On May Day, as our well-equipped coach navigated Peru’s sprawling capital, a teeming city of 13 million inhabitants, the 29 Americans on board were soaking up everything they could learn about this huge metropolis, one of the principal cities in South America. The fact that the first day of May is a national holiday in that country allowed us to observe the thousands in Lima who assembled to celebrate their history and culture as well as enjoy the wonderful weather.

Presidential Palace, Lima (All photos by Denis Smith)

But as our group peered through the windows of the tour bus and, later, walked through the crowds of Peruvians gathered in the city’s Plaza de Armas to celebrate their national holiday, a few things we saw and heard converged to make some of us think about our country and compare its national mood and public discourse with this inviting South American land.

The contrast was telling.

We had left our fractious political climate to explore Peru and Ecuador and end the journey in the Galapagos Islands. But what we saw and learned in our first stop in Peru gave some of us in the group a much-needed injection of hope and optimism about what our nation might be like after a brief but welcome detoxification from the Trump Era.

That thought process started with a walk through the main square, getting a glimpse of the presidential palace, and observing so many smiling, even joyous faces among the multitude on the holiday. In particular, among all of these people who were marching and dancing in the streets near the Plaza de Armas, we saw a number of groups that were representative of the joy and energy we felt in this wonderful country. The photos that follow provide a snapshot of that energized afternoon.

After about an hour of soaking up the sunshine and absorbing the warmth of the Peruvian people as they celebrated their holiday, we again boarded the bus to travel to a reception in another part of the city. As we settled into our seats to prepare for the next stop, one of the guides started to deliver a Peruvian history lesson that turned out to be tailored for an unsuspecting American audience. There is no doubt that we were surprised by what we heard.

“You’ve seen the main square and presidential palace in our city,” the guide said. “Let me share with you the story of Alberto Fujimori, one of our former presidents who used to live in that building.”

For the next ten minutes, my fellow Americans heard the guide relate a tale of a man who was elected to the presidency of Peru and then soon anointed himself dictator. He seized extraordinary power to deal with internal threats to the nation in the form of revolutionary groups and then converted that fear to gain even more power. Several months ago, the New York Times described that period of Peru’s history in this fashion:

Mr. Fujimori suspended the Constitution and ruled as an autocrat. While he eventually restored laws and was re-elected in 1995, his government came increasingly under suspicion for corruption, [and] attacks on political opponents

The guide then told us that Mr. Fujimori was pardoned by his successor, President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, but the pardon was overturned by the courts. In the meantime, Mr. Fujimori’s daughter Keiko was arrested in October 2018 on money laundering charges.

Autocrat. Abuse of power. Pardons. Money laundering. Powerful presidential daughter. A president pardoning a former president. These themes hit home away from home.

And to think that I’ve spent the last year avoiding the very thought of a Trump pardon by a President Mike Pence. Ugh.

There were so many hints in the guide’s presentation about recent Peruvian history that our fellow Americans on the tour needed to be in a coma if they weren’t able to pick up the not-so-subtle mini-lecture of a tale about a president, his misdeeds, and offspring associated with his campaign and tenure.

If that presentation wasn’t enough of a bummer, something else caught my attention.

A few days ago, after going through a trove of email that had stacked up during our travels, I found some disturbing findings from the latest World Happiness Report. The data collected by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network found that the Happiness Level for Americans has been dropping during the last several years.

Since 2017, the USA has plunged five rankings among international happiness comparisons. Hmm. Would there be any market in the future for blue baseball caps that would proclaim Make America Happy Again?

Here is how Fortune reported this downward American trend.

The United States is the unhappiest it’s ever been.

The 2019 World Happiness Report says that Finland remains the happiest country on Earth for the second year in the row, while the U.S. drops to No. 19, its worst ranking ever (it was No. 18 in 2018 and No. 14 in 2017).

The global report on 156 countries … placed five Nordic countries in the top 10, with the Netherlands (5), Switzerland (6), New Zealand (7), Canada (9), and Austria (10) filling out the other top spots.

Interestingly enough, one of the measures used to determine the relative happiness of a nation is “perceptions of government corruption.” In light of how that indicator is used in these international comparisons, many of us are trying to recall a single, significant federal government scandal between 2009 and January 2017, when the American happiness index started going south in this Age of Trump.

Which brings us back to Peru. Certainly, there is no agreed upon method to determine happiness just by looking at crowds and smiling faces on a national holiday. But with the rancor that we see and hear every day in our own land, there must be something that we can learn from this friendly country and its outwardly happy people.

So what could we learn or examine for comparative purposes?

Fewer addictive behaviors like social media and drug use? More time to enjoy a meal of healthier food? Increased time outdoors to realize the healthy benefits of sunlight and Vitamin D? People satisfied that a former authoritarian leader has been returned to prison and that his daughter is in custody for money laundering activity?

The report does include a particularly startling statement that should be considered by our elected officials, in light of an epidemic of mass shootings and drug deaths in this country:

The United States’ historical failure to implement public health policies that emphasize well-being over corporate interests must be addressed to respond to the addiction epidemic. Effective interventions might include a rapid scale-up of publicly financed mental health services and increased regulation of the prescriptive drug industry and other addictive products and activities. 

There is much to ponder in this passage, and we ignore the warnings of addictive products and activities, including drugs, weapons, and all-consuming social media use, at our peril. One can hardly walk down the street anymore and meet the eyes of others, as many faces are cast down and focused on tiny screens rather than engaged in the immediate human and natural environment.

So we all have work to do in order to realize a happier environment.  One painful fact for those on the far-right who have blocked the expansion of health care reform, a focus on mental health initiatives, and meaningful regulations of weapons is that the Nordic countries, seen as bastions of hated socialism and government directed health care, are doing exceptionally well in terms of the World Happiness Report.

How angry might some Fox viewers be to hear commentary about Nordic exceptionalism rather than our own? One can only wonder.

One more observation. It’s about the use of the word exceptionalism.

Indeed, American exceptionalism and a myopic view generated by myth-makers of our history have contributed to what has been seen as a “historical failure to implement public health policies that emphasize well-being over corporate interests.” We must be willing to learn from the seemingly cheerful people of Peru and from those exceptional Nordic socialists who are performing at the top, corporate interests notwithstanding.

A willingness to learn from other smaller, happier nations would be an exceptional trait to demonstrate from the most powerful nation on earth. One can only hope that right-wing policymakers might start paying attention to happiness report cards as a wake-up call for what needs to get done in this country.

It starts with a smile. Add to that not looking at a cellphone.