Why are Colombians so happy?

I know the topic is a cliché. But those surveys that constantly claim Colombians are the happiest people on Earth tend to irritate your brain after a while. I don’t know about you, but I’ve lived with the question “Why are Colombians so happy?” for more than four years now. And I’ve no idea whether I’m actually getting somewhere.

I know I’m happy in Colombia. That was the only thing I ever promised myself, that I would stay as long as I was happy. I don’t mean the sort of fleeting, pleasurable happiness that comes with lowering yourself onto a poolside towel, curling up with a good book and a slice of cake or snuggling under the duvet. I mean the sort of enduring contentment and overwhelming feeling of good fortune that comes with a life where the ups outweigh the downs, where the people are kind, loving and inspiring, where there is purpose, where there is meaning and where there is always something to be done.

But this is a country filled with some 47 million people – hideous numbers of whom live below the poverty line and have endured lives of such horror, it’s enough to keep you awake at night.

So how on Earth do we keep topping all those happiness polls?

1) We have started to own more dogs

Yep. Having made that fleeting reference to Colombia’s dark side, I’m going to at least try and get us back on the happiness track here and what better than… dogs. It might be flippant but pet ownership is on the rise in Colombia and you don’t have to look far in Bogotá, at least, to see the number of pups proliferating – even if their owners are often too busy, lazy or otherwise to walk, even dress, them themselves. That’s probably it. Swathes of Bogotá dog owners get all the happiness and pleasure benefits of owning said mutt (enthusiastic greetings when you come home, cute pics on your iPhone) without the hassle of actually having to walk them, brush them, train them or feed them. And as everyone knows, owning a dog makes you happier – owning a “hassle free” dog must be even better.

2) We have to struggle to survive

From the rich who own the dogs to the not-so-rich who usually walk them, Colombia is nothing if not a struggle for survival. Whether you’re negotiating bureaucracy, ever-shifting political sands and trying to ensure your personal safety or whether your aim for the day is basically just “I need to eat,” Colombia never lets the dust settle on your instinct for existence. While you might like the idea of walking around the so-called developed world with your eyes closed (warmed by the standard issue someone-else-has-it-covered comfort blanket) it might not be that good for you. Viktor Frankl insists we have to struggle to be happy. If he’s right then all those uncomfortable 5am starts, when we desperately try to avoid crushing our collective faces against the transmilenio door, might just be the reason we’re so happy.

3) We never admit defeat

Forget the British stiff upper lip, Colombians invented the poker face. From the poverty-stricken descendants of long-lost aristocratic families who preserve one beautiful reception room in their mansion, only to starve slowly in their cellar, to the legions of determined entrepreneurs touting their wares, well, everywhere – no-one ever throws in the towel. You might be down to your last peso, standing in a foot of rainwater and not sure how you’re going to make the two-hour trip home but you’ll still be insisting: “Things are going very well, very well,” while your mind races to try and figure out what the hell you’re going to do. And of course “Things are going very well, very well,” could sound extremely happy to someone who happens to be compiling a happiness poll.

4) No-one better understands the phrase “It could be worse,” than a Colombian

Happiness is relative…right?

5) It’s not hard to pleasantly surprise a Colombian either

Trust me, Colombians don’t trust anyone and, if you don’t trust me on that, perhaps you will trust me when I tell you that if you do do something trustworthy, Colombians will be pleasantly surprised. Living in a low trust society probably shouldn’t make you happy, but Colombians are pretty accepting about that and just get on with checking all their receipts and burdening their notaries by signing contracts for anything that moves. In the meantime they have perfected the art of having low expectations… and feeling happy when they are surpassed.

6) We have God on our side

I have written about this before and I remain convinced that it’s much easier to be happy when you believe there’s a supreme being out there, with a plan for you, whatever happens.

7) We have no seasons… so no pressure

Science types sometimes wonder whether countries with no seasons (well, ones that don’t experience different temperatures at different times of the year anyway) are inhabited by lazier people. Perhaps we equatorial folk are perpetual grasshoppers as opposed to all those winter-fearing ants elsewhere in the world, who work all summer in readiness for the lean times. I’m not sure I believe that, but I do think living without seasons makes you happier. My life in Europe was a constant cycle of changing temperatures and changing daylight hours, which made it all too easy to measure my life’s progress and fret about it (not to mention the SAD syndrome that afflicts millions of my countrymen) Nowadays, I just get on with it. I work, I do what I need to do and I see life on a day-to-day basis, wearing the same clothes in January and June and never fretting if I fail to take advantage of a sunny day. After all, “Siempre hay un mañana,” (There’s always tomorrow…)

8) We accept that life’s not fair

You might think having no meritocracy is a bad thing, the fact hard work and your talent won’t take you as far as hard cash and your surname. But social scientists have seen a downside to meritocracy. Apparently in societies where it’s believed hard work and talent will take you to the top, people at the bottom are seen as lazy, good-for-nothing wasters who deserve everything they get. Colombians are much more fatalistic and are probably happier not feeling responsible for where they sit in society.

