When George Gallup introduced public opinion polling 80 years ago, who would have guessed how important polls would become? Measuring public attitudes on everything guides policy-makers' decisions, which can only be beneficial. But they're also manipulatable, depending on the phrasing of questions.
Mindful of that, when I read Gallup's recent poll results purporting to list individual nations' human happiness, I was staggered when top billing was accorded Paraguay, and thereafter (in order) Panama, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia, Denmark, Honduras, Venezuela and El Salvador. NZ came in 15th equal with Australia.
Excluding Costa Rica and Denmark, these results are nonsense. Bankrupt Venezuela is on the brink of civil war, Honduras has the world's highest murder rate, almost matched by its similarly impoverished neighbour El Salvador, while Nicaragua's had 60 per cent unemployment for three decades.
Life in those nine Latin countries is grim. I know them and none strikes me as happy. Once in Nicaragua I spent time with a wealthy family visiting their relatives. They'd fled to America during the 1970s Sandinista upheaval and, through hard work, created a large business. One evening the mother told me that she puzzled at the acceptance of their lot by her impoverished Nicaraguan relatives. I asked if she supported them and on receiving her affirmation, asked whether she thought they would still be so laid back without that backing. She pondered that and admitted probably not, then added, "They say they're happy but they're all desperate to come to America."
That says it all, and is also true of the other Central American countries listed - again, Costa Rica excepted - as we read about frequently and, indeed, heart-breakingly a fortnight ago with the revelation of thousands of central American small children making their way alone across the Rio Grande.
My supposition for these polling responses is the exaggerated Latin sense of pride which would induce an "of course I'm happy" response to such a query.
The same poll improbably listed Lithuania with the likes of Chad and Belarus as the least happy nations, this scarcely borne out by the evidence. Lithuania is today a comfortable Western nation but - as with all of the Baltic and Scandinavian countries, Denmark excepted - a dour seriousness prevails which would induce puzzlement if asked whether one is happy.
We all have our own definitions for happiness. Putting aside family and friends considerations, mine is to wake each day with interesting and varied things to do; no more, no less. Some people become overly analytical about this eternal question, and never more than the fashionable Marcus Aurelius, who seemingly spent his life in moody contemplation. He preached simplicity and restraint yet enjoyed an affluent life-style and had 14 children. Mind you, his years as emperor were turbulent, which can lead to much self-analysis of the what's-it-all-about ilk.
A recent Aurelius-type example that greatly amused me was a correspondent, Ted Favell, in the Wanganui Chronicle, where this column appears. First, he castigated me for mocking God (moi? - surely not), then for my claiming to be successful despite never having written a word to that effect, then contradictorily he bragged of his own successful life.
This he attributed to living his presumably circa 80 years in Waverley, plus having Jesus in his heart, a wife of 53 years and a roof and walls to keep out the rain. For those who don't know, Waverley is a tiny Taranaki village. One wonders if in a reckless teenage moment, Ted may have tentatively visited the big smoke, namely Patea up the road, then - terrified by the bright lights - quickly scampered home to his safe four walls and roof, remaining cowering there battling his ombrophobia ever since, this compounded by his masochistic choice of living in one of our wettest regions. Less Jesus and a bit more red blood in his heart would certainly have delivered Ted a more interesting life. Still, each to his own.
As Waverley's population suggests, Ted's location choice for a content life is not a popular one. The same could be said of Southland, rated in a government poll just released as our happiest region, this raising the question of why the government is wasting taxpayer money on such exercises. Still, it brings to mind that old philosophy-stage-one question, whether it's better to be a happy cabbage or live a more interesting life with its necessary edginess. The parallel can be found with small children and young animals such as puppies, kittens, lambs etc, all happy half-wits whose evident joie de vivre gives us much vicarious pleasure.
If visible happiness was the sole criterion, then Melanesians would win hands down. Constant giggling over trivia while something deeply serious is arising, such as asking to pass the salt, results in hysterical mirthful collapse all round. Yet Fiji, Vanuatu etc are not on anyone's list as migrant destinations and, given the chance, I suspect most of their people would readily move here.