Central America: one of the happiest regions on earth?

According to the new Happy Planet Index, Central America is one of the happiest regions in the world. Don't mind the violence.

Central America’s myriad problems – violence, drugs, corruption, political folly, social unrest, natural disasters, poverty, emigration, and chupacabras – are a well known and seemingly chronic condition.

But according to the Happy Planet Index – an attempt to measure human well-being and environmental impact using a perplexing mathematical formula – most Central Americans couldn’t be more pleased about their situation. Even narco-gangbangers are whistling while they work.

Six of the seven countries that share this habitually troubled isthmus (including some of the most violent places in the world) rank in the Top 10 of this year’s Happy Planet Index, published last week by British think tank New Economics Foundation.

The Top 10 is bookended by Costa Rica, which again finished in 1st place (¡pura vida, mae!), and Guatemala, which finished in 10th place, probably to the surprise of most Guatemalans hiding inside their homes. Rounding out the champions’ circle is Belize at No. 4 (just happy to be included as part of Central America), El Salvador at No. 5 (after a 100-day gang truce, Salvadorans may soon overtake Belizeans in the cheerful category), Panama at No. 7 (apparently the poll wasn’t conducted during rush hour traffic in Panama City), and Nicaragua at No. 8 (a Sandinista poll released today also shows that President Daniel Ortega enjoys an 80 percent approval rating in a country where statistics have a 113.85 percent level of accuracy).

Related: Think you know Latin America? Take our geography quiz!

Honduras, the gloomiest country in the region, finished in 13th place out of 151 countries, apparently as the joy of the 2009 coup slowly fades.

The incessantly fretful United States ranked a depressing 105 on the world index.

The Happy Planet Index measures comparative data on life expectancy, experienced well-being, and ecological footprint in a curious algorithm that looks like this: (experienced well-being (X) life expectancy) / ecological footprint.

Or, as New Economics Foundation explains it, “The index is an efficiency measure; it ranks countries on how many long and happy lives they produce per unit of environmental input.”

However the math works, it’s undeniable that many Central Americans seem to be genuinely fun-loving and happy folks, despite having plenty of reasons to worry. As the world economic downturn of 2008 showed, problems are pretty relative in this part of the world.

“When you tell someone who normally eats only once a day that they are going to miss another meal, it’s no big deal. It’s the people who eat three times a day who think there’s a crisis when they miss a meal,” Nicaraguan taxi driver Tirso Vilchez told me when explaining why most Nicaraguans weren’t too worried about the financial meltdown of global markets.

Now that Central America’s economy has recovered, people have even more reason to smile. Ironically, however, with the region’s new economic growth comes new development that’s potentially damaging to the environment. Nicaragua is currently passing the hat to raise $30 billion to cut a canal across their country, while Costa Rica pushes forward on highway project built without any environmental impact studies that has caused serious ecological damage along the border with Nicaragua.

Indeed, the happiest country in the world is deepening its environmental footprint every day. And that could affect their ranking in next year’s index, when life expectancy is multiplied by well-being and then divided by units of environmental impact. Or something like that.

Tim Rogers is editor of Nicaragua Dispatch

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