“We’ll just have to adapt” she said in the calmest of tones and with that unmistakably genuine Paisa smile. That was my next door neighbour’s brief response to my attempt at elevator small talk. I had just spent a largely sleepless night as a result of the noise generated by the new road extension just outside our building. Where once were trees, birds and flowers, a dual-carriageway now lies. Somewhat naively I voiced my dissatisfaction to Liliana, our neighbour, expecting some solidarity and a sense of shared disgruntlement in return. No chance. For a brief moment on that warm and sunny morning I had forgotten what attracted me to move here in the first place.
Paisas, the locals of Colombia’s second largest city, Medellin, are renowned for being some of the friendliest and happiest people in the country. Complaining is universally frowned upon and spreading negativity is largely avoided. People here interact in the most pleasant of ways, always looking to steer away from conflict. Then there are the open expressions of emotion and the constant smiles. By the manner in which my in-laws greet me every time they see me, an innocent onlooker would be forgiven for assuming they hadn’t seen me in months, when in fact it’s more like every other day. These behavioural habits are not unique to Colombia, rather they are a predominant cultural trait of the Latin people. It is perhaps of little surprise then that, as of this year, the happiest 10 countries in the world are all found within Latin America, according to the 2014 Gallup Positive Experience Index. And how does the Unites States or United Kingdom rank, you might ask? Answer: joint 15th and joint 43rd respectively.
The rankings are all the more perplexing given that they generally show little correlation between happiness and incomes or living standards. From a European political and financial point of view, most Latin American countries have little to be happy about. Many of them are in fact poor countries, plagued by decades of civil unrest, human rights violations, and civil wars. So what is it then that makes the Latin people so happy? Used to living with so many external problems, people have learnt to focus on the little details, enjoying them all the more as a result. Then there is the fact that when you have less, you have less to lose and therefore less to be anxious about. Although valid as they are, there are other, more exemplary, reasons why Latin America is the Land of Happiness.
The concept of family is very much present here. On my first visit to Colombia with my then girlfriend and now wife, what I thought was going to be an intimate road-trip turned out to be a full-blown family holiday; parents, grandmother, aunt, sister and dog included. Most things here are done as a family unit and people make time for one other. Therefore in tough times they don’t feel so alone. Being negative is not an option when a community of open and warm individuals is there for support. Then there is the fundamental belief that tomorrow things will be better, a hope that drives the people forward.
The hope for a better tomorrow is seen all over the continent to differing degrees. As soon as Halloween ends, Christmas begins. In Colombia, celebration fireworks are seen and heard as early as mid-November in the build up to the 1st of December. A month long Christmas celebration then sweeps through the nation. Music, dancing, eating and drinking bring to an end a year of hopes and dreams that, even if unfulfilled, are simply passed on to the next. But the celebrations do not end with the New Year. Besides having 18 public holidays, Colombia has more days of festivals than there are days in a year. As well as placing great importance in celebrating occasions such as Mother’s day and Father’s day, there are also days to honour everyone’s purpose in society. There’s the day of the musician, the day of the teacher, the day of the photographer, the day of the international businessman and even the day of the secretary, amongst many others.
The core values here are generally the reverse of those of modern industrialised nations. Instead of prioritising work, success and wealth, Latin Americans typically have family and celebration at the top of their list. They live for today rather than tomorrow, knowing that deferring happiness in order to achieve a particular goal is as intangible as the future is uncertain. Then there are the spectacular natural surroundings, the biodiversity and the sunny, favourable climate, all of which help to give the people a naturally cheerful disposition.
So what can we learn from Latin America? If anything it is to seize the day, to be grateful for what you have, to celebrate as much as you can, to spend time with your family, preferably outdoors, to be friendly, respectful and not to forget to smile. Sounds simple enough. And if you decide you want to surround yourself with beautiful nature and happy people, why not book a holiday to Latin America and discover for yourself what makes the locals some of the happiest people in the world.
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