Although by a slimmer margin than last year, Panama came out on top of the new Gallup-Heathways Global Well Being Index for the second consecutive year, topping Costa Rica. The US, on the other hand, descended 12 spots from last year to place 23rd on the index. The index’s release will prompt a lot of discussion about why Panama continues to place ahead of every other country on the index. Having lived here almost a year and a half now, I’d like to offer my analysis of why this is.
To start, it’s important to understand what the Gallup-Heathways Global Well Being Index is and isn’t. First, it is not an “objective” ranking of well being, but a subjective ranking of how people view their own well being. Factors, such as life expectancy, crime, income, poverty level, etc were not taken into consideration. Instead Gallup polled 147,000 people in 146 countries and asked them a wide range of questions, which according to Gallup included questions on “how much they like what they do, their social relationships, their financial security and their relationship to their community, as well as their physical health.” Gallup then categorized their answers into 5 categories, and people who were considered to be “thriving” in at least 3 of those 5 category were considered to have “well-being” Among the people surveyed, 53% of the people surveyed were considered to have well being. Costa Rica was second with 47.6%. Globally, only 17% of people were considered to have well being.
So now that we understand what well being is, it’s a little easier for us to understand why Panama ranks so high in it. It’s because Panamanians, even if they don’t have the best personal circumstances, have the best outlook to their own personal circumstances. Living in Panama, I’m not surprised to see Panama score very highly on these criteria. Panamanians, as a whole, are generally very happy people. It’s much more common to see a Panamanian walking around with a smile on their face and laughing than it is to see them sulking and scowling. It’s not because they are the richest country (60th in GDP per capita, 25% live below the poverty line, 85% of the population makes less than 1000 per month in salary, despite many working 6 days a week) or because it has the least crime (Despite being one of the safer countries in Latin America, Panama ranks 30th worldwide in most homicides per capita). If you look at other countries in the top 10, this lack of objective happiness is even more pronounced. Countries like Mexico and Guatemala make the Top 10, despite having even higher crime rates. But Panamanians, and other Latin Americans (Latin America claims 7 of the top 10 countries) have the right outlook on life.
People here don’t let the little things get to them. Sure everyone gets upset and frustrated at times, but the “tranquilo” attitude is definitely persistent here, and it means more than moving at a slow pace and being okay with it. It means embracing the good in life and not letting the bad ruin your outlook on life. While this does not mean that things like poverty, crime, etc, aren’t very serious things that we should all work to combat, it does mean that regardless of your situation in life, one thing you do have some control over your outlook of it.
In comparison, it’s also easy in my opinion to understand why the US has dropped 12 rankings to 23rd on the list, lower than many poorer and less safe countries. All that anyone who is American and living in Panama has to do is go on their Facebook feed lately and see that despite persistent job growth and a relatively stable economy, people are as grumpy and as mad as ever. This despite living with things they take for granted that even those who are well off in Panama don’t have easy access to. Just try to get anything in the mail in Panama and see how much you miss having the choice between the US Postal Service, FedEx and UPS. And I think you can notice the difference in perspective by some American expats who move to Panama. Many learn how to improve their perspective and embrace the Panamanian way of life, and usually find themselves happier because of it. But some come here with the same attitude and perspective they had in the US, and they tend to be the grumpiest of everyone.
Other countries could learn a thing or two from Panama, and learn to embrace life more and be thankful and joyful, even through obstacles. The Panamanian spirit is one of the many reasons I love living here, and a big reason why Panama has kept it’s rank as the country with the best well-being for the second year in a row.