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People in Latin America are the most likely in the world to experience a lot of positive emotions on a daily basis, according to Gallup's Positive Experience Index

Photo:Gallup

Ahead of the United Nations' International Day of Happiness last month, Gallup looked at countries where the highest and lowest percentages of people are experiencing positive emotions daily, and the happiest people on the planet turned out to be Latin Americans. In fact, for the first time in Gallup's 10-year history of global tracking, all of the top 10 countries with the highest Positive Experience Index scores are in Latin America.

Gallup asked adults in 143 countries in 2014 if they had five positive experiences on the day before the survey. More than 70% of people worldwide said they experienced a lot of enjoyment, smiled or laughed a lot, felt well-rested and felt treated with respect. Additionally, 50% of people said they learned or did something interesting the day before the interview. Gallup compiles the "yes" responses from these five questions into a Positive Experience Index score for each country. The index score for the world in 2014 is 71 and has remained remarkably consistent through the years.

Family and Nature

So what is it about Latin America that makes it home to so many happy people? In an interview with the Guardian, Laura Montenegro, cultural attache for Panama, cited both family and nature as big factors. “Family bonds are very strong here, and on Sundays everyone still gets together,” she said. “So even when people are struggling they don’t feel alone. We have a very beautiful landscape too and even in Panama city you never feel too far from nature."

Rich Basas, a guest blogger for the Christian Science Monitor, added that Latin America is also big on shrugging off the small stuff. "There is also a culture in Latin America that does not promote negativity with every aspect of life," he wrote. "Being constantly negative may not thrive when a community of open and honest individuals is there for support. There is simply no room to seek out the worst-case scenario when you have so many in your corner."

Perhaps the most surprising finding from the countries in the world with the fewest people reporting positive emotions is that a place such as war-torn Afghanistan still has majorities of people saying that they smiled or laughed a lot the day before the interview -- perhaps testimony of the resiliency of the human spirit. Conflict-ridden South Sudan and Ukraine and Ebola-stricken Liberia were one to two points from being on this undistinguished bottom 10 list. Syria, the country with the lowest positive emotions ever reported last year, is absent from this list only because this report was issued before those data were finalized.

Lowest Positive Emotions

The region of the world that reports the lowest positive emotions is the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, with a score of 59. All countries in the region, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, have scores lower than the global mean. Tunisia's score of 52 is almost a full 20 points lower than the global mean. Important in this analysis is that the 2014 data from several Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have not been finalized yet, including the United Arab Emirates, a country that has always scored well.

People in the MENA region not only report the lowest positive emotions in the world -- they are also reporting the highest negative emotions in the world. In fact, last year, the MENA region represented four of the top five countries in the world for negative emotions -- including Iran, which was, interestingly enough, in the news for jailing four young people for making a video about happiness.

Low positive emotions don't necessarily mean high negative emotions. For example, people in the former Soviet Union countries typically report some of the lowest positive emotions in the world; however, they also report some of the lowest negative emotions in the world. Gallup has previously reported that people in this region simply don't report many emotions at all -- positive or negative.

Implications

Robert Kennedy once said, "Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play … It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."

Gallup's Positive Experience Index is designed to measure the things GDP was not intended to measure. In addition to quantifying things such as respect, laughing and smiling a lot, and learning or doing something interesting -- some of the key drivers of positive emotions are things such as freedom, social capital and charitable giving -- all things that make a life worth living. Money also clearly plays an important role in people's daily emotions. Research in the U.S. finds that money significantly affects these emotions, but only to a point. After an individual makes $75,000 per year, money has much less of an effect on daily emotions.

Money isn't everything in life. Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking 118th in terms of GDP (nominal) per capita, yet when it comes to positive emotions, it ties for second. There is much to be learned from Latin America on this International Day of Happiness because while they aren't the wealthiest people in the world, they are certainly among the happiest.

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