Rose Larsen | KF19 | Colombia
After traveling for almost a month over Christmas holidays, I was struggling to figure out why I was so happy to be back “home” in Barranquilla, the hot, humid, chaotic city on the Caribbean coast of Colombia that I’ve been living in for the past 4 months. I had just visited places of incredible beauty like:
Montezuma, Costa Rica
Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua
and Medellin, Colombia.
But as much fun as I had, none of these places measured up.
Then I read the news and everything made sense.
According to the Global Barometer of Hope and Happiness, Colombia is the happiest country on earth and Barranquilla is the happiest region in this happiest of countries.
Though a study of just 54 countries defining an entire population by one overly simplified emotion should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt, this is good news for a country that is still overwhelmingly known for kidnappings, guerillas and Pablo Escobar. The most common reaction when I tell people I’m living in Colombia is, “Isn’t it dangerous?!” – and this from people who have traveled through Honduras and El Salvador, countries #1 and #2 on the list of homicide rates by firearm.
But while stereotypes about Colombia are exaggerated, the country is far from perfect, and its notorious history will never be completely erased.
So that leaves me wondering, why is a country with 37% living below the poverty line, between 3.9 and 5.5 million internally displaced people, and the world’s leading coca cultivator (source) so happy?
Most Colombians remember when they couldn’t leave their town or city because so much of the country was controlled by guerillas or paramilitary forces. There are still parts of the country out of government control. And I’ve seen for myself that many live in makeshift homes, slums and even on the streets.
Still, right from the start, I noticed how cheerful and happy Colombians tend to be. Life here, particularly on the coast, is colorful and warm. Happy, upbeat music like the local vallenato or more regionally popular salsa blares from parked cars, shops and homes; traffic is a mess but there is very little road rage; and the people dress mainly in bright colors.
Colombians are huge partiers – every weekend of the year you can find at least one city or region celebrating some kind of festival. Particularly famous is the Feria de las Flores in Medellin, the annual national beauty contest in Cartagena and of course, Barranquilla’s Carnaval!
Most significant has been how warmly I’ve been welcomed into this culture. I never worry about getting lost or not knowing when to get off the bus – the moment I ask for help people scramble over each other to give me advice and make sure I get where I’m going. Neighbors, colleagues and new friends have been so welcoming, and the Kiva borrowers I’ve met have been smiling and friendly, happily posing for the pictures and videos I’ve taken and sharing stories about their lives and businesses.
I have no answers as to why Colombia is so happy, but I have some hypotheses.
One is that Colombians have been through A LOT in the past 50 years, dealing with the FARC, drug cartels, paramilitary forces and the seemingly uncountable murders and kidnappings that accompanied them. Colombians had to stay positive to get through such tough years, and now as violence is decreasing, the economy is growing and tourism is booming, there is a lot to be happy about. Unlike Americans, Europeans, and residents of many other parts of the world currently experiencing economic downturns, Colombia’s future looks bright!
Another possible reason for such high levels of happiness is the strong culture of family that is prevalent across all of Latin America. That could also explain why Latin America has the highest level of happiness of all regions of the world, almost twice as high as the runner up. Colombians are very family centric, celebrating holidays with huge family gatherings and depending on their families to help them out in rough times.
Then, of course, there is the natural beauty that surrounds Colombians at all times. Colombia is home to mountain ranges, Amazon rainforest, tropical Caribbean beaches, and fertile valleys. The cities are vibrant and varied, with an increasing level of culture as Colombia’s economy and international investment grows. From the farms of the coffee region to the clubs of hip Medellin to the beaches of Parque Tayrona, Colombia is filled with breathtaking spots.
Or maybe it’s more simple than all of that – Colombia’s soccer team was in fifth place in the World Cup rankings for 2012!
Whatever the reason may be, living in Colombia has taught me to relax, see the bright side of things, and be more friendly and open. I think all of us in less happy nations such as the United States (#31 out of 54), Italy (#45) or the United Kingdom (#38) have a lot to learn from Colombians.