One of the most comprehensive studies on happiness ever done was recently released. Among its many conclusions, the most interesting deal with the causes of human happiness. The study found that material items such as nice cars, new clothes and luxury homes give off a chemical release in the brain. The release is short-lived and individuals adapt to their new possessions. After a short period of time they are no happier than they were before. Whereas, long-term, sustained, happiness is found in a sense of purpose, close friendships and a sense of community. People who developed a strong sense of community were significantly more happy throughout their life than those who had not.
Foreigners moving to Panama, often overlook the importance of a strong community. They’re drawn to Panama by postcards and Internet advertising claiming that you can “Live in Paradise for dollars a day!” (Highly misleading. “Dollars a day paradises” can be found only if your paradise includes cement walls, dirt floors and inconsistent running water.)
To this group of people, Panama is a pre-defined picture. It’s a search for a secluded bungalow on a white sand beach, a mountain villa with a picturesque view of Panama’s highlands, or a spotless midtown condominium minutes away from a fantastic nightlife. These people believe the sales brochures. Buy this and you buy paradise. The sales agents will not tell you that “paradise” is boring unless you have a connection to other people, unless you belong to a community.
My personal story is a testimate to the need for long term happiness.
My first years in Panama City were spent in a high-rise building. It was located downtown. I had more than ample space and a great view of the city skyline. I was within walking distance to grocery stores, gyms and the nightlife. I had everything a bachelor could ever ask for.
Approximately 20 other families occupied my high-rise apartment building. Besides brief greetings in the elevator, I personally knew only a couple of them. Below my apartment building, there were many shops. However, I frequented few of them. Nearby my apartment building, I had many friends. Yet, I visited few of them. I thought I had found a perfect high-rise apartment. But, after a year of living in it, I became bored.
The void in my Panama life was a lack of community. I had been a person who enjoyed social interaction. Yet, in my bachelor pad, there was practically none amongst my immediate neighbors.
In search of a change, I relocated to Casco Viejo. It was an up-n-coming neighborhood that was rough around its edges. At the time, only a handful of my friends lived in the-sometimes-dodgy neighborhood. Yet, the few that did, were passionate about living there. Intrigued, I decided to give it a shot.
My acclimation to Casco was quick. Within the first few weeks, I was friends with the rich and poor and the young and old around me. I made habit of spending my dollars at local small businesses and attending local meetings. I genuinely care about the welfare and prosperity of the community and its people. My people.
My apartment is a fraction of the size of my former apartment and without any views. I am not centrally located. The nearest gym or proper grocery store is a planned trip away. In spite of what many would consider a drop in my standard of living, I am happier.
Generally, the people who are the most satisfied with Panama have connected with their community. The ones that leave after a year or two, haven’t. Strong communities can be found in places that undertake initiative projects. When people coordinate social events, culturally intermix, start small businesses, and strive to better their neighborhood, real communities and happy people are the result.
What follows is a quick rundown of the places I believe have the strongest/weakest sense of community in Panama:
Casco Viejo – Like previously mentioned.
Pedasi – A throwback to the front porch culture. Everyone seems to rock in their chairs and say hello to neighbors and strangers alike.
Isla Colon in Bocas del Toro – One of Panama’s only true beach towns.
Coronado – Stale high rise apartment towers lining the beach. Very little limited access to outsiders.
Lotted Communities like Altos Del Maria – The biggest complaint from residences is “I feel alone living up there.”
New High-Rise Towers in Panama City – Most likely half the building is unoccupied. The other half of the residence are more likely to sit alone by the rooftop pool than have dinner with their neighbor.
Boquete - Most people would disagree and say that Boquete has a vibrant local and international community. However, what turns me off to Boquete is the fact that most foreigners burrow themselves in the hills. They’re far away from the town center. Cultural interaction with the locals is minimal as well.
Moving to Panama is not easy. It’s a different language and a different pace of life. If you feel like you are a part of the community, you’ll love Panama. If you do not, your time here will not be long.