Colombia has a reputation for being one of the happiest countries in the world (it is regularly Number 1 in the annual WIN/Gallup International Association survey), a reputation which stands in stark contrast to its often negative global image. But what is the secret to Colombia’s happiness? While there are surely many diverse factors accounting for this joy, Colombian coffee is most definitely part of the equation.
Colombian coffee is generally known as some of the best in the world. Unfortunately, this amazing reputation means that the very best Colombian beans usually end up outside the country, exported to feed the growing market for speciality coffee around the world. However, the majority of Colombian departments – at least 21 of the 32 regions grow coffee commercially – cultivate the magical red beans, which are an intrinsic aspect of Colombian culture and national identity, even if most Colombians sadly don’t get to drink the really good stuff.
And it is this coffee culture that plays such a strong role in Colombian national happiness. Unlike in many Western countries where coffee is seen as a much more functional drink designed to stimulate and give energy, in Colombia, the drink has very different connotations. Coffee has taken on a much more sociable role in society, and it is very common for Colombians to meet up with friends and family over a cup of coffee. In rural areas, older people whiling away the hours chatting over cups of coffee, just like the two old-timers in the photo below, is a frequent activity. Even in a work environment, the role of coffee is distinct; while in Europe or North America it may be a drink to grab quickly on the way into the office, in Colombia, it’s much more likely to be the focus of breaks and meetings. It’s not that this difference is necessarily the key to happiness, but coffee greases the wheels of Colombian social interaction and is an essential element of the sociable society which Colombians enjoy, making it one of the keys to their enviable happiness.
Colombians also have a very different relationship with coffee itself (although with the steady rise of chains, such as Starbucks, in the country, this is changing nowadays). While coffee can often be seen as the cause of negative symptoms and actions in other countries – addiction, nervousness, and other symptoms associated with the overuse of caffeine – in Colombia, coffee is treated very distinctly. People tend to drink coffee in far smaller cups – often tiny plastic cups of sweetened black coffee known as tinto – and, therefore, seem to suffer less from the negative aspects of coffee and simply enjoy the positive ones. In Colombia, coffee is to be enjoyed and savoured, not simply as a crutch allowing you to get through the day.
In a world where people are increasingly being diagnosed with illnesses such as depression and social anxiety, a world where symptoms of alienation and isolation are increasingly afflicting the young and old alike, coffee culture in Colombia is a simple antidote to the root causes of these afflictions. It might seem like an overly simple solution, but the social interactions created by this coffee culture serve to grow and strengthen human relationships. In Colombia, coffee is clearly no mere drink.
In many ways, the role of coffee in Colombian culture is somewhat similar to that of tea in the United Kingdom. Coffee in Colombia is much more than simply a hot drink; it is an important aspect of national identity. It brings people together, creates connections and friendships, has become an important symbol of Colombian identity, and even provides for tens of thousands of livelihoods throughout the country. Although coffee is one of the single most popular beverages on the planet, in Colombia, it means something more: coffee might well be one of the keys to Colombia’s famous happiness.