Puerto Ricans are happiest people in the world, study finds
Island of Enchantment, indeed: This U.S. territory of sandy beaches and lush rain forest, close-knit families and endless celebrations is home to the happiest people in the world, according to a new study.
Never mind the low income or the high murder rate, the double-digit unemployment or the troubled public schools. Puerto Ricans say emphasis on extended family, an easy warmth among even strangers and a readiness to celebrate anything, anywhere, at any time, all contribute to a high quality of life here.
"There are over 500 festivals in Puerto Rico, and there are only 365 days in a year," says Francisco Cavo, a U.S. Army medic at Fort Buchanan, near San Juan. "That's a lot of fun on the schedule."
The United States ranked 15th among the 82 societies in the study by the Stockholm, Sweden-based World Values Survey, which was based on interviews with 120,000 people representing 85 percent of the global population. That put the United States ahead of Britain, Germany and France, Japan, China and Russia, but behind Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela, Ireland, the Netherlands and Canada.
The subjective well-being rankings are one part of the largest social-science study ever. The World Values Survey, an ongoing investigation by a global network of social scientists, measures social, cultural and political change on all six populated continents.
Among its findings: As societies grow wealthier, they shift priorities from maximizing income to maximizing well-being.
That means individuals become likelier to choose jobs based on how interesting the work is, not simply how much it pays, said University of Michigan political scientist Ronald Inglehart, chairman of the survey. Communities, meanwhile, grow more likely to seek ways to protect the environment, even if the measures they choose may slow economic expansion.
Another key finding: As they grow wealthier, societies become more tolerant of differences among members - and they become more insistent on personal freedom.
"From a political scientist's viewpoint, one of the most important consequences is that demands for self-expression rise to the point where democracy becomes increasingly probable, and even hard to avoid," said Inglehart, program director of the Center for Political Study at Michigan's Institute for Social Research.
The rankings are based on responses to questions about happiness and life satisfaction. Generally, the wealthiest nations tend to be the happiest. But Latin American societies, particularly those around the Caribbean - Puerto Rico, Colombia, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic - prove an exception. Inglehart calls it "the Latino bonus."
"They're not the richest people in the world," Inglehart said. "You seem to get a plus for being Latino."
He says determining the reasons requires more study. But in Puerto Rico, at least, Enrique Rodriguez said he already knows.
"We are a small island, and people are nice to each other," said Rodriguez, a retired government worker who lives in Old San Juan. "Everybody gets along. When we pass in the street, we say hello to each other.
"We have our problems like everyone, but they're nothing like in Cuba or the Middle East. Even those without jobs have something to eat."
Cavo, 22, a married father of two, stresses the importance of family.
"We value friends and family a lot," he said. "I don't know other countries. But the meaning of what a family is seems to be a little bit different here. It's not just your wife and kids. It's your mom and dad, uncles, aunts, all the cousins, everybody who's got your last name."
At the other end of the rankings, the former Soviet republics - Ukraine, Russia and Georgia among them - and the formerly communist nations of Eastern Europe, such as Romania, Bulgaria and Albania, are disproportionately unhappy.
"That is not surprising," Inglehart said. "It's not that they're the poorest in the world, but they are societies that have gone from being fairly well-off and fairly secure to being very disoriented - poor, and life expectancy has fallen, and their standard of living has fallen, and their position in the world has fallen."
Inglehart acknowledges the challenges of measuring happiness across widely varying cultures. He calls the possible impact on the rankings of interviewing different peoples in different languages, for example, "a major concern." But he says language alone doesn't explain the findings.
The Spanish-speaking societies of Puerto Rico, Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador and Venezuela for instance, all rated happier than most of Western Europe, while Spain itself trailed most of the region. Similarly, the French-, German- and Italian-speaking peoples of Switzerland all rated significantly happier than the peoples of France, Germany and Italy.
Culture also may color responses. In Japan, for example, which is noted for valuing conformity - one maxim holds that the nail that sticks out will get pounded down - respondents may be less likely to identify themselves as very happy or very unhappy, Inglehart said.
Consequently, despite its wealth, Japan ranks 42nd of the 82 societies, last among the industrialized nations.
Puerto Rico seems less reserved about proclaiming its happiness. The per-capita gross domestic product here is less than half that of the U.S. mainland, while the homicide rate is more than three times as high - factors that have helped to fuel the mass migration of islanders to the U.S. mainland.
Still, to locals, this land of endless summer is la Isla del Encanto - it's on the license plate.
"The Latin temperament is to be very optimistic in many ways," said Lily Garcia, a radio and television-show host, newspaper columnist and motivational speaker here. "You give Latin Americans open space and music and a drink in our hands, and we're happy.
"We just kind of make the best out of it, out of everything. It's like this laissez-faire attitude. People are like, `Yeah, whatever.' That's an important part of being happy."
LIFE-SATISFACTION AND HAPPINESS RANKINGS
1. Puerto Rico