Colombians are Happy, Americans are Ill With Stress: The Wealth-Wellness Gap

Celebrants at one of Bogot·’s innovative Nights for Women

The Unhappy Planet Index link I described in Sunday’s post suggests that, for the most part, Latin Americans are as happy as North Americans, and happier than Europeans (Scandinavians excepted), despite owning and consuming 50% less than Europeans and 90% less than North Americans.

Colombia is a country mired in political and economic problems, most of them caused by pervasive corruption that has prevailed since Europeans arrived centuries ago, and exacerbated by long-standing American interference and support for violent right-wing extreme regimes. The country’s environment is a wasteland, a chemical soup created by aerial spraying of poisons by American anti-drug programs and Colombian anti-insurgents that has rendered much of the country’s soil sterile and toxic, and deforested huge swaths of the country. Only 1% of the country’s land is arable, though 13% is cultivated with coca, much of it the new flourishing Roundup-resistant variety that the US and Monsanto have inadvertently encouraged. The country remains in a perpetual state on the edge of civil war, with huge amounts of US military and CIA aid (the price of allowing the US free rein to spray the country to oblivion and to operate its massive and incompetent anti-drug program throughout the country) used by the hapless government to terrorize its political opponents, including the country’s indigenous peoples. Last week, the week of President Uribe’s second inauguration (he changed the country’s constitution to enable him to run again, and all meaningful opposition groups are illegal, so his re-election was a dubious exercise in democracy), 24 people were killed by bombs and land-mines. Nearly 4 million Colombians have been displaced by recent violence (second only in the world to Sudan). Over 35,000 have been murdered, by conservative estimates, in the last decade, by various factions. Each year over 1,000 are kidnapped and over 1,000 more killed by land-mines. Much of the country is lawless and run by protection gangs that terrorize and extort money from citizens.

By all traditional measures, then, Colombians should not be happy people. But they are. They seem to have a natural resilience to adversity, a willingness to work with others and try novel approaches, a sense of joie de vivre, and a bottom-up, community-based approach to solving problems.

By contrast, North Americans, overwhelmingly wealthier, safer, blessed with natural resources, better educated, supported by vastly more health infrastructure, are not only no happier than Colombians, but they are so stressed out that they are disproportionately succumbing to debilitating stress-related illnesses. Rates of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, heart attacks, stroke, lung disease and cancer are all much higher. But although Gladwell and the study he cites claim stress is the differentiator, I’m not so sure: should we rule out quality and diversity of diet, environmental toxins in the air, water and food (though they’re lousy in Colombia, too), and general level of physical fitness. But if the high rate of North American illness is due to stress, why? Most North Americans and most Latin Americans are from similar European ancestry, and, as Gladwell’s article points out, the whitebread Brits seem much less affected by it than North Americans.

As someone who has just been leveled by a stress-provoked disease, I am of course very interested in answers to both these questions (is stress the cause, or at least the catalyst?, and if so, why are North Americans so disproportionately stressed? I have some theories and hypotheses, but I want to keep an open mind.

What do you think?

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19 Responses to Colombians are Happy, Americans are Ill With Stress: The Wealth-Wellness Gap

  1. Jared says:

    Have you examined working hours of the average US worker vs. the average hours worked in the UK (and the other places mentioned)?

  2. Patry says:

    My first guess: strong social support.

  3. Karen M says:

    Too much structure. Here. Sometime, somewhere, I remember reading something about a definition of stress that equalled a lack of unstructured time. And now some school districts are eliminating recess… making children do schoolwork (besides the reading lists, which don’t seem so bad) over the summer. Math, even. Multi-tasking. 24/7. Whatever it takes. Just ask a busy person if you need something done. Ironically, even our “supports” become institutions, and are then no longer supportive. Standardization. Great for manufacturing. Miserable for human beings.

  4. Karen M says:

    Oh, and next time I decide to dream up a rotisserie cabinet, Antanas Mockus is in the starting line-up.

  5. dave says: ’bout using those “complexity theory” hypotheses and applying it to the things that you so conveniently see as obvvious, like, for example, a survey that you have not vetted for appropriate attention to complexity? Seriously Dave, one day you’re saying how we can’t know anything then you’re linking to a survey/article that can be easily destroyed (like the bush election diebold voting machine article in Rolling Stone that was one of the most thoroughly destroyed {even by left wingers} articles in recent history).For example, you’re comparing a survey of people in columbia (who you have little idea what their current situation is) who may or may not be one of the higher echelon people in that country (do the poor people even talk to the media?) who might be terrified for their life, might have a million different problems than people from some of the european/western countries on that list. Did you even consider in your post that happiness in one country might be “not being killed” or something similar? Nigeria used to top the “happiness list” too and I don’t see a huge influx of people moving there or columbia for that matter. I mean, for a “complexity theory” believing guy, you have some very simplistic references that you tend to reference to reinforce your world view. If you doubt it, ask 10 random nigerians, columbians and americans were they want to live the rest of their lives if they could choose among the three.

