Mexicans are a happy lot. Mexicans are a happy lot.

Mexicans liberated by their ni-modo mindset

Revisiting 'Why is Mexico happier than its neighbor?' in the Trump era

Welcome to the holiday season in Mexico – a time of reflection, resolutions for the New Year and the interregnum between serial disappointments.


It occurred to me the other day at a holiday family gathering that by almost anyone’s account I am a failure. Everything that I’ve seriously attempted has ended in ruin. I won’t give you the complete laundry list (as that would require a book) but it includes two failed restaurants, countless failed relationships, bankruptcy, homelessness and a spectacularly failed law career.

My life has mostly been a recursive of regrets, but the schadenfreude it brings to my enemies among the Ignorati, strangely, makes me happy. I always aim to please.

I am at best a C-list academic and writer. The odds of this changing in a positive way, in an upwardly mobile way, are infinitesimal. But it could happen. Success in life is, after all, mostly luck. I mean this literally and not rhetorically.

Had, for example, Donald Trump been born into a poor family of cobblers, he would not be our president, he would be a cobbler. Perhaps the king of cobblers, but still a cobbler.

As luck would have it, he inherited a fortune. Meritocracy is a myth, but falling just short of an outright lie, I think.

But back to the other day. It was a holiday reunion of my wife’s family, of parents, aunts and uncles, coming together to eat, drink and be merry, collecting like confetti in the asperous terrain that is Chihuahua.


Some were wealthy, some poor, some in between. Some were beautiful, some ugly. Lucky or unlucky in life and love, fat, skinny, good skin, bad skin, bald, old. All of them drinking white wine in the sun, and enjoying themselves quite thoroughly.

But they shared two key things in common. They were happy, and they were Mexican. I was the odd-one-out. I was the only one with a gnawing existential angst, the feeling that I was an under-performer, a slacker in life’s strange journey.

I was the only one looking out the window to see who arrived in an Audi and who drove up in a Hyundai. And I think it not to be a coincidence that I was the only American.

In 2015 I wrote a piece about the new optimism in Mexico (“Mexico: rising sun of the Americas”) based on the musings of Thomas Friedman. I ruminated about this for some time, and last year I wrote another piggyback opinion piece entitled “Why is Mexico happier than its neighbor?”

Mexico, a poorer country than the U.S. by any economic metric one might like to look at, consistently scores higher on the World Happiness Report index. This curious enigma fascinates me. My thesis was controversial, as is evident by the comment threads.

I argued that upward mobility in Mexico has historically been a dream rather than a right as it is often viewed in the U.S., and that the sunny view of life by Mexicans was due in large measure to a growing middle class, which in turn is due in large measure to a very favorable North American Free Trade Agreement, and globalism.

I think the reason that piece stuck in the craw of so many people was that they expected me to talk about the importance of culture and family and anti-materialism, but ever the contrarian, I focused on socioeconomics.

I’m rethinking this now. No, I’m not abandoning my original thesis entirely, but I think it could use some nuance, especially now that we have a shameless racist charlatan as a president, a man who surely thinks that the sine qua non for happiness is lucre.

Culture is, in fact, important. In “rising sun” I wrote about ni modo (nothing can be done about it) fatalism giving out to si se puede (yes we can) optimism. But the ni-modo mindset does not by definition have to be fatalistic.

It can be liberating. It can mean something like “much of life is beyond my control so I’m going to be happy as happenstance batters me around.” That, I think is the most accurate description of the paradigm of Mexican thought, something Octavio Paz might agree with (or a long-dead French existentialist philosopher).

I recently read two very good biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and it occurred to me that Americans have burdened themselves unnecessarily with an odd mindset that economic progress is success and success is economic progress, full stop.

In the late 1970s, though, the railcar of GDP growth became decoupled from the caboose of income growth – the stock markets will rise and incomes will fall, until the end. The endgame, as it were, of neoliberalism.

Life expectancy is now declining in the U.S., and drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death. The conclusion for why this is so is so obvious that it is almost pro forma: Americans value money and upward mobility more than anything, in a system that makes it almost impossible to achieve; in other words, to use the railcar analogy again, the myth of onward-upward has been decoupled from the reality of backward-downward everyday life.

