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Happiness, X,Y and Z

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A study carried out by the World Happiness Report 2012 and presented by Columbia University of the United States places Venezuela as the happiest country in South America, the second in Latin America, and nineteenth worldwide. It is an unlikely survey, principally because we are accustomed to facts and figures that map the accumulation of capital rather than degrees of contentment. Nonetheless the sentiment has been traced. Who would have thought happiness could also be reduced to a bar chart?

Undoubtedly, at first, it seems difficult to measure. Yet, without needing to consult philosophers or physicists, it is possible to approach the concept in a no-frills back to basics manner, testing the concept from as simple a question as "how are you?". Happiness may be uncountable but it must be indicative of something. Surely no one is happy if they are hungry, sick or homeless?

For a country as polemic as Venezuela due in large part to the presence of its left wing president Hugo Chavez, the happiness survey brings to the table a curious insight amidst the avalanche of international discontent that so far has been rating the politics of the South American country. But if happy is to not be hungry, sick or homeless, then Venezuela isn't doing too badly in the worldwide charts.

Causes for the joyous results aren't merely superficial. Certainly, Venezuela has many of the physical and geographical traits of a typical postcard-like resort of tropical carefreeness and a "no worries" approach to most things. It enjoys good weather and prides itself on its far stretching Caribbean beaches. Coast-side, everyone is wearing shorts and flips flops, has long lazy lunches and many rum-soaked evenings. Time is a helpful tool of orientation rather than a strict measurement and rain is a clear indication to stay at home rather than to go out and work. The stereotypes of Latin behaviour extend sometimes to even the most serious of contexts. The other day I attended a presentation for the council of Caracas´ annual report on its Budget spending. The politician leading the event came out into the high-ceilinged hall, only to burst out into dance, grab an elderly lady from the public and proceed to sway through an entire salsa song whilst the rest of the audience laughed and clapped. I had difficulties imagining the same scenario occurring with our solemn hold-up-the-red-briefcase Budget report photo back in the UK.

Yet attitude towards life can´t be the only reason why a nation is happy, as if the larger issues at stake are simply ignored or downplayed in favour of a good ol´boogie. Venezuelans feel good, I believe, because their basic needs are being met. The country currently boasts the highest minimum wage in Latin America and its latest bill for workers rights hails in a new era of legal protection and social security to a large part of the population who had up until recently been labouring within informal and vulnerable frameworks. Domestic workers, voluntary full time carers of family relatives and housekeepers now too have rights and a state pension, whilst peasants, fisherman and others practicing the more traditional trades, who have always been omitted from formal registers, will now enjoy the same rights as their urban peers. There are local clinics where people had never seen a doctor before, new brick-layered houses for people who had been living in cardboard slums, and subsidized food products and medicines. Of course, there is still a fair way to go before things are just right, but till then, I can see why most Venezuelans already feel like a song and a dance.