The Flip Side of Paradise

What once was “The Happiest Place on Earth”

Having fun yet?

The “happiest place on earth” used to be Disneyland … back when it wasn’t an endless day of lines circling endlessly and you didn’t have to take out a second mortgage to enjoy an “E-ticket” ride.  Now with a day ticket running $96 for adults … not to worry here, folks, the kids age 3 to 9 are a real bargain at only $90 each.  Parking is another $17 and we haven’t begun to add in overpriced food and everything under the sun with Disney’s myriad of names and products all creatively marketed to your dear children. So what to do? Forget about college, or go to Disneyland?

The Second Happiest Place on Earth

Each year the Gallup people surveyed 1,000 adults in each of 138 countries asking five questions: “whether people felt rested, felt they were treated with respect, laughed or smiled a lot, whether they experienced enjoyment and whether they had learned or done something interesting the day before.” Gallup then makes up a Positive Experience Index score for each country. The survey finds that most of the happiest countries are in Latin America, so maybe there is something to the laid-back manana attitude!

Drum roll! The five top countries all are:

Paraguay 87
Panama 86
Guatemala 83
Nicaragua 83
Ecuador 83

Why Panama?

013 (2)There are different rankings based on different ways of calculating happiness. I like Gallup’s because they just don’t ask “Are you happy?” but ask substantive questions about things that lead to happiness.

Why Panama? Here are a few of my own thoughts.

  • Panama is a beautiful place and the people are beautiful. I think it’s easier to feel good and happy in a beautiful place with beautiful people.
  • We don’t have a military and we’re not a warlike people, something which sometimes gets exploited, but is still basically good. Peace is good. It’s easier to be happy when you are at peace with yourself and the rest of the world.
  • Although it’s changing, Panama still isn’t ruled by things and consumerism.
  • Almost the way I remember as a kid in the 50’s, the family is still important. Real family values dominate without necessarily imposing anyone’s own definition of family on everyone else.
  • The church is still important. We don’t bend over backwards to go through all kinds of gyrations, kissing our own asses, to keep absolute separation between church and state. There is no separation. A verse from Psalms painted on the wall of the local police station, or a cross on a hill, or a manger scene in the town plaza, doesn’t send everyone into a flurry of lawsuits. You are free to be an atheist, evangelical, Roman catholic, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Bahai, or nothing.
  • The “manana” attitude, although frustrating to type A gringos used to everything happening on schedule, avoids a lot of stress. Stress equals unhappiness. As my banker once said, “Don’t worry: live long!”
  • Our air is cleaner and clearer: how happy can you be breathing smog?
  • We live longer and better because we eat healthier. A ripe Panamanian pineapple: what could be happier, or sweeter?
  • Until recently there has been generally a lot of “flexibility” in rules. You can’t be happy with a tight-ass attitude to life.
  • There is a harmony with nature largely learned from a strong Indigenous population. One of the first cultural challenges I faced was to learn to throw my banana peel out the window, into the garden or jungle and not carefully put it in a trash can. I remember my Indian worker pointing out that God designed that all things should return to the soil to give nourishment. Somehow I’d missed that simple fact of life in 27 years of schooling.
  • Every day is a new adventure, sometimes just tiny “adventures” and sometimes grand adventures.
  • It’s warm here: in Boquete it is a perfect climate. It’s easier being happy when it’s warm than when you are freezing your butt off!
  • Tough times never last: tough people do. And adversity may, once you’ve come out on the other side, breed confidence, optimism and happiness!

So … yes, it’s a happy paradise.

The Flip Side

But the flip side of paradise is that there is a great gulf between the filthy rich, old-time families that control everything, and the rest of the country. And there is a gap between the just rich and middle class, and wannabe middle class. But the most glaring gap is with the truly poor of Panama.

Many Panamanian retirees live on as little as $300 or $400 a month! 75% of the households supposedly live on less than $1,000 a month. Yet Panama has one of the few booming economies in the world! One of the challenges of a booming economy, along with a falling US dollar and high oil prices, is that Panama is fighting inflation and the price of food has doubled since we moved here 10 years ago.