This is a problem. And a problem that Mexicans don’t have.

My wife and I recently sold our grotesquely big house in a sterile gated neighborhood and downsized; we bought small house in a working class neighborhood here in Chihuahua. We’re no longer stressed about making the mortgage payment because there is no mortgage payment. We can travel more, we can go out for dinner more, we can live more.

Absent a biblical miracle, the next four years in the U.S. will be an economic disaster led by a carnival barking nincompoop: corporate profits will soar while personal incomes of average Americans will continue their endemic decline, and there’s not a thing that Trump (or any president) can do about it.

But that doesn’t mean that you have to be unhappy. Happiness can be a choice.

Happy holidays.

Glen Olives Thompson is a professor of North American Law at La Salle University in Chihuahua, a specialist in law and public policy and a frequent contributor to Mexico News Daily. Some of his other non-academic work can be viewed at

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  • Donnie W. Jennings

    I think the failure of your own objectives has so tainted your view of the world and those around you that your opinion is irrelavant. Maybe you need to talk and write less. Maybe it is time you listen and learn more. But of course, I have been a very sucessuful person, so I am sure my opinion is irrelevant to you as well. BTW, Trump is not the instigator of much of the current feelings held by many in the US, he is simply the tool being used by the population to achieve its goals. It is always so amusing, seeing Racist, use racisim to call out someone they claim is being racist. People such as you, lash out with your hatred of those of those you want to place blame, without realizing, Trump is not the Tail Wagging the Dog. The American population is the dog wagging Trump. He is smart enough to realize that, Liberals and those that practice politics of hate are not. That is the reason you lost the election. You can stay ignorant and a failure or you can learn.

    But we do share a love of the Mexican people. As an American, I also have a Mexican wife and live in Mexico when not traveling. The difference is, I am not so blinded by Idealogy that I cannot see the faults of my own country as well as the many faults of Mexico. There are things that I wish were more Mexicanized in the US. Including the drive of the dollar you suggest. But, if you ever come down from your Ivory Tower in Mexico and take stock of the death and mutalation of its own people that occurs in Mexico, your Ivory Tower, might not be so tall.

    Have a Merry Christmas! BTW, you cannot say that much anymore in our country, but I expect that Trump, who is being driven by the population, is going to change that as well.

    • Glen Olives

      Merry Christmas, Donnie.

    • James Madsen

      If you think that Glen is not successful, that is your failure. Clearly he has identified something in life more important than your narrow view of success. Sorry for your failure…

      • Donnie W. Jennings

        Clearly you have an issue with reading comprehension! I did not analyze Glen and make the decision that his efforts had been less than satisfactory on many levels, he did. I simply make some comments on his observations. I actually agree with Glen from time to time, but I do often find his frame of reference for things to be some what tilted, at least in my opinion. I think he explained very well why I often disagree with things he writes. We all view life through our own prism. That prism, affects our interpretation of every thing we see, hear or read. I think Glen wrote a very honest article about his life experiences and what created his prism. No one’s prism shows the world in 100% clarity, probably all of us should take a good look at how we view the world and why we view it that way from time to time. Maybe that is what he is doing. So, I guess if you have an issue with how Glen was characterized on these pages, you need to take that up with him! But, your defending him against me for things he said seems a bit ridicules!

  • Happygirl

    Thank you for an insightful article. Finding happiness is the true meaning of life. It is an elusive thing, a carrot dangled just out of reach…something we are told is ours if only we buy this or that product…if we have the right job, marry the right person, believe in the right religion, think the right way, live in the big house and have a healthy bank account. We believe it, and so we sink into despair as we grow older and less desirable to corporate America. Then, one day…it could even be today, you wake up. You look in the mirror and see yourself…really see yourself. If you are happy with who you are…you have found happiness. If not, you are a work in progress. Family is important, relationships are important, things are important to some and so is money…but some have none of these things and yet are happy…they are happy in their own skin. It is good to reflect on our lives and see the journey…thank you again. I wish you and everyone reading this happiness all year long.

    • Glen Olives

      Merry Christmas Happygirl.

