Happiness Lessons from Mexico
Make no mistake, the people in and around Monterrey have serious problems. In many villages, kids suffer from malnutrition and lack of education. Talented, intelligent men and women are stuck working in breweries or factories that make jeans. Their dreams and aspirations are going unmet. The less fortunate feel they must leave their families and travel to the United States for work. Yet despite all these hurdles — the high levels of corruption and the relatively low levels of development and questionable governance — these Mexicans are blessed with, shall we say, happiness assets.
The Sun Bonus
Mexicans collect a small happiness bump from the sun bonus — more annual hours of sunlight than most of their neighbors to the north, and hence more vitamin D. There’s more to this than sunny clichés may suggest. “Emerging research shows that tanning prompts manufacture of endorphins that give you a feeling similar to a runner’s high,” said Dr. Gregory Plotnikoff of the Allina Center for Health Care Innovation in Minneapolis. He also points to the importance of Vitamin D for overall health, well-being, and longevity. “Safe sunning, no burning” means more health promoting vitamin D — a compound many Americans lack in sufficient quantities.
A Personal Sense of Freedom
“The freer we feel, the happier we say we are,” said Alejandro Moreno, a political scientist from the Mexico Autonomous Institute of Technology. “Statistically speaking, the sense of individual freedom of choice is, by far, the variable that contributes most significantly to happiness. This isn’t true of all countries (Singapore is one exception), but for Western societies that have been poor and repressed, policies that maximize freedom may boost well-being, too.
Mexican humor focuses not on an underclass or ethnicity, but on crooked cops, politicians on the take, and the difficult lives of everyday citizens. It serves as a stress-shedding device and a balm for the pain: Mexicans laugh at themselves, laugh at taxes, and quite literally laugh in the face of death. But can the rest of us get happier by creating an environment of laughter? Nicole Fuentes believes so. “Humor and happiness are related in pretty much the same way that optimism and happiness are related,” she says. “You can choose to be more optimistic, if you work at it. Humor leads to social bonding due to shared positive emotions and the discharge of negative ones.”
People who laugh more tend to be more extroverted, have higher levels of self-esteem, and lower levels of depression. Laughter has been associated with an array of health benefits — lowered stress levels and the release of beneficial hormones among them. “Laugh therapy” has become mainstream enough that the Pentagon has even paid some personnel to train in one version of it to help military families who are separated from loved ones. Mexicans in and around Monterrey are born into an environment of good humor. Perhaps it’s a cue to spend more time watching the Comedy Channel and hanging out with jokers?
Just Enough Money
Norteños seem to have gotten it right when it comes to money, too. Consider the guitar as a metaphor. If the strings are too loose, the guitar plays flat; if the strings are too tight, it sounds sharp. The trick is to find just the right tension so the guitar is in tune. Mexicans, it seems, have an easier time getting their financial lives in tune. If you’re an average Mexican, you’re likely to be surrounded by people who are not running a status race. You feel less pressure to keep up with the proverbial Joneses except, perhaps, when it comes to socializing and party throwing. This environment of modest expectations enables people to feel good about themselves without competing for a big house, a fast car, or the latest fashions.
Then there’s the norteños’ special brand of religion. According to the General Social Survey, religious people tend to be happier than nonreligious people, even in the United States. But simply believing in God alone doesn’t guarantee happiness. In countries such as Jordan and Algeria, more than 90 percent of people surveyed said religion was very important to their lives, yet these nations do not occupy the top rankings of subjective well-being. Somehow, the norteños’ combination of indigenous influences meshed with Christian beliefs has yielded a more uplifting faith than that commonly found elsewhere. This supercharged faith helps people cope with hardship — even if it just means having someone listen to one’s problems. It could also have something to do with the way that membership in a religious community boosts happiness. In any case, taking a cue from norteños and joining a faith-based community stacks the deck in favor of happiness.
Religious communities that provide access to a built-in, social, weekly congregation offer a means for ritualized stress relief and self-assessment. (Research on the brain activity of Tibetan monks, for example, has shown that the more experienced practitioners of mediation have higher levels of activity in the left prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain where happiness “lives.”) People who belong to a faith-based community are less likely to engage in risky behavior, and then there’s the X-factor. If we pray for happiness, does it help us get happier? Most people in the world would say yes.
Mexicans understand the importance of social interaction. They spend much of their day socializing with family and friends; a good party will almost always trump work. As you recall, psychologists have identified tow types of happiness: experienced happiness and remembered happiness. We tend to remember high points and low points in our lives. But experienced happiness is the sum of the little joys throughout the day. You might not recall a drink with friends, a conversation over the fence, or happy hour with co-workers as highlights of your life, but working them in on a daily basis will increase your overall happiness. In this sense, norteños can offer a big lesson for overworked people living in other countries: Make friends and make time for them. Seven to nine hours of social time each day will likely maximize your happiness.
In Mexico, “family” is an expansive term that encompasses mom, dad, brothers, sisters, your grandma’s sister’s daughter, your uncle’s neighbor, and your third cousin twice removed who is working in the United States. “Family and friends play a more central role in our lives than they do in most other countries,” Fuentes said. “Both faith and family help create a social network that provides support in times of financial hardship or illness, and forms the basis of an informal economy that allows people to acquire goods and services they might not otherwise afford.” Mexicans are able to tolerate a huge deal of problems and disorder in the environment, as long as the family is doing fine. Family is an invaluable source of support. Grandmothers take care of their grandchildren so that moms can go to work and earn money. The second generation takes care of their parents when they are old. In this regard, the lesson is clear: For most of us, the more time we spend with family and friends, the happier we’ll be.
Count Our Blessings
Perhaps the best advice, though, comes from Armando Fuentes Aguirre, the Wise One, who reminds us that 90 percent of happiness is the pursuit of simple contentment — actively appreciating the good around us. The more we can take the focus off ourselves and forget our own problems, the happier we’ll be.
This is an excerpt from Thrive: Finding Happiness The Blue Zones Way by Dan Buettner, copyright 2010, all rights reserved.