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Why Isn't Spain Happy?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Like citizens in other developed countries, Spaniards should be increasingly happy. Why aren’t they?

Over the past ten years, there has been an explosion in studies on human happiness. Dozens of books and thousands of technical articles have shown that happiness can be measured accurately with national surveys. Research has sought the causes of happiness and many scholars have asked how countries can enact policies that improve the happiness of their citizens.

A number of these studies asked which countries are the happiest. Here, there is little consensus. One famous survey from the University of Leicester in England finds that the Danes are the happiest, with Spain coming in at number 46 and the United States at 23. The highly respected International Social Survey Programme puts Mexico at the top, with Spain far down the list and the United States significantly above Denmark. The World Values Survey finds New Zealanders the happiest surveyed and Spaniards 13th, just three slots below the United States.

In short, comparing happiness between countries is a dicey business.

In 1981, 20.1 percent of Spaniards said they were ‘very happy.’ By 2005, that had fallen to just 13.7 percent.

What we can compare, however, is happiness within a particular country over time. The World Values Survey shows that in most developed countries, happiness has generally risen or stayed constant over the past two decades. In France, for example, the percentage of "very happy" citizens grew from 20 percent to 36 percent between the years 1981 and 2001. In Sweden, a frequent happiness chart-topper, the growth was from 29 percent in 1982 to 43 percent in 2006.

By all rights, Spain should be getting happier, too. After all, Spain has "progressed" tremendously over the past three decades, from increasing the size of government, to liberalizing social policy, to loosening the grip of the Catholic Church. Consider the following examples. Government social spending in Spain has increased from 15.5 percent of gross domestic product in 1980 to 21.2 percent today, well above the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average. Where once abortion was illegal, today Spain has the most liberal abortion laws in Europe, allowing the procedure unrestricted through the 14th week of pregnancy. And Spain can hardly still be considered a Catholic country, given that church attendance has literally been cut in half from 1981 to the present.

Despite these changes, Spain has moved in the wrong direction with respect to happiness—unlike virtually every other developed nation. In 1981, 20.1 percent of Spaniards said they were "very happy." By 2005 (well before the current economic crisis), that had fallen to just 13.7 percent.

Just maybe these progressive trends have taken Spain away from happiness.

To be sure, not all Spaniards are equally unhappy today. But the asymmetry contains another paradox. The unhappiest Spaniards are those who most embrace the modernist destruction of tradition, especially when it comes to traditional family relationships. For example, according to the World Values Survey, Spaniards who agree that "marriage is an out-dated institution" are 17 percent less likely to have high life-satisfaction levels than those who disagree.

So what is the solution for the unhappy trend in Spain? Perhaps the answer is more of the progress that has already been made. Maybe Spain will turn the corner to greater felicity only if it promotes even more bureaucracy, more abortion, more divorce, and more cohabitation—as well as less faith, less family, and less free enterprise.

Or, just maybe, these progressive trends are precisely what have made Spain less happy. Remember the old axiom, "When you are in a hole, stop digging."

I do not have the answer to the happiness puzzle—and I do not presume to tell Spaniards whether they are in a hole and need to stop digging. Barcelona has been my second home for more than 20 years. My wife and three children are all Spanish citizens. Still, I will always be a foreigner there, and it is hubris for me to say what I believe Spain should do. I can only report what I see in the data—and what I see with my eyes.

A version of this article appeared in Spanish on September 5, 2010, in La Vanguardia.

Arthur Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute and author of, most recently, The Battle.

FURTHER READING: Charles Murray discussed “The Europe Syndrome and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism,” Scott Shane explained “The Genetics of Job Choice,” and Dane Stangler and Robert Litan explored “Hard Times, Bright Futures” for entrepreneurs. Elsewhere, Brooks says “The Secret to Human Happiness Is Earned Success,” asks if we are “Happy Now?” and reveals “The New Culture War.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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