Columbia University's “Earth Institute” has released the results of its first happiness report, which highlight Venezuela as the happiest country in South America and the second happiest country in the region after Costa Rica.
Presented at the United Nation’s “Meeting on Happiness” in April, the study is based on data collected from a series of international “happiness” reports, including a 2011 poll by Gallup which asks citizens to evaluate their life satisfaction on a scale of 1-10.
As well as topping the list of countries in South America, Venezuela's happiness index also fares particularly well in comparison to happiness levels across the globe. Although Venezuela came 19th out of the 156 countries surveyed, all other countries featured in the happiest twenty are found in the developed world, with the exception of Costa Rica. Venezuela also ranked just one place below the United Kingdom, which came 18th in the overall study.
Whilst beating some of its Latin American neighbours, such as Mexico and Brazil, Venezuela also topped many European countries such as France, Spain, Italy and Germany. US ally Colombia, usually praised as a model of development in Latin America, also ranked surprisingly low in the study, coming in 41st place overall.
The report is consistent with the findings of other polls, including the last Gallup poll in 2011 which placed Venezuela in joint 5th place with Finland in terms of citizen happiness out of 124 countries. Venezuelans also regularly rate themselves as being “happy”, with Latin America’s Latinobarometro reporting in 2010 that 84% of Venezuelans are “satisfied” with their lives and 84% of citizens classifying themselves as “happy” or “very happy” in the latest GISXXI poll from inside the country.
According to the authors of the report, the social factors most affecting happiness levels are community, governance, work, income, values and religion. Although the report finds a correlation between levels of income and happiness, it also found that growth in wealth does not necessarily translate to a growth in happiness. The report cites the United States as evidence of this, where the happiness of the top quintile of the population has not risen, despite great increases in their personal wealth over the past few decades.
On the other hand, the report finds that happiness in terms of income is generally relative to perceived equality, suggesting that happiness may be greater in countries with a fairer distribution of wealth. Whilst this perhaps explains why Venezuela ranks so highly in the report as the most equal country in Latin America, the Venezuelan government has also commented that levels of happiness in the country are related to the government’s high levels of social investment.
“Social inclusion is extremely important because lots of Venezuelans who didn’t have the opportunity to study, or the opportunity to access health care or technology, are now enjoying these opportunities,” said President of Venezuela’s National Statistics Institution, Elias Eljuri, speaking about the report on state television channel VTV.
Eljuri went on to detail that in the past 13 years, the government has invested about 61% of its total revenue in programs aimed at citizen wellbeing; including increased funding to all sectors of the country’s education and health systems and to a variety of cultural and sports projects. This figure represents almost a 25% increase in social investment from previous governments, with the percentage of national revenue dedicated to social welfare between 1986 and 1998 averaging 36.2%.
According to Eljuri, the report demonstrates that what is most important for the happiness of a country is not the “size of its economy”, but rather how the country’s wealth is distributed. He also contrasted the Venezuelan government’s response to the 2008 financial crisis and its decision to keep investing in social welfare with the austerity policies currently being implemented in the West.
“Venezuela’s economy also went downhill in 2009-2010, nonetheless, as a result of the government’s massive social investment and a policy which prioritizes social wellbeing, where the human being has always come first… all this allowed us… to maintain poverty levels and a level of unemployment which fluctuated around 8%,” he said.
In terms of community and governance, the Venezuelan state press has also cited the happiness report’s results as further proof of the government’s successful initiatives in increasing citizen political participation, highlighting a 2009 Latinobarometro poll which indicates that support for democracy had increased in Venezuela under President Chavez and is now the highest in the region. The poll also ranked Venezuela third after Costa Rica and Uruguay for how positively citizen’s viewed their country’s democracy.