Sometimes I refer to traveling as “decontextualizing” – the chance to take myself out of my usual surroundings, grind, routine and learn and appreciate how other people live. It’s a humbling chance to feel small, even in a world that itself has gotten smaller thanks to technology. TV and entertainment – like any other industry – is a pretty small world. Add the niche of tech, video games and geekery, and that world kind of folds in on itself like a crinkled origami crane. My world was feeling a bit crane-ish.
So, I’m back in the U.S. of A. after a short stint in Spain where I disconnected myself from a cell phone and got my jamon iberico on enough times to compete with the Dead Sea for buoyancy. I’ve now returned with a renewed appreciation for salty ham; also, diuretics.
One of the questions I ask, sort of rhetorically, when I travel to a new place is whether its people are happy. More specifically, are they happier than Americans? While the U.S. is currently the world’s super-power – a title some would argue is on the decline – we’re seriously lacking in the smiley-face department. According to an article by Forbes last year, we don’t even crack the top 10 Happiest Countries.
I can confidently say that from the observations I made during my trip, I have no idea whether Spaniards are more or less happy than Americans. The slouching economy hit Spain hard, just as it has here. Gauging happiness undoubtedly grows complicated when colored by the downtrodden grays of a financial meltdown and unemployment. And when it comes to ranks, it’s not like they’re gunning us either – Spain ranks 17 out of 21 European countries in happiness. But if the Spanish people are, indeed, happier, I have a feeling it has more to do with other factors besides just copious amounts of cured ham, manchego, rioja and siestas.
For one, according to the World Healthcare Organization, Spain has one of the best health care systems in the world. What does this mean? Well, that Spanish citizens don’t have to worry about whether they will be able to have access to medical services if they’re unemployed. This is an American freelancer’s paradise: when your employment is at the whim of your own motivation and clients’ budgets, a health-related concern can mean financial ruin without the “security” of health insurance. Individual plans can be outrageously costly. I’ve seen this kind of uncertainty lead to a disappointing cycle, where friends have elected to stay in jobs just for the benefits at the risk of their own creativity and, yes, happiness.
As Americans, we pride ourselves on our innovation, ingenuity and scrappiness. While in Spain, I stood before buildings and churches that were older than the U.S. has been an actual country, putting the latter into context for me – the sometimes petulant teenager on the international stage, willing to stay up all hours, sacrifice vacation time and, perhaps, our happiness in the name of work (when and where we can get it). Health care and the ability to take afternoon digesting naps might be just small parts to the happiness puzzle, but the Spaniards might be onto something.