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  • Writer's pictureMartijn

Argentines have a recipe for happiness

June 15th, day 88 of lock-down, I am very happy! We had the best weekend: celebrated Alex' birthday on Friday morning with croissants, pains au chocolat and brioche from the French positioned bakery "Le Viandier" (not sure how they got that name...). Then, a great dinner catered by a high school friend of Camen's who started her own business, with Alex' brother Gabriel and his wife Sandy as special clandestine guests, bringing the total around the table to 6, a reasonable number during lock-down we thought.

And after that exciting Friday..... all the conditions (special flight authorization, circulation permit to go to the airport, good weather, available instructor and destination) were met for us flying on Saturday AND Sunday! Finding a destination during lock-down was not a minor issue to solve since pilot-training is only allowed outside of the AMBA (Buenos Aires Metropolitan area) but the cities outside of AMBA don't want to be infected by us so they have closed their airfields. Luckily, some are less strict than others and via pilot friends we heard that it was OK to land and practice in San Pedro (Buenos Aires Province, about 150 km, or 70 nautical miles away), which happens to be where I did my first solo flight last year so I almost felt I knew the place :)

If you remember my post about Argentines being friendly and welcoming, you will not be surprised to hear that those friends (Pablo and Shirley, who we had met last November during a trip to Iguazu and seen again in the South of Chile) had lit a fire and set a table in their hangar to welcome us with grilled chorizos. I love San Pedro now.

This joyful weekend reminded me of the chapter of my book on Argentine happiness which I posted below. The few statistics mentioned are a little old but the fundamental elements have not changed, although more recent data does show some decline and I wonder how much well-being has been affected after 88 days of lock-down.

Theory #6: Argentines have a recipe for happiness

As an economist, I like to compare the state of affairs across the world. In this field, new indicators regularly come up and measuring “happiness” is one of them: this relatively new trend seeks to complete traditional per capita income data to better assess a society’s well-being.

Basing herself on statistical research, Carol Graham, author of The pursuit of happiness (Brookings 2011), states the following:

“Everywhere that I have studied happiness, some very simple patterns hold: a stable marriage, good health, and enough (but not too much) income are good for happiness. Unemployment, divorce, and economic instability are terrible for happiness.”

“The one thing people have a hard time adapting to is uncertainty.”

“The unhappy are most likely to migrate to seek better opportunities.”

“Friendship and relatives mattered more to the well-being of the average Latin American respondent than health, employment or personal assets.”

Based on the first three statements, a natural question arises: how on earth could Argentines be happy, subject as they are to their economy’s chaotic movements and the uncertainty of everyday life, while the blood in their veins is that of unhappy ancestors who migrated in search of a better life? Would this explain their reputation of melancholic tango dancers? Yet the fourth consideration has to do with family and friends which are really important here… so how does it pan out?

Let’s see. Argentines ranked 29th in the World Happiness Report 2013[1] (out of 156 countries, which places them in the “top 20%”). In comparison, they rank 55th (out of 187, thus “top 30%”) in terms of per capita gross national income in 2013, according to the IMF’s World Economic Outlook Database 2014.

Conclusion: Argentines are happier than they are rich.

What is, then, their recipe?

In my view - and the interviewees will agree -, the secret lies in finding a fair (or happy) medium: a balance between work and personal life, between what is useful and what is enjoyable. That same balance which we have lost in some countries (provided we ever had it in the first place).

For foreigners living in Argentina, this comes as quite a revelation: it is actually possible to take some time to live without the world coming to an end! How can that be? Is it no longer necessary to control every aspect of life, to be busy all the time?

Some months ago, I saw a play which setting was in a museum in Paris. Between acts, small groups of comedians entered the scene pretending to be groups of tourists. There were the Japanese visitors, taking pictures every second; the teenagers, with their iPods and hoodies and a group of Dutch “tourists”, dressed in orange. Their Dutch guide kept asking them to hurry because they still had lots of things to do: the bus was waiting to take them to the next museum, then to the Eiffel Tower, then to the boat which would carry them along the Seine and to the bus again to go to Montmartre for a dinner under the moonlight. They seemed quite distressed!

I must confess I am very much like that. Most of the time I carry a list of things to do in my head as well as a “master plan” for the next few years, which I always come back to and adjust as needed to make sure I don’t divert from my general path. I used to think that everyone lived like this and that people got as nervous as I did when they weren’t doing something completely productive towards their list or plan. But one day I moved to Mexico and eventually I landed in Argentina. Since then, I learned to leave a small space in my head for an item on the list that reads: “don’t do anything and simply enjoy from time to time”.

