I recently downloaded the results of the Gallup-Healthways Global Well-Being Index. The Gallup organization interviewed more than 146,000 people in 145 countries in 2014. Participants were asked questions about the following domains of well-being.

  • Purpose: liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
  • Social: having supportive relationships and love in your life
  • Financial: managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
  • Community: liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community
  • Physical: having good health and enough energy to get things done daily

Regions of the world and individual countries were ranked as to the percentage of the survey participants that were thriving in each of these domains. In addition, regions and countries were ranked as to the percentage who were thriving in three or more areas.

Panama was the country that ranked first in overall well-being, followed by Costa Rico and Puerto Rico. Seven of the top 10 countries were Latin American; the only exceptions were three European nations–Switzerland, Denmark, and Austria. For the most part, the Latin American countries ranked high on the purpose, social, community, and physical dimensions, while the European countries were highest in the financial realm.

As a resident of the United States, I immediately noticed that the US is not in the top 10 in any domain of well-being. I found us down in 23rd place overall, with 30.5% of our residents thriving on three or more dimensions. We ranked moderately high in the purpose, social, and financial areas (ranks of 22, 24, and 22 respectively). Not surprisingly for a highly individualistic country, we were lowest in the area of community, though even there our rank of 41st puts us in the top third of nations surveyed.

Here are the top 10 countries in each realm of well-being:

Well-being index

The report’s authors suggest that the high ranks for Central and South American countries may be due in part to the “Latin American cultural predisposition that is associated with higher levels of positivity than other regions” Referring to results from a Gallup survey on daily positive experiences, the authors indicate that Latin Americans are particularly likely to report such experiences as smiling or laughing, enjoyment, and feeling that they were treated with respect each day.

Perhaps this tendency for positivity is responsible for the relatively high ranking of some countries for which press reports (I’m speaking of the US press here) tend to emphasize social, political, or economic turmoil much more than anything favorable–countries like Guatemala (ranked eighth), Mexico (tenth), Brazil (fifteenth) and El Salvador (eighteenth). A positivity bias certainly doesn’t provide total protection from social problems, but it seems to make life more pleasant and satisfying while dealing with such problems. Maybe more of us should try walking on the sunny side of the street.