Tag Archives: Foro Bienestar

Why are Mexicans so happy?

Quiz question: which country is happier, the United States or Mexico? Based on what you read about wealth, migration and violence, you’d probably guess that the US outranks Mexico. This is not the case. In the World Happiness Report, Mexico scores a 7.088, just above 7.082 for the US. In other polls, Mexicans often score around 8 out of 10. What explains their happiness level?

The last two weeks I wrote about my main takeaways from the Well-being and Development Forum in Guadalajara that I attended, and about my own presentation. Today, I want to face a question that was the biggest one of the conference (and the title of one of the final panels): why are Mexicans so happy?

Data presented by some of the researchers illustrated that happiness in Mexico is surprisingly high: around eight points on a scale of ten. As everywhere, different factors contribute to (un)happiness. Professor Rene Millan Mon had measured performance on six factors to explain happiness. Of these, having the freedom to make own choices, a person’s health, and family relations, explained the largest part of happiness levels. Other factors – habitat, education and government – have a lower impact.

What was also remarkable to see is that Guadalajara, Mexico’s second city and the place of the conference, scored comparatively low. In a study of Imagina Mexico, it ranks as 70th out of 100 cities. It has good scores for spirituality and family, but a lot lower ones for economy, free time and friendship. And within the state of Jalisco, all more rural regions have higher happiness levels than this city of five million.

Picture 3

Why is that? In the end, it shows we don’t have the full answer about Mexico’s happiness. The World Happiness Report distinguishes six elements that are thought to be determinative for happiness. These six – economic, health, social support, personal freedom, generosity, and perception of corruption – only explain about four points out of the 7.088. If we assume that measurements of happiness are scientifically sound and that the number really grasps how Mexicans feel, we simply don’t know what makes Mexicans so happy.

But this outperformance is not only visible in Mexico, but also in other countries in Latin America. I use to refer to it as the ‘Latin American happiness bonus’. Apparently there is something in Latin American culture that makes them happier than you would expect based on objective factors.

When asked, Mexicans themselves seem to think that strong social ties are one of the factor. Indeed, many people live a very active public life. The streets are full with people, and family ties are tight. But the question is whether this has emerged out of his own, or as an alternative structure to counter the negative effects of low public trust and a low quality of social security. The ‘fiesta’ culture could be another explanation. For instance, the quinceneria parties are a reason for a huge party, but also mark a key step or ‘accomplishment’ in life.

But social support is one of the factors studied in the report, and one that has the strongest relation with happiness as far as the data indicate! It might be that we still undervalue its significance in the data, but in the end, we don’t have the full answer. I experienced Mexico as a country full of contrasts. When reading about Mexico, I mainly read about violence, migration and drugs. Whilst social inequality, and protests about disappeared students were not far away, as a tourist I mainly experienced the warmth of the people, the beauty of their country, and also some pride about their enjoyable things (and about high happiness levels, too!). Maybe the surprisingly high happiness levels is just another contrast.

Juggling yellow stress balls – my message to the Foro Bienestar conference

What serious message can a tiny, bright yellow, stress ball with a smiley convey?

Last week I shared a couple of lessons I learnt from other speakers at the well-being and development conference in Guadalajara. Today, I wanted to tell you about the points of my own presentation.

Juggling a yellow stress ball

The panel I was on had the title ‘what is the role of governments in happiness of the people? I used this little yellow ball to illustrate my message. I realised that many participants were triggered by these little balls in their welcome pack. Some people took pictures of them, holding them in front of their face or their bag and tweeted them. Probably, others just left them in a corner or threw them away. And myself, I decided to juggle with them at the beginning of my speech.

Is there a message in (very poorly!) juggling with stress balls?

I argued there was. My point was simply: everybody will use tools you give them in a different way. You can bring a horse to the stream, but you can’t force it to drink. Sometimes a horse just wants to splash the water!

It’s the same with public policies: as a government you can design policies that you hope make people happier, but you can’t control how they will react. Still, I think there is large responsibility for governments to create the underlying conditions in which citizens can strive. Long-term well-being and quality of life combine subjective elements (our emotions, how we react to circumstances) and objective elements (the  environment we live in). This environment is partly shaped by governments’ economic, environmental and social policies. If good or bad choices are made, that will ultimately influence the quality of our lives.

