contradictions, people flicking effortlessly between shame and pride, despair and hope, sorrow and happiness. Which is why it came as little surprise to see Colombia has once again ranked as the happiest country in the world even though it is still plagued by violence and poverty and has been at war with itself for over half a century.

There is always something dubious about attempts to quantify happiness, as with the latest WIN/Gallup International’s annual global End of Year survey, which awarded Colombia a score of 85percent “net happiness.” But Colombia consistently ranks near the top of happiness polls no matter how these surveys frame their questions, and it’s worth asking why.

Some clues may be found in the contrasts between Colombia and life in wealthier, more developed countries that did not score so highly on WIN/Gallup’s ratings, such as the United States (43 percent net happiness) or my home country the United Kingdom (37 percent).

In the developed world, we love to wring our hands about the “epidemic of depression,” the creep of social anomie and a retreat into the virtual world. Colombians, though, tend not to worry about such things, preferring instead to sit out on the street, cook chicken stew in a huge pot on an open fire and drink and laugh with their family and neighbors.

To most Colombians, nothing is more important than family, friends and fun.

This is not to suggest that Colombia is some idyllic backwater untainted by the corruptions of the modern world and its hyper consumerism. Colombians can be as materialistic as anyone north of Mexico, but what is not so common is a sense of entitlement. Instead, there is joy in the small things in life. Their appreciation is on display in their content sighs after supping the same cheap sugar-saturated coffee they drink every day of their lives or when they sing the praises of aguardiente, the local anise-flavored paint stripper that they only drink in shots as nobody dares to sip it.

Even the chaos and unpredictability of daily life, which at times seems to run on little more than bravado and blind optimism, may have a role in Colombians’ happiness. If you don’t expect things to go right, you don’t worry so much when they go wrong. Tranquilo, relax, they’ll tell you — a refrain which can drive you into an impotent rage, or it can remind you that life’s troubles are rarely terminal.

But the question remains; having strong social relationships, appreciating what you have, and keeping stress levels to a minimum are valuable lessons for a happy life for sure, but is it enough in a country with over 7.5 million registered conflict victims? Where nearly a third of the population live in grinding poverty?

Working in journalism has brought me into regular contact with Colombia’s dark side and the stories I have heard show how in Colombia violence and cruelty became frighteningly routine. Stories of children forced to watch their parents murdered, people trembling to the screams of their neighbors being dismembered alive or wives whose husbands were bundled into the back of a car and never seen again.

Many of the people that tell these stories show the bravery characteristic of victims of atrocities around the world. But they often also show the warmth, openness and humor characteristic of Colombians, and a determination to continue finding joy in family, friends and life’s small pleasures. Perhaps even more so.

Of course, not all Colombian have suffered such horrors, but there are few families that have not been touched by tragedy. Trauma and grief are stitched into the collective consciousness. But so is resilience and the drive to enjoy life despite it all.

This is not to stereotype Colombians as plucky survivors or draw glib conclusions that the route to happiness is through suffering. It is just to say that maybe Colombians being happy is not such a contradiction after all.

James Bargent is a freelance journalist living in Medellin, Colombia. His work has appeared in the Miami Herald, the Toronto Star, the Independent, Sky News, the Christian Science Monitor, the Times Education Supplement, International News Services and AlterNet. 

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