The family that lives here is happier than you are

And I’ll to prove it.

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A year or so ago, I watched a documentary about the outrageous amount of antidepressants Americans gobble down each year.

What I remember vividly from the documentary was an interview with a guy who told the story of crying at his mother’s funeral and being approached by a sympathetic friend who encouraged him to down a Prozac to take the edge off the sadness of his mother’s passing.

The guy being interviewed explained that he looked at his friend incredulously and asked him why on earth he would want to medicate away a perfectly natural (albeit painful) human emotion.

The point he was making was important: Today, more than eleven percent of Americans are on some form of antidepressant. When more than one in ten of us feels such a high degree of depression, anger or anxiety in our lives that we need serious medication, something significant is going on societally.

I bring all of this up because a few days ago, Bloomberg News published a list of the most stressed out countries in the world. The U.S. was listed as the fifty-third most stressed out country, far less stressed out than countries like Uruguay, Chile, Thailand, Costa Rica, Argentina and my home, Panama.

To say that the chart should be taken with a grain of salt would be too kind.

The chart is absolute horseshit.

The categories Bloomberg ranked to measure stress demonstrate that the chart isn’t really about human stress at all… Instead what Bloomberg did is crunch knowable numbers (GDP per capita, income inequality, and unemployment rate among others) and then make an entirely subjective determination based on those numbers about people’s stress levels in countries around the world.

In other words, according to Bloomberg if you live in a country like Panama or Uruguay and you don’t have big stacks of Benjamins to throw down for the latest iCrap as soon as it hits the store shelves, well, you must be really stressed out!

While Bloomberg completely misses the boat on measuring what they claim they were measuring, their chart does demonstrate (quite well in fact) the problem when a culture of hyper-consumption and debt tries to measure human well being using the limited standard of material wealth: They fail miserably.

The truth is that much of the rest of the world doesn’t live by Wall Street metrics of happiness so totally skewed towards material well-being. They’re too busy experiencing the genuine emotion.

Panama for instance – a country with one fifth the GDP per capita as the U.S. – was listed by Gallup late last year as the happiest country in the world.

In fact, check out the chart below comparing the Gallup “happiness” numbers from 2012 with Bloomberg’s “stress” numbers.

 Country  Happiest to unhappiest    Stress (highest to least)   GDP PerCapita   Income inequality  Unemployment %
 Gallup  Bloomberg
 Panama  1  22  $11,150  51.9  4.2
 El Salvador  2 (tied)  3  $3935  48.3  5.7
 Venezuela  2 (tied)  12  $11,527  39  7.8
 Thailand  3  35  $6572  37  0.7
 Guatemala  4  5  $3415  55.1  4.1
 Ecuador  5 (tied)  19  $5627  47.7  5.8
 Costa Rica  5 (tied)  33  $10,363  50.7  6.5
 United States  35  54  $51,248  45  7.7

Now, if we assume that happiness is probably a good proxy for low-stress, what the chart above demonstrates is that Bloomberg’s numbers are a bad joke.

Keep in mind that Gallup actually surveyed hundreds of real flesh and blood people in every country, so these were self-reported levels of happiness rather than numbers that could be crunched by some quant in Bloomberg’s Wall Street offices.

Every country in the chart above self-reported levels of happiness that were far above the self-reported numbers in the United States.

But Bloomberg’s purely economic analysis as a proxy for stress shows that these folks are somehow all more stressed out than Americans… without even asking them!

Incredibly, even Nigeria, listed by Bloomberg as the most stressed out country on earth, self-reported a higher level of happiness (27th happiest in the world) than the U.S. (35th).

What the data show us is that focusing solely on economic indicators measuring material wealth as a proxy for happiness is a trap. The numbers are more than mildly misleading… They’re downright wrong.

Panama, which ranks 90th in the world with respect to GDP per capita, are among the happiest people in the world.

As wrong as it is, Bloomberg’s data tells us something else important…

As a society, we’re chasing the wrong things.

Most Panamanians — and I’d venture to guess most of the citizens of the countries ranked highest on the happiness scale — don’t sit in front of televisions for five hours a day.

Many of them don’t have cars. They walk and bike – exercising out of necessity.

They don’t measure their self-worth based on how much money they have.

They don’t spend hours on social media living vicariously through “friends” or envying those who report every minute detail of their perfect lives.

They’ve never heard of concepts like “retail therapy”.

They spend substantially more time outdoors – the poor little town near our home is like a giant outdoor living room most days of the week, full of families strolling, kids playing, and grandparents socializing. (That photo of the house above is right in the middle of this town).

I invite the Bloomberg folks to come down to these parts with a bag full of Prozac anytime they like and tell Panamanians how stressed out they are compared to North Americans. They will look at you like you are from another planet.

I’ll leave you with this…

Two weeks ago I spent 10 amazing days in our home in a very remote part of Panama. It’s in a part of the country that is almost entirely self-reliant – small farmers or cattle ranchers who have been living the same rugged, resilient lifestyle for generations. They are people whom I have enormous respect and admiration for because they’ve got it figured out.

These are folks who are completely unfazed by world news, global economic or political strife, the Trayvon Martin killing, Obamacare, NSA spying or any of the other stuff that folks up north obsess about.

Their way of life is to “work to live”, not “live to work.” And they get along just fine.

While I was there I surfed, planted tomatoes at the farm, did some gardening, played with the kids, stared up at the stars at night with my wife, and spent a great evening with friends playing guitar in a small outdoor restaurant under a thatched bohio. Yes, the power went out. We were without water on occasion. Sometimes the Internet went down. There were very few conveniences.

A week later I traveled to the U.S. to meet with clients in a shiny, efficient big city on the East Coast. I sat in client’s lobbies with multiple television screens tuned to talking heads on FOXMSNBCCNN. I spent much of my time in antiseptic, temperature-controlled conference rooms… In all day meetings watching Power Point presentations… Giving presentations of my own while everyone else multitasked, heads down, banging away furiously on their smart phones.

Guess where I needed the Prozac?

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