  6. Martin-Eric says:

    I would venture that a country whose population is more and more macro-managed and where productivity has supplanted the pursuit of happiness might be a good part of the reason. Another one might be that demcoracy and all the other nic eutopia we were raised on have recently turned out to be so shabby that Westerners have become cynical and jaded. Meanwhile, elsewhere on the planet, people are raised with more modest expectations and never take anything for granted, so they enjoy what little they can to the max and end up living a less stressfull life, because there’s nothing to aim for other than survival.

  7. David says:

    Where to start. I just read last week about sending kids to math camp just to try to get a jump on college. What ever happened to playing with neighbors and family for a summer holiday. Couple the intense competition with a complete lack of exercise under a bright sunny sky, competition with the “Joneses” fueling rampant consumerism, the need to work fulltime to have any sort of affordable heathcare, the disappearing extended family structure associated with the prevalence of nuclear and single parent households stuck in the suburbs with staggering consumer and mortgage debt. We seem to have lost the ability to think for ourselves and now just blindly follow the herd.

  8. Raging Bee says:

    Dave, you sound like a slaveowner trying to justify slavery: “Free them? Why should we free them? They live such happy, simple, stress-free lives! Why I’d venture to say they’re happier than any of us with our complex lives and the lifetime burdens of getting educated and running the world and leading the heathen savages out of darkness.”NOTE: I remember watching a documentary about migrant farm-workers in the US South and Southwest, and an overseer actually said something very much like that, without a trace of shame or irony.

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    Jared, Patry, Karen, M-E, David: Yes, all of these ideas are consistent with my own sense of why we seem to lack resilience. I especially like Patry’s answer — I sense that many North Americans are, for complex reasons, terribly lonely and have very shallow friendships to draw on, which is why the family unit gets laden with an almost unbearable social support burden. I have a major post coming up based on Hugh Brodie’s cultural anthropology of gatherer-hunter peoples that reinforces a lot of what you’re saying. As for Joe and RB, I’m not even going to start — how you could get the idea that I’m patronizing Colombians rather than admiring them and trying to understand them, and how you could be so blind to other ways of living as to believe that any data that does not show America as #1 must be doctored or ‘over-simplified’ — it just boggles my mind. And as for relying entirely on unsubstantiatable data, I do know quite a few Latin Americans quite well, love (most of) them dearly, and can tell you that they have an enormous amount to teach us about how to live, how to be happy, and even, Joe, how to embrace complexity a hell of a lot better than we do. The purpose of this article was not to be rigorous or scientific, it was to ask for instinctive reactions to the two questions the article raises. They’re important questions, and ones that, in typical knee-jerk style, most of us in the world’s affluent nations are so threatened by that we daren’t even consider them.

  10. kerry says:

    Hi Dave,My instinctive, and far from scientific response, is that you are right. I see it here in South Africa all the time: rush hour traffic provides a micro-window onto the very thing you are talking about. Wealthy and middle class business people looking stressed and bothered behind the windscreens, and happy, smiling, dancing people standing at the intersections handing out leaflets or offering to wash windows. The latter have no real education and and a standard of living that wouldn’t be classified as “first world” – but they always have time for a friendly exchange at the traffic lights. We don’t need to cross continents or even borders to see the contrast. It’s on our doorsteps. I suspect that living “closer to the edge” where life and death is faced on a daily basis, might also bring out the natural joy that human beings are capable of experiencing – a heightened sense of everything, perhaps? It might explain why some of the most “developed” countries are experiencing a surge of popularity in Extreme Sports. Also, I think that living day to day, surviving for food and shelter, provides a practical, down to earth kind of wisdom that many who have lived complex lives tend to crave. Its another of life’s paradoxes – seems to be the only way I can make sense of anything these days. On the other hand, I am wary of generalisations. I’m quite sure that many of my fellow South Africans would offer a different perspective. Perhaps it all comes down to our own lens of perception? And most importantly, our acceptance of ourselves and our individuality, our unique role in the greater picture.Ramble, ramble…not sure if this makes any sense, or even if I will still think the same way tomorrow…but it is my feeling as of tonight.

  11. I thought the survey was slightly oversimplified, but I’m not sure how one would structure a survey like this to cross cultures the way this is intended to and be any more complex. My results were lower than I hoped, but not lower than I expected.Different people define happiness differently.I believe we create our own happiness, whether we live with natural disaster, war, disease, etc. It’s how we respond to these from our center that determines our happiness.I also think we can be too much affected, if we allow ourselves to be, by external expectations like those we get from society at large, news, TV, advertising. And Americans are certainly bombarded with that cr*p every day. That alone makes me not very surprised that the US ranks low in happiness. We’re constantly being told we don’t have everything we should, even when we have more than enough. We’re also pushed to be goal oriented, to see the end result as more desirable than the journey there. In the US the work ethic, the quest for money, and for acceptance as “successful” by society have also been stretched into a distorted view of life, leaving family and home far behind.

