Americans Are Not the Luckiest People on Earth

03/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Americans are not good at visualizing other ways of being. Thus, when confronted with places like Spain, where the drinking age is 16 but kids of all ages are given alcohol in many contexts, Americans are sure that Spaniards are all drunkards.

In fact, Spain has near to the lowest rates of adult alcoholism and adolescent drunkenness in the Western world. This has to do with the way the Spanish learn to think about and consume alcohol as a positive concomitant to active social engagements. But the entire Spanish lifestyle, one which focuses on the rich tapestry of human engagement and life's pleasures, makes the Spanish less desperate -- happier -- than Americans are.

When people come to New York, they seek excitement, street energy, entertainment, money, enterprise. When people go to Spain they seek food, drink, sun, culture, pleasure (recall Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Americans at large pursue personal advancement, privacy, economic security for their families. Spaniards value most physical pleasure, emotional warmth, enjoyment of their time with others.

These are, of course, gross generalizations that vary with the places you visit in each country, your cultural and ethnic background, and how fun-loving you are. But anyone familiar with Spain and the United States is constantly reminded that the most fundamental assumptions they have about the good life can turn completely around depending on which country and culture you are engaged with.

As we enter an era of, at a minimum, economic recession but potentially of a whole reordering of what it is possible to achieve in terms of possessions and wealth accumulation, we are disadvantaged compared with people who are already experts at enjoying the small things in life. Thus, I read with great interest David Seaton's interpretation of how the worldwide financial crisis is impacting the Spanish:

Spanish social life is an endless round of weddings, baptisms, first communions, pub crawls with friends and late dinners with lively conversation into the small hours over the ruins of a copious, well irrigated, meal. High consumption of hard goods and services adds to the charms of this existence based on eating and drinking with family and friends you've known since childhood, but cutting back on it all doesn't affect the basic underpinnings of this extended family life.

Here's the bad news -- you can't just go to Spain and have this life.

The closest friends of most adult Spaniards I know are their brothers, sisters and cousins, closely followed by people they went to grade school through university with. This correlates with the extreme reluctance most Spanish men and especially their wives, have for moving to another town, even if there are better jobs waiting for them there, since this would mean losing their family social network. If you marry a Spanish girl you can go and work anywhere in the world as long as she can eat lunch with her mother and sisters at least twice a week.

My friend, Christopher Ryan, a fellow blogger at Psychology Today and an American living in Barcelona, affirms this view:

It's all true, though it makes being a foreigner here interesting, in that it's harder to insinuate yourself into that aspect of society unless you marry into a local family. Circles of friends tend to be pretty static, though I'm often surprised at how welcoming people are.

Of course, uninitiated Americans can get in trouble there -- as Vicky and Cristina discovered when they accepted this open-ended welcome: "I'd like to invite you both to spend the weekend. We'll eat well, we'll drink wine...we'll make love."

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