  • Güerito

    In a culture where economic success or failure is your own responsibility, failure can be pretty hard on your self-esteem. This can lead to depression.

    In a culture where economic opportunity is not available to all, whether due to corruption or a poorly run economy, failure doesn’t sting as much. There will be less depression.

    Powerlessness is bad, but it can lead to acceptance. And acceptance is a very important factor in happiness. Some might say it’s the most important factor.

    There were elements in Trump’s campaign that played to the culture of responsibilty (“make America great again”) and elements that played to the culture of powerlessness (personal failure is caused by bad trade deals and illegal immigrants).

    • Glen Olives

      Yes, although I prefer the term “recovering lawyer.” Merry Christmas to you as well.

  • miabeach

    Nothing worse than a bitter loser of a liberal than a drunk bitter loser of liberal. When millions of labor rate crushing Mexicans are force marched back home and begin to take from the currently happy Mexicans a new survey should be done. And when I am relieved of the expensive responsibility to feed, house educate and close to 20 million forigen freeloader I and many other Americans will be much happier too. Getting these criminals, rapists, murders, fraudsters and thieves out of country will be joyous.

  • Epazote

    How ironic. So much vitriol in the comments to what is no more than an amusing opinion piece seems to highlight the authors point about sad Americans. Now I do seem to recall enduring 8 years of Obama and Hillary bashing that was “all in good fun” as I was told by an American friend. I did not see any of you posters complaining about that witht he same vitriol.
    As a Canadian I see Americas division as being driven by those who instigate, incite and propagate hatred. Confirming once again my pride in being a Canadian, Canada thankfully takes a a dim view of the kind of hate crimes that pass as news these days. A quick Google turned up some examples of Canadian hate crimes and what was done about it. To see just one example go to It is up to each one of us not to allow this hate to enter our lives. We already have a recent example of what happens when hate is allowed to gain a foothold. That example ended with WW2.
    I remember a time when the USA was a beacon to the world of what and who to aspire to be. Not any more. Nowadays it is just too bad we non-Americans have to listen to this crap all the time. It is like watching your best friend attempt suicide by shooting the neighbors cat (yes, its all F//d up). Or perhaps it is better described as like watching the decline of the Roman empire in 3D and at full volume. I really do hope you find a way to stop hating each other and everyone else. Just get on with being a better example. The kind of example we all once admired very much

  • alance

    Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often portrayed in the shape of a pyramid with the largest, most fundamental levels of needs at the bottom and the need for self-actualization and self-transcendence at the top.

    The most fundamental and basic four layers of the pyramid contain what Maslow called “deficiency needs” or “d-needs”: esteem, friendship and love, security, and physical needs. If these “deficiency needs” are not met – with the exception of the most fundamental (physiological) need – there may not be a physical indication, but the individual will feel anxious and tense.

    Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher level needs. This is the problem in Mexico. When you’re worried about food, shelter and safety you don’t have time to worry about the other stuff like the gringos do.

  • Güerito
  • Three score and ten

    After reading this, I went back and read “shameless racist charlatan.” Once again, I am amazed at how you and I can be in such agreement on one issue, and such total disagreement on another, Happy Holidays.

    • Glen Olives

      Merry Christmas and a happy, prosperous New Year to you as well.

  • Henry Wilson

    been missin’ ya glen…nobody writes more ridiculous nonsense than you and hey it has been awhile since I had such a good laugh which only you can provide.

    • Glen Olives

      Like I said, I always aim to please. Merry Christmas.

    • Pesobill

      Yes , he is truly delusional .

      • Henry Wilson

        and this was one of his more inoffensive pieces. normally it is just another rant against all gringos for causing every imaginable self inflicted disaster upon mexicans and mexico for the last 200 years.

  • Mary Jones

    Trump is the best thing that ever happened in quite awhile. Quit your complaining…too bad you can’t see it! Give him a chance and then make your comments.

  • David Nichols

    Much of what you wrote is inarguably true Glen, but your suggestion that upward mobility “is almost impossible to achieve” flies in the face of the reality that millions make the move upward every year.
    If your only metric is income to support that thesis, then there is an inconsistency in your supposition regarding the contributors to happiness…
    Feliz Navidad y Ano Prospero Glen…

    • Glen Olives

      Igualmente, David.