  12. cualquiera says:

    Well, happiness is just a matter of culture, perception and adaptability. And now for a bit of useless information: Mr. Pollard’s rather nightmarish description of Colombia is not that accurate, even though some of the things he mentioned are quite true. But there are plenty of half-truths and a couple of outright lies there too. Things that could be easily debunked if someone else actually cared enough to do so. But I don’t think that really matters, does it? It may matter to me, I suppose, but if Mr. Pollard’s already that convinced about what he typed that he will not notice several nuances and ambiguities that he has missed or totally contradicted, then pointing out anything else is not going to be of much use (to Mr. Pollard, at least). I’m not a fan of many of those policies Pollard mentioned, by any means, but I’m not a fan of the other extreme: The world is grey, not black and white. Simply switching somebody else’s black for your white doesn’t show that. A blindly pro-Bush’s worldview is no better than an equally blindly anti-Bush, so to speak. In any case, I bear no ill will towards Mr. Pollard and his colleagues, though I will likely not visit this blog again. Just doing this for the karma, you could say…

  13. Jon Husband says:

    Because we’re raised and educated to work and strive for success from the age of 12 or 16 or something like that ?Even partying is a competitieve sport in North America, rather than a celebration of the social.John Merifield of UBC and economists at the Univeristy of Bologna have been studying the economics of :happiness” for some years now .. I belive that their core thesis, and finding, is that the frequency amd scope of social interactivity in the course of daily life and dalily-life activities is their best or most reliable predictor of psychologoical well-being or *happiness*.What always and regularly boggles my mind is that even with 6 billion people on the planet, there could be a much beeter distribution of resources and thus capabilities, without the insane overdrive in western countries and the grinding poverty and struggle for resources in much of the rest of the world.But then again, i’m naive. i’ve never fully understood why free market capitalism is supposed to be so good for everyone .. as far as I can see, it’s only really good for those who wnat to play the game or are connected, usually by birthright. For everyone else, it seems to be an extremely effective form of social control.

  14. Jon Husband says:

    As I was saying .. here’s a piece from Christianity Today, The False Gospel Of Work A money quote, so to speak .. “McCarraher here sets his sights on “the hopeless and infernal world of the capitalist round-the-clock workhouse” and “the cant of diligence and virtue” which, he argues, keeps us from recognizing that “the Work Ethic’s boss is Mammon”.

  15. Karen M says:

    Truly The Money Quote. “The Work Ethic’s Boss is Mammon,” would be a good title for a blog.

  16. Pearl says:

    It’s a large scale of complex thing to try and compare and know what one is measuring. Even assuming that the generalization shows something real…it’s hard. Like Nepali or Japanese people who culturally must smile to standards and Russians and Ukrainians who must frown or else by convention appear like idiots. Is the convention what one must react to, or think about or not the factor here? How much are societal stereotypes traceable to match individual experience of reality?Does poverty and lack of power cause people to grab what happiness they can? Following that logic, as the public becomes more disempowered, does that mean that the future of America is sunny as the 1950s image of trivial pursuits of dancing and drinking and dinner community socials to happiness? If there is a difference in illness, is that due to stress or could it be the seafood vs. fast food diet?It’s common to marvel at the happy person despite them not “having” anything. There’s a lady who studies class, Ruby Payne, and she posits that low-income people consider their wealth relationships and higher income call their wealth things. For status one needs to display emotion in low-class and by the rules that happened to have evolved here, for upper class status one needs to conceal one’s emotions. IS the underlying feeling of happiness different or just the expression?(sorry for the length. Interesting question you posed.)

  17. durandal says:

    Colombians may appear happy but in truth, they (we) are rather miserable. There’s no other way to explain why a country of about 44 million people has a diaspora of about 4 million people abroad, many of them working as illegal immigrants or prostitutes in the First World. Go see “Maria Full of Grace”, a disturbingly true story that probably has repeated itself thousands and thousands of times, and then come and tell me that living in a country where the majority of the population has a chance to lead a decent life is regrettable!Maybe they should run a “hypocrisy poll” parallel to this survey. I’m pretty sure that we’ll come on top of that one too.

  18. ErnestoPorras says:

    Let me tell you, citizens of the “First World” that Colombia is not columbia, that you should not write /their/ in the stead of /they are/, nor /your/ instead of /you are/ as some of you do in previous comments. That said let me tell you the author of this post that /stress/ is not the cause but the end result of the “complex” life you Americans have chosen to crave for your “American Dream”.You [I mean your Government,and your Mammon Boss]have polluted your own hinterland and have distributed your “First World Polluted Dream” all over the world. Now you seem to be surprised by the results at home and abroad, although sometimes it perhaps gives you a sort of reassurance and “superiority”, a legitimation.Don’t fool yourselves with words:”First World”, “They [as different from “Us” the US]are mere delusions of grandeur.ernestoinvestiga

  19. Dave Pollard says:

    I didn’t expect this to be so controversial, or to see such a wide disparity of views especially from readers who live in or are familiar with Colombia. I was glad to read Ernesto’s comment, which seems to be most in line with (if a little harsher in expression than) the views I have received from the amazing Colombians and other Latin Americans I have met and befriended in person. We have so much to learn from each other.

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