As I’ve cycled through part of the Iberian Peninsula, in Catalonia, The Basque country, and areas of Northern Spain, I’ve pondered a little about the happiness in this part of the world. I watched, I’ve listened, I’ve reflected.
I must admit I haven’t spoken to that many people living here – my Spanish is getting better but needs a lot of work, and really I’ve felt at times quite lonely. But that is no reflection on where I am – I’ve just been feeling apprehensive about my journey ahead and I’ve been mostly alone in facing that as I ride.
Nevertheless, I have had some beautiful moments and I have managed to strike up the odd basic conversation or two with local people and I’m often greeted, as is often the case when strangers get to talking, with care and kindness.
If we look at the happiness numbers…
The World Happiness Report in 2017 ranked, what is presently referred to politically as the country of Spain, 34th (of 155) in the world on happiness. When asked “to imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?” (which is an evaluative aspect of happiness, known as the “Cantril ladder” and only one aspect of happiness) those that live in Spain on average rated their life 6.4 out of 10. This puts Spain ahead of countries like Italy (48th – average 6.0), and Portugal (89th – average 5.2), far behind countries such as Norway (1st – average 7.5) and Costa Rica (12th – average 7.1), but comparable with France (31st – 6.4) and perhaps even the United Kingdom (19th – 6.7).
However, if we consider the Happy Planet Index, which measures the efficiency to which a country produces happy citizens (i.e. the extent to which way of life in a country literally costs the earth) then Spain ranks 14th of 140 countries. Due to Spain’s high life expectancy (82.2 years), and an ecological footprint that is the lowest in Europe (albeit still high at 3.7 global hectares per person), Spain comes in behind Norway as being 2nd of all European countries. That doesn’t seem so bad.
But they are just numbers
Numbers have helped create important debate around happiness, but numbers do have their limits. Although there is plenty of research that has attempted to establish that differences are not cultural and linguistic there is still room for doubt as to whether a “seven out of ten” is the same as a “siete de diez”. My own well-being research over the years has been quantitative, and part of the reason I’m on this cycling journey is because I know that an over-focus on numbers won’t give any where near full picture.
When I was living in Scotland I met many people from Spain. They were mostly younger people who had come looking for work because there was very little work for them back home. Although they would perhaps sooner have been back at home where they would have more support they had taken courageous steps to move. Many I have met were doing jobs that didn’t suit their skill set but they nevertheless seemed to be making the most of living in another country and improving their English language skills.
But not forever and back to a few numbers
For many of those from Spain that I met in Scotland their time there was not meant to be forever. However, the unemployment rate here is currently around 17% and the youth unemployment stands at close to a staggering 38%. We know that unemployment is bad, and it is with numbers that it’s been shown to be a life circumstance that has one of the most harmful effects on a person’s well-being. Research has also helped us understand that it is not because of the loss of income that unemployment is so difficult to bare. It is mostly because of the loss of purpose and the loss of important social links.Spain has struggled economically over recent years. Prior to the financial crisis of 2007/2008 and the bursting of their property bubble well-being was nearly 0.7 points out of 10 higher. The rise in unemployment probably accounts for much of the fall. Thus, it is no real surprise that people from Spain, if they can, have left in hope of finding something better. I don’t doubt it has been tough uprooting. Behind each of these numbers are real people with real dreams, and each one has had to re-imagine themselves.
But people flow the other way too
Nevertheless, I’ve encountered many people – on this trip and over the years – from the United Kingdom and elsewhere, who have come to Spain to create a better life for themselves. However, the motives of the migrant flow to Spain seem very different. It seems that a big pull from Spain is the sunnier climate and there is often more money behind the move. Often it is older people who, having mostly benefited perhaps at the expense of the young through the property market there, wish to retire.
But are people happier with all this movement? Well it’s not clear – given that Brexit seemed dominated by issues of migration some people certainly weren’t happy with people moving about. On the whole, however, there are more Brits in Spain (some 300,000 of which over 65% are over 50) than Spaniards in Britain (some 130,000 of which over 75% are under 50). Freedom, including freedom to move around this tiny rock floating around space, is important to well-being. But there are several psychological hardships that migrants often face – the absence of significant others, cultural disparities, linguistic limitations, and social degradation – which often means, unless conditions have been really bad in the migrant’s home country, migrants seem to rarely find their happiness improving by that much, let alone reaching the happiness levels of natives.
But Spain is particularly rich
Personally, despite the economic difficulty currently experienced and the associated unemployment experienced by large swathes of the youth population, I feel quite hopeful whenever I have visited Spain. I sense that is countries like Spain where humanity may find alternative ways of being that although difficult at first may eventually lead to greater levels of happiness and well-being – perhaps out of a necessity that other countries are yet to face. In parts of the United Kingdom, where although things are bad for some the economy ticks over for enough, it is mostly business as usual – the idea that long working hours and consumption is a route to greater happiness still prevails. This mass consumption without proper care for the world around us can’t go on forever and so perhaps it is countries like Spain that will get beyond the consumption paradigm first, and will show the way for others.
Spain has a fascinating history. Prior to Franco’s dictatorship from 1939 to 1975 there was a promise of socialism – perhaps it was the closest that any country in Europe has ever got to having real socialism. Unfortunately, in the war between the fascists and the republicans (consisting of communists and anarchists) outside powers through, as I understand it, fear of the spread of communism did little to support the republican side. Thus the fascists led by Franco eventually won out, leading to some 40 years of dictatorship and the suppression that comes alongside it.
Democracy in Spain since the ending of the dictatorship has had plenty of corruption. However, this has perhaps in part led to genuine grass root movements, such as Unidos Podemos, rising to the fore and unsettling the status quo a little. Personally I sense that the revolutionary zeal is still alive in this area of the world. There is a promising amount of social movement activism too. Los Indignados (the outraged) that gave much of the inspiration for the Occupy movement arose there. I’ve also encountered a healthy amount of degrowth here too, and the Catalans are out on the streets demanding real democracy.