Why Are Mexicans Among the Happiest People in the World?

Over the past 15 years, I’ve developed an expertise at National Geographic around finding extraordinary populations and distilling their lessons for the rest of us.  My first Blue Zones books and articles focused on the world’s longest-lived people. But then I realized that living to 100 isn’t worth much unless you enjoy the journey.

In 2009, I begin researching the statistically happiest places in the world.  At the time, the best data pointed to an obscure region in northeastern Mexico — Nuevo Leon — as the happiest place in Latin America.  This surprised me because it’s just south of the Texas border, a place we often associate with poverty stricken immigrants.

Indeed, Nuevo Leon has most of the characteristics we now can firmly associate with happiness.  For instance:

  • Most people their rank faith as a top value (religious people tend to be happier than non-religious people)
  • The definition of the core family extends to aunts, uncles, and distant cousins —creating a broad social network for both financial and emotional support
  • People tend to favor social interaction over wealth accumulations. Indeed, the happiest people are socializing six hours a day, not counting their money.

Among the many astonishingly smart academic happiness experts I met in Mexico, Nicole Fuentes stood out.  Trained at New York’s Columbia University, she not only metabolized the best research on happiness, she was able to apply it to her native Mexican experience.  She speaks fluent English and as a professor at UDEM, has supremely learned how to take the complex jargon of happiness research and articulate it in way that’s not only understandable, but entertaining.  (I hope you get a chance to hear her speak someday, she’s amazing.) Her latest book is the great example of her gift for communication.

So, it’s with great pleasure that I present this Power 9 interview with not only a great expert, but a great friend. —Dan Buettner

Dan Buettner: Mexicans are much happier than their income would suggest. Can you explain the Mexican recipe to happiness?

Nicole Fuentes: Mexicans are “overachievers” in the production of happiness. We produce more happiness per dollar or squeeze more juice out of the same lemon. Something other than income explains happiness.

The Mexican recipe to happiness includes a large dose of social contact. Lots of social bonding, talking, laughing, and joking takes places around here. Families eat together Sundays or Saturdays, and these meals include grandparents— usually the hosts  sons, daughters, in-laws, grandchildren, cousins, etc. This happens once a week. Friends at work eat together almost every day, and friends usually have a specific day of the week booked to spend time together. Anything is an excuse for people to get together to watch soccer, football, to prepare BBQ with family and/friends. There is music, and beer, lots of jokes.

God is an important ingredient to Mexican happiness. There is a good chunk of the population who likes to leave stuff in the hands of God. Yes they worry, yes they suffer but eventually they say something like “God has a reason,” “in God I trust,” “it’s God’s will,” “God is with me.” I believe this shortens the impact of difficulties and anxiety.

DB: When I wrote Thrive, Monterrey (your hometown) was the happiest place in Latin America.  What’s special about Monterrey?

NF: Monterrey is special in many ways. As compared with most cities in Mexico, Monterrey has higher quality education, medical services, and infrastructure. It is geographically close to the United States, and has a vigorous industrial sector. Some of the biggest companies in the country are based here; this translates into a higher per-capita income and better job opportunities.

The city is surrounded by breathtaking mountains, has many public parks, and nature parks. This is great for exercising. But what I believe is key is the sense of pride among the people in Monterrey; they are proudly “Regios,” they are in love with their land. And there is soccer … I have yet to find a place where passion for soccer is larger than here.

DB: What lessons can Americans learn from happy Mexicans?

Spend less time alone.
Grow your circle of friends — happiness gets amplified when surrounded by people.
Laugh more.
Find happiness in the little things .
Stop glorifying being busy all the time.
Be humble.

DB: You call out generosity and gratitude as strategies for getting happier. I know research shows they work, but how do you suggest we remember to be grateful and generous for the long run?

NF: You have to build them into your daily routine. And the best way to do this is the Blue Zones way. Set up your environment in a way that it supports your intentions. Set off an alarm to remind you to stop and think about three good things that happened to you, and/or place a small notebook on your bedside table to remind you to write down the good in your day before you go to sleep. By doing this you’ll start noticing what goes right in your life. Even on a bad day, there are things you can feel grateful for, however small. You’ll sleep better, by the way.

With kindness it really all comes down to just doing it. Help someone and you’ll feel instantly so good, that you’ll want to do it again courtesy of the “helper’s high.” You get instant gratification when you make an act of kindness as it lights up the pleasure zone in the brain. It builds your sense of purpose too.

DB: What role does humor play in happiness and how can we get more humor into our lives?

NF: Humor is like a detox. It is a balm against pain. We turn to humor when we think there is nothing left we can do about certain situations—corruption, poverty, criminality. In a way, humor is a response to a sense of hopelessness. Humor is an amazing tool for resilience.

Mexicans laugh easy. We laugh at ourselves, politicians, we even laugh at the face of death.
How can we get more humor into our lives? Be present. Take your eyes away from your phone and look around. There is always something you can joke about. Also, don’t take things personally, then you can laugh a little about yourself too.

DB: Can you tell me your favorite Mexican joke?

NF: A big tough Mexican man married a good-looking Mexican lady and, after the wedding, laid down the following rules: “Honey, I’ll be home when I want, if I want, and at what time I want, and I don’t expect any hassle from you. I expect a great dinner to be on the table unless I tell you otherwise. I’ll go hunting, fishing, boozing, and card playing when I want with my old buddies and don’t you give me a hard time about it. Those are my rules. Any comments?”

His lovely new bride said, “No, that’s fine with me. Just understand that there’ll be sex here at 8 o’clock every night — whether you’re here or not.”

DB: Can you share your favorite Blue Zones-friendly Mexican recipe?

NF: Black bean ceviche tostadas!

DB: Tell me about your latest book, Felicidad en el trayecto: 8 Rutas.

NF: This book is a practical guide to developing one of life’s most important skills: happiness. It portrays eight different routes or strategies, all of them fully based on science, yet very simple to implement to have a happier life. This book is the result of years doing of academic research, teaching young adults, and using the tools personally.

DB: Anything else you’d like to add?

NF: To me happiness is like riding a bike. The more you practice, the better bike rider you become. The more you ride, the more tricks you learn. With practice you acquire skills that make it easier for you to handle any kind of terrain, handle the unexpected, enjoy the ride, or get back up on faster when you fall. Happiness requires practice. And just as you get the benefits of biking by pedaling, you get the benefits from the happiness tools when you use them.

Visit her website to learn more about Nicole Fuentes, her research, work, and publications. 





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