In the speech, I tried to give my own ‘little stress balls’, or methods to enhance quality of life. I made three suggestions to the policy makers in the room:

Integrated measurements of well-being

Firstly, I advised them to carefully measure the well-being in their jurisdiction. Well-being indicators from all areas – economy, environment, social affairs, health, education, and others – should be measured together, rather than in isolation. Now, in most countries, GDP is the main metric that is used in public policy. I argue that a dashboard of several indicators, such as in the OECD’s Better Life Index, is a good tool to have an additional layer of information. As such, policy makers can detect in which area improved policy outcomes can win the most in terms of quality of life. This can help them to focus their resources on the areas where they can make the biggest difference.

jb at forobienestarTreat well-being as a political agenda

Secondly, I suggested to treat well-being as a political agenda like any other. If the focus will be more on quality of life and well-being, and less on purely economic growth, that is a massive shift in policy! Administrations know that they have to communicate all their policies to citizens and engage in a public debate to explain the choices the made. This applies to well-being just the same as to other areas.

It starts with happiness at work

Thirdly, I advised to also look at the happiness at work of staff in the administration. Motivation and job satisfaction at an individual and team level massively affect the success that an administration will have in the implementation of it its policies. Surveys can be used to monitor and improve work satisfaction and working conditions of the staff responsible to deliver the well-being policy objectives set by politicians and policy makers. Only happy staff can create happy citizens.

Now it is to the administration of Jalisco to translate the lessons from me, and all other speakers, into new and better policies. To be continued!

(and next week, I’ll face one of the other questions debated on the conference: why are Mexicans so happy?)

yellow balls

The power of negative emotions – and two other lessons of the Foro Bienestar

I just came back from two weeks in Mexico. During these weeks, I fled the Brussels grey, rain and cold to replace it by the occasional Mexico City grey, the jungle rain, and Pacific coast warmth. Moreover, I spent a couple of days at the Foro Bienestar (International Forum of Well-Being and Development) in Guadalajara, where I was invited to speak. In the next two weeks, I’ll offer some thoughts about my own presentation on happiness and public policy and about the question ‘why are Mexicans so happy’ that was the leitmotiv of the conference. However, today I wanted to share some insights about the main points that I took home from the conference. Are you ready? Here we go!

Don’t forget the power of negative emotions


Speaking of negative emotions: this slide by Stefano Bartolini (University of Siena) shows the problem of social comparisons and happiness very well.

Most of the speakers were academics and the good thing about academics, contrary to some happiness consultants, is that they don’t allow themselves to be carried away by their enthusiasm so much that they forget that being happy all the time is not possible and not desirable. Negative emotions are a necessary counterweight to positive ones. In a simple metaphor: feelings are a mountainous landscape. Without the valleys of anger, frustrations and anxiety, the happy peaks of joy, tranquility and exaltation would not be happy peaks but part of a plain.

Robert Biswas-Diener, often labelled as a positive psychologist, brought this forward most prominently. Answering his own question ‘how happy should an individual be?’, he suggested that the ideal rate of positive and negative emotions might be positive 80% of the time and 20% negative of the time. Being happy all the time does not do justice to real and important feelings as guilt, grief and anger. For instance, as he also discusses in his book ‘The Upside of your Dark Side‘, guilt can motivate us to work harder and accomplish more than we ever could do if we’d be simply content with everything.

Measuring happiness is very, very simple and very, very, complex

A large part of the conference was dedicated to one simple question: how do you measure happiness? It is clear that there are many ways to do so: the World Happiness Database at the Erasmus University Rotterdam knows 963 different methodologies, said Jan Ott.

But professor John Helliwell, one of the authors of the UN World Happiness Report, explained these can be summarised in a couple of simple ways. One way is to ask people how happy they are in a specific moment. This can be happiness in the ‘now’, to grasp a person’s feelings most accurately, or a moment like ‘yesterday’ or even longer ago, to prevent that events limited in time have a major influence. Such a question can be answered very quickly, without a lot of thinking. A second way is to ask a more reflective question, asking how satisfied you are with your life as a whole. Questions asking about positive or negative emotions typically give more random and diverse answers.

The debate is open on happiness as a policy objective

Picture from the opening session. Source: La Jornada de Jalisco.

Picture from the opening session. Source: La Jornada de Jalisco.

In my opinion, it should be obvious that governments would aim to increase quality of life and well-being – happiness if you want – especially where incomes increase and poverty reduces. Still, using insights about happiness and well-being in public policy is quite scarce: another research to welcome that Jalisco, the region where Guadalajara is located, is facing the challenge. Meik Wiking, from the Danish Happiness Research Institute, identified that taking happiness as a political goal is a trend. But there is also a counter-trend: skepticism about government efforts to formulate happiness policy objectives.

Professor Bruno Frey strongly advanced the argument that with happiness as a policy objective, there would be major incentives to governments to manipulate data, for instance by excluding people with lower happiness and by  falsification of indicators. In a high-level debate – the Tyson vs Ali of  happiness researchers – he was taken on by professor Helliwell, who thought these risks could be reduced as methodologies will be tweaked over time and that manipulation could be constrained in a democratic society.