How Science Proves Living in Mexico Will Make You a Better Person
Picture above: Yet both are the same sea.
Updated March, 2017
Loving yourself more by becoming a better person in Mexico
The definitions of self-love, a practice that you hear quite a bit about these days from therapists and wayward teenagers alike, range from living with less guilt to lighting some candles and taking a bubble bath.
Regardless of how you define it, most of us could do with being a little more gentle with ourselves. It’s one thing to have the airy angel of mindfulness reminding you to practice everyday kindness, it’s another thing to have that raging lunatic, your Superego, following you around all day nagging you about how you've come up short.
No question that it’s easier to love yourself if you behave like someone who even a highly discriminating person, like you, can love. We love ourselves more when we become better people.
Why you are a better person in Mexico: Your over-arching goals and cultural cues are different
I have always suspected that I am better person in Mexico. The reason I feel this way, I have come to find, is because I probably am. That has to do with how different environments affects behavior and the power of environmental cues, as described by Siegwart Lindenberg, with the University of Groningen, The Netherlands, "How Cues in the Environment Affect Normative Behavior."
According to his study, our behavior is directed of three overarching goals (127 goals feed into these). They are the normative goal (to behave appropriately, conform to legitimate rules), the gain goal (to maintain or improve one’s resources) and the hedonic goal (to maintain or improve the way one feels right now).
Together, these goals enable us to function in society. They don’t guide our behavior however until they are activated by cues in the environment or by something inside us. The shifting strength of the cues determines which of the three overarching goals gets the most attention at a given time.
Goal-framing is a zero sum game. For example, when cues via the environment strengthen a hedonic goal or a gain goal, they weaken normative goal behaviors.
The normative goal, the one that gets twisted when you are an expat, is the goal of conforming to the norms of your culture. When you move into a different culture, it's logical that the more you conform to it, the more successful you will be.
Normative goals shouldn't be confused with being conservative. Normative goals are goals accepted and encouraged by a whole culture, to conform to rules everyone sees as legitimate in a given society.
The gain goal is mostly activated by cues that indicate that money or competition play a central role in your living environment. In a well-known study, competitiveness, characterized by a strengthening of the gain goal and the weakening of the normative goal, was triggered simply by the presence of a business suit or briefcase in the room. In the same study, sheet music and kites had neutral effect.
You have no idea these things are triggering that instinct to compete, even at the expense of your greater angels. The students in the experiment who did not remember seeing a briefcase in the room. The difference in behaviors were be measured by the scientists.
When you stop and sharpen your awareness, you will see competitive cues surround you in the United States. The V.I.P. area at a festival, the no-waiting in line for membership holders are competitive cues, just like the business suit.
Think about how the cues might be different for Martin Shkreli than for Warren Buffett's in his modest office in Omaha.
Mexico lacks these cues. To be fair, you won’t find them as strongly displayed in a small town like Altus, Oklahoma or White Springs, Florida either but it's more interesting to live in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico than White Springs.
You compare yourself less to others
In the U.S. a great deal of self-loathing (as opposed to self-love) comes from comparing ourselves to others, in pursuit of the gain goal. Even among friends, we occasionally envy their financial success, their clothing or their education, “if only I’d…..”, “I should…”
It’s not that my friends in Mexico aren't frequently smarter, more beautiful or more talented than me. But comparing myself to my Mexican friends would be like a swimmer comparing himself to a more accomplished track star. You can’t really compare yourself to someone raised in a completely different culture.
You don't confuse consumerism with self-love
We confuse self-love in America with buying ourselves something. If we are denied the means to do that, our gain goal is thwarted, frustrated. As a skier, every winter I dwell on the pair of new ski boots I can’t afford. I may be immune to cars and electronics but walk me into a REI and I leave feeling pretty bad about myself.
When I’m in Mexico, I don’t associate loving myself with treating myself to a purchase, an expensive haircut or a $180 pair of jeans. In fact, shopping and buying seems more of like a chore. My environment doesn't reinforce the idea of purchase equal self-love in Mexico.
Introspection equals self-love
Formerly extroverted expats widely report becoming more introverted and willing to take in other people's feelings. They don't say the first thing that comes to mind. They don't miss their more extroverted selves. In fact, they feel like better people.
Just like showing true love to children emphasizes that time is the most important thing to spend on them, loving yourself in Mexico means spending time rather than money on yourself. More introspection, those expats report, helps you become a better person.
You can change yourself by changing your environment
Can we change if nothing changes around us? One of my Spanish practice partners recently retired as executive of a global telecommunications company. He said his goal now was to become a better person.
In that context, he mentioned going from top executive to being the family gofer. Did his environment change? Or did his reaction to those requests, the “ something inside him” motivate him to change?
If he pulls it off, I admire him. I admire people having the ability to decide to change and accomplishing it without changing anything around them. I rarely see profound change in someone without their conditions being shaken up.
Moving to Mexico changed my environmental cues practically overnight. Human beings are social learning. Rather than learn how to operate in another culture by instinct, we learn from observation in a social context.
In Mexico, that means acting graciously because social cues (normative goals) reward graciousness. It’s more looked down upon to be “maleducado,” (impolite, inconsiderate) than to be financially unsuccessful.
Learning another language changes you
As this article in LifeHacker pointed out, a second language can make you different.
Our words become our thoughts. As part of a personal experiment, I am being selective about the vocabulary I learn in Spanish. I am learning largely positive ones. Of course I learn the necessary functional, practical vocabulary. I can voice my displeasure, I just don't have as many ways to put it.
What I purposefully lack is a broad vocabulary to insult someone or be verbally disrespectful. Body language will do in a pinch, but I think all of us can agree it’s a poor substitute for words when it comes to doing damage.
Can you re-shape my thoughts, behavior and the cues you take from my environment by the careful choice of words you learn in Spanish? Science suggests you can (more on that in a future blog).
In a sense, you can create a set of rose-colored glasses through a new language.
If you know ten ways new ways to express gratitude, love and appreciation, and only one way to express anger, don’t you think that would change you? If you caught all the nuance of positive words but only the idea of the negative ones, don’t you think you’d create a kinder, more self-loving environment for yourself?
What else besides living in another country could possibly give you an opportunity like that?
Kerry Baker is author of the "Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online," and interactive e-book that takes you directly to the best free tools on the web, plus lesson plans for all levels. She is also a partner with Ventanas Mexico, which provides resources for potential part-time and full-time expats.