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The Mexican Secret of Happiness

I never set out to discover it.

But I’ll admit, I was curious.

See, Mexico is the fourteenth-happiest country on Earth.

That's 14th out of 149 countries, ahead of "first-world" stalwarts like the United States, France, and Germany. It's way ahead of China. Way ahead of Japan. Even the happy-go-lucky Brazilians are less happy than the Mexicans.

Yet compared to the other happiest nations, folks here are poor, with little healthcare, poor education, and shorter life expectancies.

What gives?

If you look at the study, you'll notice Mexico sticks out like a sore thumb. By the numbers, people here should be miserable. Their measurables would put them in 90th or so, alongside places like the Philippines, Morocco, and Mozambique.

But Mexico comes out happier because of one thing it does better than any other nation on Earth - the psychological intangibles.

Living here, I've started to stumble onto what those intangibles actually are.

The Mexican sense of satisfaction.

Mexicans have a different sense of satisfaction.

If you're looking from the cultural lens of the United States or a wealthy European country, you might describe this as, "Mexicans have low standards."

But if you were looking from a Mexican lens, you might instead describe it by saying, "We accept and enjoy our lives."

Interesting how different those are. Let’s keep playing with lenses. It can be informative.

If we took a Mexican lens, and described the United States, we'd have to say, "those people have everything, and never enjoy any of it."

The Americans, meanwhile, would look through their own lenses and tell you, "I work so hard, but I'll have what I want soon. Just a bit more."

This illustrates perfectly the Mexican sense of satisfaction.

There’s no cultural push for more.

People here would call shenanigans on a kind of more more more life and walk away. In fact, I have friends here who have done just that - they lived and worked in the U.S. for years, and then decided, Man, this sucks. Nobody's happy. I'm going back to Mexico.

Here, people work hard to acquire whatever they need to live the life they (and their families) are comfortable with. Then, they go enjoy it.

Here, you don't do work for work's sake (I'm reasonably certain that work for work's sake isn't a concept that makes sense to most people here.)

You say yes to the flimsiest excuse for a party. You say yes to a friend who stops by and wants to catch up for three hours. You say yes to your family, every time, no matter what.

Here, you look around your life, and if things are good enough, you just accept them, embrace them, and enjoy them.

That's a big piece of this happiness puzzle. But satisfaction isn't the only thing.

They accept impermanence.

Coming from a different culture, this manifests in peculiar ways.

A friend here, a fellow expat, relayed a story about some friends who'd just completed their home. They spent 300,000 pesos building a huge estate, and then, when it was finished, never bothered to paint it.

My friend (who, one should note, painted his house), asked them, “but what about when it rains? It won't be sealed!” “Eh,” they said. “It doesn't rain that often.”

Truth told, in the scope of their life, the lack of paint probably isn't going to matter. The house will stand for the time it's needed, fall into disrepair as time passes and lives change, and live out its normal life.

A house, you know, isn't forever.

But this points to another small truth of life here.

People don’t worry about things they can't control.

Yes, maybe there will be a big rain and a crack in the concrete will take on water, and the whole house will become weaker.

But maybe it won't. The house is just as likely to get knocked down by a tsunami, a hurricane, an Earthquake, shoddy construction, or a drunk driver in a truck.

It might defy the odds and stand for 200 years.

The truth is nobody knows, and so people here don't waste time worrying about that stuff.

I've watched locals react during a power outage, and their bodies don't even have a tinge of stress about it. No flinch. No bitterness or anger or frustration. Nothing.

Eh, the power's out. It'll be back when it's back.

Anyhow, want a beer?

Altogether, it adds up to happiness.

One of the neatest things about a culture is that none of the individual characteristics can stand alone.

A culture where people are satisfied with good enough means there's going to be more uncertainty about the future. Your house is slightly more likely to fall down here. You are more likely to die of disease. If you worried about things that were out of your control, it'd drive you batty.

Each characteristic has strong side effects.

But taken together, they work.

And here in Mexico, the entire combination adds up to a little bit more.

More smiles. More fun with the people who matter.

More happiness.

Post-script caveat: Because of the way our brains work, there is a huge risk that what I say above gets subconsciously applied to individuals. So, I want to take a moment, call that out, and be really clear, even to our subconscious minds.

Your dentist being Mexican has no bearing on the quality of their work, their ability to be punctual, or their personal happiness. People are not populations.

In the same way, even though the United States is a materialistic, stuff-obsessed culture, there are plenty of minimalist Americans who eschew having tons of belongings, and enjoy their afternoons.

Cultures are like climate. They can't tell us anything about the weather.

Photo by Joanne Wan

Nah, I hate curiousity.