“Argentines are very happy people, they spend their time complaining but are actually very happy. Enjoying the moment is the best thing you can do.” (woman, from Spain, 13 years in Argentina)

Catherine from France recalls One day I met an Argentine man who asked me what plans I had for the weekend. Since we had just arrived and didn’t have friends or family in town, he worried about us. I told him I planned to go shopping on Saturday to do some work around the house with my husband on Sunday. He asked me – as a joke – if I was German and finally said I was mad: “Week-ends are for having an asado with friends and looking at the sky”. I love this aspect of Argentine people, this ability to sit down and enjoy the weather, take their time and savor a good moment. In France we cannot be inactive.

Most of the foreigners I interviewed have experienced the same revelation as me, although with certain variations according to the person and the nationality. For Brits, North Americans and Asians, the discovery is essentially that work and productivity aren’t everything, and that their lives could actually be fuller if they learned to enjoy them more.

“People here work to play, they don't work to work. In the UK and the US, people are obsessed with work. It’s the first thing they talk about in a conversation. … They don't take time to enjoy life. Everything is about saving money.” (woman, United Kingdom, 3 years)

“In restaurants here, everyone is so NOT in a hurry, people enjoy their meals, you don’t get the check together with the hamburger, they don’t show you out the door.” (woman, United States, 17 months)

“[We could learn from the Argentines that…] If we learned to relax, our quality of life would go up. I don’t know in which other country they have this balance and are able to realize work is not everything.” (man, United States, 8 years)

“Here you can’t find coffee to go because people sit down to have coffee – in the US people always have to rush, do things fast… they should take a chill pill, sit down for 10 minutes. Americans think they are the most productive – there has to be a sweet spot somewhere in the middle. Take the time to experience social moments” (man, United States, 6 years)

“We Americans have a work ethic that says, if you’re not working 40+ hours a week and taking only 2 weeks off in the year, you aren’t competitive – that’s why we don’t understand the world” (woman, United States, 6 months)

“I appreciate the balance they have been able to strike between work and play. They work hard but also leave time for enjoyments.” (woman, United States, 2 months)

“They enjoy life (that’s the big difference between US and Argentina). In the US, I work because that’s what I’m about whereas in Argentina I work so I can enjoy the weekends and can have fun.” (woman, United States, 2 years)

“In China we have a saying: you work hard the first half of your life and in the second half you spend everything on health. In China, a person’s value is linked to their level of success, their house, their cars; everyone wants to have it all. It’s not about happiness or feelings. In Argentina, if they have enough to live, they’re happy.” (man, China, 2 years)

“Japan has a very controlling system. Here we can learn to relax and enjoy life, not go through life too competitive and worrying.” (woman, Japan, 14 years)

For Continental Europeans, the revelation is that they don’t have to be relentlessly active or live according to social expectations all the time. That life can be easier and lighter:

“Life is simpler here – for example, what people expect of you. You’re allowed to live in a relaxed way and enjoy things. In Holland we are always worried about things we have to do. Here I don’t feel guilty when I am having a nice, pleasant time in my country house. In Holland, you always have to be doing lots of things.” (man, Holland, 2 years)

“What I will miss the most when I leave Argentina is this ‘art de vivre’, the lightness of life, the social and spontaneous aspect of everything, the everyday pleasures.” (man, France, 1 year)

“Here people take the time to live: ‘I’ll stop by when I can…’. It used to irritate me but now it doesn’t so much any more.” (woman, France, 1 year)

“They always have work and a passion on the side: ‘I work in a bookstore, but at night I do graphic design because it’s my passion’. Argentines don't complain about their job, it’s just work for them. They balance their life like that. Argentines take life in a much lighter way. People live to live.” (woman, France, 2 months)

“They’re more relaxed. In Spain, if you arrive late at work three times they send you home.” (man, Spain, 15 months)

Francesco from Italy explains Italians could learn a lot from Argentines about flexibility. Italy is now in crisis but in Argentina, where the crisis never stops, people still manage to disconnect from their political and economic problems and live in the present. Italians, on the other side, are completely depressed. Everything is not about politics and money. Argentines are able to stay on top of the bad mood generated by everyday problems. History taught them that happiness and humor cannot depend on these things.

Last but not least, Brazilians who have been living among Argentines (while being their eternal border rivals) discover that “happiness is not only a Brazilian trait”.

“They know how to enjoy life more, I love that. They don’t work as much, they take things more lightly than Brazilians (at least those from Sao Paulo). I love the fact that they go to public squares to exercise, have tea, have picnics, and hang around. People don’t usually do that in Brazil.” (woman, Brazil, 15 months)

“Here we learned that with little you can do much. People are not so worried about the crisis because they don’t need as much to live.” (man, Brazil, 7 months)

I believe this could be a niche for Argentines: they could offer a package of classes on ‘how to balance the different aspects of life’ and another on ‘the fundamentals of Buen Vivir’. Foreigners, please note: if you buy both, you get a special discount!

And to finish: a happy penguin from the Monte Leon national park who I forgot to share in the Chile post :)

[1] Helliwell, John F., Richard Layard, and Jeffrey Sachs, eds. 2013. World Happiness Report 2013. New York: UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network,

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