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Map: the countries where people are most likely to have a good day

Are the world's happiest countries in Latin America?

The countries highlighted in blue were the 10 happiest in Gallup's poll measuring positive emotions. The red countries were the least happy. (Map: Jody Sieradzki, Dadaviz. Data: Gallup)

A new report from Gallup Analytics suggests Latin America was the world's happiest region in 2014. The data, based on surveys in 143 countries, strikingly found Latin American nations made up the entire top 10. Paraguay tops the rankings, followed by a cluster of happy nations stretching down from Guatemala to Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela:

Happiest countries Gallup ranking

It's particularly surprising given that many of those apparently cheerful countries have experienced extremely high levels of violence and other social problems in recent years. Five of the 10 happiest countries were also among the 10 with the world's highest murder rates, according to recent UN statistics: Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Venezuela, and Colombia. That UN report found that Honduras, which ranks as the fifth-happiest on Gallup's list, had the highest murder rate in the world. Venezuela, meanwhile, is also experiencing an economic crisis that has led to extreme inflation, shortages of basic goods, and political unrest.

It's also striking that so many of the happiest countries are relatively poor given that other research suggests people's sense of well-being tends to strongly correlate with their country's GDP. Nicaragua is only the 166th-richest country as measured by purchasing power–adjusted GDP per capita, for instance — but it ranks 10th in Gallup's happiness survey.

The answer may lie in Gallup's methodology. Happiness is, of course, a very tricky thing to measure. This particular poll asked respondents if they had experienced happy feelings — such as feeling well-rested, being respected, smiling or laughing a lot, or doing an interesting activity — the day before the survey was conducted. But a survey asking people if they had positive experiences yesterday isn't measuring quite the same thing as a survey asking how often they have good days — it doesn't necessarily capture their more general sense of well-being.

It's also hard to know, without more information, whether the sample of people who were interviewed might have been skewed toward people in richer or safer areas. Gallup's description of the survey says the data was gathered using telephone and face-to-face interviews. Without careful correction, that methodology will tend to exclude respondents who are very poor and thus lack phones, or who live in areas too dangerous or remote for interviewers to travel to.

Then again, maybe it's just that Venezuela's Ministry of Happiness is so powerful that its effects are reverberating across the region.

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