9) We’re never alone

What’s the difference between loneliness and solitude? Westerners can claim until they’re blue in the face that “me time” is what really matters but, tell me, barring the occasional messiah-madness, how many people commit suicide in the company of others? It probably won’t surprise you to learn that Colombia is one of the most collectivist countries in the world. In other words, Colombians hate being alone and do everything to avoid it, from accompanying one another to the bank to holding huge, compulsory family gatherings. Being alone and unhappy is simply not permitted.

10) The only way is up

At the risk of sounding like Chumbuwamba’s, erm, only hit – Colombia has been knocked down and is busy getting back up again. We’re cool (official from the moment Cristiano Ronaldo perfected our national dance) and newspapers now talk less about drugs, guns and bombs and more about homelessness and unemployment in the “new Bogotá” which, although awful, makes us a lot more akin to the rest of civilisation. Our star is on the rise, they say.

Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.

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10 Comments

  1. gringa costeña

    People always say this to me and after two years of living here… I don’t think it’s true at all. At least not on the coast. Yes, we have carnaval. Yes, people like to drink and dance. But does that equate happiness? Errr… don’t get me wrong, I’m happy here for now, but I think this is such a silly thing. I feel like people who are “happy” would be kinder to the people around them; say hello, or maybe even once in awhile hold the door open for someone without slamming it in their face, and possibly not cut in front of me in line ALL THE TIME. Although maybe I’m equating happiness with courtesy and I’m wrong.

  2. Charles Lemos

    I’m asking myself the same question which is how I came to your blog. I’m a Colombian who has just moved back after 15 years outside the country. I’ve been back three months and damn I’ve never been happier. And I’m stunned at the transformation. The day I left the country 15 years ago I went to have lunch in El Saladito in the mountains above Cali. We went early because I had a late night flight back to the US. Good thing because two hours after we left the restaurant, there was a secuestro masivo with scores kidnapped by the FARC. That stays with you. But now I’m back and I just took a trip from Cali to Cartagena with a friend who came down from the States by land. Three weeks of pure delight. My friend at one point—at the Nevado del Ruiz—posted on his FaceBook page that he had never been happier. There’s something infectious about Colombia, Colombians and the cultures. Still haven’t come to the definitive answer to this puzzling question but your post is additive. Thanks!

  3. cafealeman3690

    As Charles Lemos put it above, I am often lost for words when I try to describe the contentment I feel in Colombia. I consider myself pretty well traveled, many countries under my belt but really honestly I have never felt any where the way I feel in Colombia, Is it the happiness? Is it the way the carry themselves? Is it the freshness of the produce? In the end its not important. What I do know is that I love the country and the people and for now that is perfectly delicious. Thanks Vicky!!! He is right your blog is addictive.

  4. hummingsfromparadise

    Hi Victoria…I am an ex pat living in Palmira Valle del Cauca, Colombia. I have been here four years and I absolutely love this blog. As a retired flight attendant I picked up and moved here and haven’t looked back. Every single day I have the kind of happiness I sought forever as a domesticated mother of two who worked part time as a flight attendant. I wake up looking out over the Valle to the mountains of Cali, I ride horses, I ride a mountain bike ( just started that) I write a blog (hummingsfromparadise.com) and I started a Bed and Breakfast which is taking off. (www.villamigelita.com) I am personally happy for once in my life. It is about me, and my goals. I am really happy to have found you. Please check out my FB page too..www.facebook.com/VillaMigelita. I am showing the world in my little way what a person can do who refuses to give up! Gracias a Dios. Michelel

  5. colombiachronicles

    Great Article, definately the automated ‘todo bien’ response has a part to play. Also as a Brit who knows the excitement of bank holiday weekends, the numerous public holidays in Colombia (18 i think) certainly helps to sedate any stress levels that may briefly surface

  6. Henry Lewis

    I just discovered your blog and found this article really interesting from a newly arrived expat point of view. I’ve lived abroad in East Asia and the Middle East for more than 15 years, and just recently settled in Guatape, Colombia. As a former university lecturer, I’ve researched the cultures in each of the many countries where I’ve lived, all very different of course. I’ve only spent about 3 months in Colombia in total (including 8 weeks last spring), but I’m finding that getting inside the local culture in the country is a very hard nut to crack. I agree that the lack of trust brought about by historical events is a big factor. I look forward to reading more of your blog posts and learning more about Colombian culture! Thanks

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