Tag Archives: Mexico

Summer, time of darkness

Happiness is always a good thing, right? At least, all over my life I’ve assumed that happiness is something pretty and beautiful, and always worth pursuing for its own sake.

A recent TEDx talk by Meik Wiking of the Danish Happiness Research Institute has opened my eyes. Everything in life has a dark side, and that even applies to happiness.

800,000 suicides per year

Wiking starts his talk on The Dark Side of Happiness by pointing out that around 500 Danes commit suicide every year, although they live in the country that tops the World Happiness Report as happiest country of the world. Some people think that suicide rates are particularly high in Nordic countries like Sweden, Finland and Denmark, with long and dark winters (sometimes it is even thought that happiness rates remain high, because unhappy people filter themselves out by suicide!).

This is not the case, and many countries in Eastern Europe and across the East of Africa rank worse, as the WHO data show. To some extent, suicide rates might be affected by cultural factors, such as the high pressure to perform and strong shame notions in Korea and Japan. Lower levels in a country like Mexico may also be a result of strong social support. Either way, every year around 800,000 commit suicide. That figure is massive, especially when you consider that the death toll of one the most bloody conflicts and biggest human tragedies always in our headlines, the Syrian civil war, is estimated at around 400,000 in the last five years.


Suicide rates per 100,000 citizens. Data: World Health Organisation, 2016

Suicide rates per 100,000 citizens. Data: World Health Organisation, 2016


Social positions matter… a lot! 

But is there any correlation between happiness levels in society and the suicide? Wiking suggests that there could be a link. He claims that it is more difficult to be unhappy in a happy society. Imagine that Stine is unemployed and that she has had trouble in finding a job for some months. At the same time, most of her friends have great jobs, and excitedly tell her about their promotions or new cool projects when they meet for drinks together. Sounds sad, right? Now imagine the case of Jaime. He has also been looking for a job some time, but some of his friends are in the same boat. When they meet up, they exchange funny stories about failed job applications, or  share tips on how to land a dream job.

All things equal, Jaime will likely be happier than Stine. Our peer group, and the people who we compare to, matter for how we feel. Hence, it’s tougher to be unhappy in a country like Denmark, which scores a 7.526 in the World Happiness Report, than say in Spain, which scores 6.361. Our social position counts!

Wiking shares a couple of interesting experiments that reinforce that feeling. For instance, tests with social media show that when people are not exposed to other people’s seemingly perfect online lives for a week, happiness rates go up. Similarly, imagine asking hundred people if they’d rather earn €50,000 when everybody else earns half that amount, or €100,00 when everybody earns double. Typically, around 50% would prefer to earn less in absolute terms, but be richer than others.

Summer, a time of darkness

But one of the most shocking pieces of evidence are the quotes from depressed people. Contrasting what you might think, it is not Christmas that is the most difficult of the time for lonely people. In the survey that Wiking cites, spring and summer are worse: “Summer is a nightmare.” Everybody is sitting in parks, holding picknicks and barbecues with friends. For lonely people, this is the hardest time of the year. Other’s people happiness can generate a lot of unhappiness. And the impact of loneliness or happiness inequality is likely a lot bigger than the economic inequality.

Happiness also has a dark side, and summer may be a time of darkness. That truth is worth taking into account when we are thinking about happiness and public policies shaping quality of life.

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.

Where the life is good: the OECD’s Regional Well-Being index

[Gross Domestic Product] measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile

Robert F. Kennedy, 1968

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has taken Kennedy’s words to heart. Through its Better Life Index, it is conducting an impressive work programme to analyse quality of life in the 34 developed countries that constitute its membership. The OECD index provides a broad overview of quality life, measuring the performance of countries on various important issues, from housing to environment and from civic engagement to life satisfaction. Like  the Gross National Happiness (GNH) concept, the Better Life Index indicates what the good places to live are in a much broader sense than the mere economic data of GDP could do. Wealth’s correlation with happiness is limited at best, scientists have shown time and again.

But there remains a problem with this kind of national indices: they provide national averages – and do not say anything about the extremes and the equality of the data. California differs from Vermont. Sicily is not the same as Südtirol, the German-speaking part of Italy. To take account of regional differences in quality of life, the OECD has now released a similar website on regional well-being.

Some of the observations:

  • The balance varies a lot across regions. In California, income, jobs and education are at higher levels then in Vermont, but for safety and civic engagement the golden state is a lot worse off than Vermont.
  • Brussels is performing a lot worse on jobs (1.5 points out of 10) and environment (1.6) then I would think, but apparently has a high level of civic engagement (8.6).
  • Across the board, Dutch regions reach high scores, except for income and environment. All over the Netherlands, safety and access to services are close to perfect 10s.
  • Südtirol (or province of Bolzano) is indeed a different world from Sicily. The differences are most striking in the rate for jobs (8.8 vs 0.5). Italy’s figures confirm the large divide in incomes between North and South, whilst incomes are most equal in Austria.
  • Czech regions, to my mind, score surprisingly bad in health but almost all have full scores of 10 for education, here defined as the level of people with secondary education or higher.
  • The Mexican region of Jalisco has adopted well-being as a guiding principle in its policies. Still, it has a lot of space for improvement when compared with regions of richer OECD countries. The region already scores well on jobs and environment. And as a survey from a local NGO suggest, the comparable low scores do not mean that people perceive a low level of well-being. According to their figures, 67% in the region feels prosperous.
Picture 1

Brussels Capital Region, the region where I live, scores well on civic engagement and access to services, but has a lot to improve for jobs and environment. Source: OECD

So What?

Lists and rankings have a broader use than providing bloggers something to browse through on a Sunday night. They can bring order to life – be it by classifying which celebrities are hot and which are not lists, listing the best goals of the World Cup so far (no surprise, Flying Dutchman van Persie tops the list), or of countries which provide the most creative ideas (Ireland is first according to TED).

The OECD list, similarly, provides a benchmark of how regions performance. Seeing where you outperform peers or lag behind gives a motivation to improve. The index can help regions to decide where to focus their resources, and thus make better-informed decision how to spend civil servants’ time and money. As our representatives, politicians and administration should learn from these data. The data can help our administration to perform their duty: continuous improvement of our collective well-being.

Examples of well-being projects in some regions are already included on the OECD site.