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Why Do We Only Compare Our Quality of Life to the Worst in the World?


Night view of the Salamanca Cathedral, Spain

Updated 2019

Most days during the week I practice Spanish in language exchange sessions via Skype with people who live in Spain. Although I live in Mexico, I set these sessions up with Spaniards because I need to practice in the morning, when most Mexicans work.  Having first been introduced to the language in Valencia, Spain over 30 years ago, I’m still interested in Spanish culture and what’s going on in Europe.

The sessions have evolved into much more than language practice. I learn what it’s like to live in Europe today from a European perspective, something few older adults in our country have the inclination or opportunity to do.

In early 2018, President Trump wondered out loud why more people from Norway don't move to the U.S.  This might be the first time that some Americans learned that Europeans have it so much better than we do, Norwegians especially. that they would have no desire whatsoever to come to the U.S. They are the second happiest people in the world (Finland ranks 1st, Americans rank 14th), have more political freedom (we rank 45th), have more press freedom (we rank 43rd), and are more prosperous (we rank 18th). That's not even counting their healthcare system and superior social safety net.

It’s too bad that more American voters don’t talk once a week with someone from one of those happier countries and make a few comparisons and think about why.  They might find it enlightening (or they'll just call it "fake news.")


Rural countryside in Asturias, Spain

Over the course of many weeks, my language exchange partners and I talk about all the usual topics; politics, culture, technology, music. There's one aspect of our talks that really gets my attention though.

They feel sorry for us.

These days, youj might think they are feeling sorry for us over the state of our politics. They do not. As citizens of a much younger country, Americans can't imagine how different a European’s political perspective is of American politics.

If you consider the end of Roman Rule to be the beginning of the history of England, for example. their history started in 500 A.D. The medieval Kingdom of France emerged around 980 A.D. Germany is the youngster as its history is considered to have started in 9 A.D. after the Battle of Teutoburg, in which a Germanic tribe managed to defeat the Romans.  

While we may be surprised by our politics, I think it’s safe to say that Europeans have seen it all.  Vulgar government leaders are still something of a novelty for us. They’ve had kings and queens, tyrants and lunatics come and go throughout their histories.


Ria de Llanes (Yes, "Ria," not "Rio.") in Spain

No, they don’t feel sorry for us because of Trump. They feel sorry for us for the numerous aspects of American life that are inferior to theirs.  So much wealth they marvel and still so inferior.

The people I talk to are middle and upper-middle class Spaniards. Their jobs include a writer/artist in Seville, a museum administrator, quality control engineer and a high-profile retired telephone company executive.  

They are not socialists or on the government dole  They are your peers. And none of them has once complained about their high taxes. They realize the trade-off in a better quality of life and more financial security for all citizens, not just those at the top. The Spanish system of paying for their children's higher education and their healthcare system are two things that Spain gets right.

My practice partners can’t imagine being afraid to get sick because of the cost of healthcare. They can’t imagine not being able to send their children to college if they do the work and pass the prerequisite exams. Of course Europeans have always felt sorry for how hard we work, our meager two-week vacations and how little we enjoy our lives in comparison to the average European. 

As one Spanish practice partner put it, “Whenever I start to complain about taxes or some other thing about my culture that bothers me, I tell myself, “At least I don’t live in America.” Ouch! As an American friend of mine who now lives in Amsterdam recently remarked, "It's unbelievable what Americans will put up with."  This is a question that I continually ask myself. Why?

Philip Mudd, a former U.S. CIA Counter Terrorism Expert was once asked what our largest security threat was in the U.S.  In one of the most unusual and unexpected responses I have ever heard from a high-level government employee, he replied

"When we call ourselves [as a country] exceptional when we talk about our educational system; that it will bring joy, money and success to kids. How does it compare to the Europeans and Asians? How do we give an inner-city kid the choices we had? The answer is: we don't.

While we are feeling sorry for people from Syria, Central America, and North Korea, those in other first-world countries are feeling sorry for us. Okay, they don’t feel sorry for us in the same way they feel sorry for their refugees, but I hope you see the point I’m trying to make.

When Europeans and other 1st world countries measure their quality of life against other countries, they make comparisons between relative equals. Unlike us, they compare their lives to their peers in Europe, to Australia, the U.S. and Canada, not to that of their immigrants and refugees. They believe that in those comparisons between peers, they clearly have us beat. If you think they are wrong, ask yourself if you have ever said “At least I don’t live in France!”  

Europeans don’t compare their lives to the lives of poor people from poor countries. It’s like winning a race against a guy with one leg.  That would be hard to feel good about. They compare themselves to their competitors - other first-world countries. My friends don’t seem to mind that happiness has to be spread around to earn the mantle.

In his documentary "Where to Invade Next," Film director Michael Moore explores various countries' education system, healthcare, sex education, drug and workplace policies and marvels how different they are. Why don't any of these ideas make it into U.S. national debates?

Up until a few years ago, I believed those things, those things about being the best, too. Like most Americans, particularly older ones, I was brainwashed to believe that my country and lifestyle were the envy of the world, that they all wanted to be us.  I often still hear people spout euphemisms like “Yes, it’s expensive, but our healthcare is the best in the world!” (It’s not even close- that distinction belongs to Luxembourg - basically France) with the U.S. healthcare system ranking 27rh.

“Our colleges are the best” (England may take issue with that), or “Hollywood makes the greatest movies and the greatest television in the world!" - Well, at least they got that one right.

When things get repeated enough, you think they must be true. They often are not.  It has taken me most of my 50 years to learn that. Here inside our American bubble, most of us never see television programming or newspapers from other affluent countries. We are blind to features of life in other countries that are superior.  We are much busier contemplating people in news features from the most wretched parts of the world and thinking how lucky we are not to be them.

Instead of feeling smug, I leave my Skype conversations feeling like I’d like to live in their country some day. They never express a bit of interest in living in mine. They separate America as a place with many interesting things to see. I separate their countries out as places I’d like to live some day.


Sanctuary of "Nuestra Senora de Covadonga" in Asturias. Photos of Spain provided by Pedro Ortiz Garcia

We should be making comparisons between the quality of life in the U.S. that of our global peers. When they have universal health care, college education for those who qualify, worker protections and safety nets for their most vulnerable, who has the more advanced society?  

A great deal of our news focuses on starving, dangerous places, and how desperate they are. Maybe we should spend a little of that time studying positive features of life in other advanced nations have and we don't, and then come to the mutual agreement that Americans deserve those things too, even if we provide them differently.

There's a lot of talk in America about there being nothing we can agree on.  How about starting with the goal of having at least what other first-world countries have.  

If we can raise ourselves to their level of happiness as a country, maybe these affluent neighbors will think of the U.S. as having finally grown up to become a real country, rather than an experiment.

Related links:  Get a different social perspective and learn a language at the same time with Skype language exchange  Ventanas Mexico

You can still participate in American politics as a expat thanks to the today’s online element in activism.

Happiest countries according to Forbes.

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About the author, Kerry Baker

Hola - I am partner with Ventanas Mexico and author of the "Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online," the quickest, most fun route to the best language website features on the web, complete with lesson plans, reviews and links by level and skill being used.  Use the book's lesson plans or create new ones from the great tools that Google doesn't want you to know about.

 I also just released "If Only I Had a Place" a guide to renting for aspiring expats. Renting in Mexico is different, regardless of what realtors will have you believe. Read this books to get the cultural advantages and disadvantages of being an expat when you rent. The book includes a listing of rental concierges; local ambassadors who can preview any place you're considering.