  • Pesobill

    The writer’s drivel :” the next four years in the U.S. will be an economic disaster led by a carnival barking nincompoop: corporate profits will soar while personal incomes of average Americans will continue their endemic decline”
    What a load of crapola .. Enjoy your burned out ,murderous ghetto . You think Mexico is doing well and next year will as well , you are truly naive .. I personally hope Trump kicks Mexico to the curb and cuts off the millions the USA gives to Mexico . The downward spiral into the sewer will continue for Mexihole ..

    • James Madsen

      Very nice reply Mr. Peso Bill. You seemed to have demonstrated, in your very poor grammar, what the author was trying to say. Continue to be rude and enjoy the ‘good life’ you have had trickled down to you. From the elite that you so worship.

  • Jason Love

    Leaving political views out of this, I read only negative aspects of The Unites States and its government. It was comical to believe the America has all of these issues while you mention very little about the obstacles in Mexico. Let me refresh your memory.
    How many Governors in Mexico are on the run for stealing?
    Mexican government playing the negotiator between vigalantee and DTO kidnappings?
    70,000 plus people dead in the past 6 years from War on Drugs.
    99.9% percentage of unsolved crimes in Mexico
    Morgues that have bodies outside because there is no money for refrigeration repair?
    I only see travel warnings in one direction.
    Since there is no middle class in Mexico, I am sure the elite do very fine, but there are hundreds of thousands in Mexico who don’t have the internet and will never see your article to disagree.

    • Glen Olives

      I think drug war deaths are closer to 120,000. And there in point of fact a very large and growing middle class in Mexico, compared to a declining middle class in America (in some northern industrial states like Chihuahua, the economy is growing at close to 7%). Other than those two areas of correction, you’re largely right. But I’m curious about your point, if you have one. I did not claim that Mexico was some utopia, much less than it should be viewed as a model for the US to emulate. That would be absurd. Curiously, when a writer observes something positive about Mexico, or something negative about the US, the too-common reaction by many people is yours: you see it as a repudiation of American culture or government, as if were a zero-sum game and any positive quality of Mexicans or the Mexican government be seen as a debit on the balance sheet of the United States. I remain curious about this, and don’t know how to explain it, other than simply attributing it to tribalism. Perhaps you could explain. I would be grateful.

      • Jason Love

        First of all it’s comical to try and compare Mexico and the United States from every aspect but the comical “Happy Report Index” that was cited. I get that Mexicans feel threatened that the new president elect does not want people to crossing the southern border illegal. Same for Mexico in regards to Honduras. But your story has more subjects than kingdom.
        1. You rant about how you’re a failure? Are you suicidal or something?
        2. Then you cite yourself as if you can be found in print.
        3. Finally you continue to compare the US to Mexico, but get offended when some else compares the two in light other than you see. My friend, the fact is Mexico will never be fair comparison to the US in your lifetime. I know, you have pride in your country, but that is a fact.
        4. Finally, give up on being a writer or pickup a book. Nobody, uses the word “I” as often as you, not even in an online narcissistic opinion blog.

        • Glen Olives

          Those are all interesting points. I would only add that I’m not at all offended when others disagree with me; in fact, I thought we might have a productive conversation, but as you didn’t address my question but rather resorted to obfuscation, I now see that that is not possible. But thank you for acknowledging that I have pride in my country — as a US citizen and decorated US Army veteran, surely I do. Merry Christmas!

      • Jason Love

        4 months have passed, have your feelings changed regarding your article?

  • Athea Marcos Amir

    I won’t comment on your long list of failures except to say you’re very wrong about
    your C list writing ability. As a former English teacher who’s probably pickier than Mary Norris, the Comma Queen at The New Yorker, I never fail to notice your excellent writing skills. And Trump has given us a new outlook on bankruptcy: we should be proud of it, the way he is. Keep scribbling.

  • Glen with one n – thoroughly enjoyed this article. It is a great insight into the differences in subtle, underlying mindsets on opposite sides of the border. Expectations greatly affect happiness!