It's probably impossible for most Americans even to begin to understand how it must feel to live in the extreme poverty of Calcutta, India, surviving in a crude shack or on the street with little, if any, access to clean water, nutritious food or decent health care. The filth. The crowds. The disease. From the perspective of the comfortably housed, amply fed and lavishly entertained, such conditions sound hopeless, and the suffering they must breed seems unimaginable.
But not as unimaginable as this: according to a respected researcher who employs a method of ranking human happiness on a scale of 1 to 7, poor Calcuttans score about a 4, meaning they're slightly happier than not. They
may not be as happy as average Americans (who are pretty darned happy, statistically speaking, and positively euphoric when compared with the glum Russians and morose Lithuanians), but they're certainly happier than one might expect.
The enormous assumption behind this finding, of course, is that happiness, like Olympic figure skating, can really be scored numerically at all and that the judges who score it don't even need to come from the same countries or speak the same languages as the people they're judging. Robert Biswas-Diener, an adjunct professor of psychology at Portland State University in Oregon and the mind behind the Calcutta study, believes these things. Biswas-Diener has worked extensively with his father, the noted University of Illinois psychologist Ed Diener, to evaluate what they term the Subjective Well-Being (SWB) of people around the globe, from Masai warriors in East Africa to Inughuit hunters in Northern Greenland, inviting them to answer various questions about their moods and outlook. The results have led them to one sweeping conclusion: human beings, no matter where they live, and almost without regard to how they live, are, in the elder Diener's words, "preset to be happy."
He thinks of this predilection as a "gift" bestowed on people by evolution that helps us adapt and flourish even in fairly trying circumstances (such as residing in Lithuania). But there are other theories. Maybe, he says, we're "socialized" to be happy, "in order to facilitate smooth social functioning." Whatever the reasons for this gift, however, its benefits don't seem to be evenly distributed around the globe.
Latin Americans, for example, are among the happiest people in the world, according to study after study. An international survey of college students in the mid-1990s compared so-called national differences in positivity and ranked Puerto Rico, Colombia and Spain as the three most cheerful locales. To those who equate happiness with digital cable and ice-cube-dispensing refrigerator doors, these results may be surprising. But not to Ed Diener. For him, the astonishingly high spirits of the relatively poor Puerto Ricans and Colombians stem from a "positivity tendency" that "may be rooted in cultural norms regarding the value of believing in aspects of life in general to be good." Translation: Latin Americans are happier because they look on the sunny side of life.
That idea does not appear to be popular in East Asia. Among the bottom five in the study are Japan, China and South Korea. "We have found that East Asians tend to weight the worst areas of their lives when computing their life satisfaction," he reports.