Brazilian Happiness, Part Two

by | Jun 7, 2010 | Uncategorized | 5 comments

And now, another installment in my quest to understand the fascinating condition of Brazilian happiness–how is that that these people seem to be so unremittingly joyful? Is it because they are so musical, so closely connected through family, do they put antidepressants in the agua de coco? What is it?

Last week I visited Sao Paolo with my new friend Catherine. We met in the strikingly beautiful coastal, colonial town Paraty at the couchsurfing gathering for the Jazz Festival. At the last moment, I decided to chaperone Catherine on her first couchsurfing adventure in Sao Paolo. That’s the joy of bus travel.

Our host was Alberto, a true gem who picked us up at the bus station, paid our metro fare on the way to his home, and bought us beer and wine to chill out at home and enjoy our first of two nights together. Alberto showed us Sao Paolo the next day, and I was so happy to finally put a face to the name. So many Cariocas and others have talked negatively about Sao Paolo, so it was exotic to finally see it for myself. I liked it, for two days anyway! Alberto is the rare young Brazilian who lives alone and it was a lot of relaxing fun to hang out on his couch and watch Brazilian MTV–surprisingly different and better than American MTV. More weird videos and sophisticated programming.

Alberto brought up this question of Brazilian happiness with me. He initiated it, referencing a conversation with a Canadian he had hosted, who had asked, Why are Brazilians so joyful and warm and open and North Americans are not? Alberto had his answer ready for me. Little did he know this is my blogging fascination of the moment. His answer was rather simple: Brazilians are used to living with insecurity, with not knowing what tomorrow will bring. Jobs, money, housing, violence, and I would add relationships (in the sense that infidelity is so common). Because they never know what’s going to happen, Betao (his nickname) said, Brazilians learn to enjoy every day as it comes, to suck every bit of pleasure they can from each day. That’s his life philosophy, anyway, to live as intensely as possible so he as stories to tell his grandchildren. He’s also the kind of traveler who arrives at his destination without a guidebook, only a backpack, no plan, just relying on God and luck. God, that fetishizing of the non-planned adventure!

Alberto’s theory is that Brazilians are de facto Buddhists. Because their lives can’t be planned, they realize they have no control over the future–they are much better at focusing on the moment. Pleasure is better than pain, Alberto said to me. And I though, how simple and true! (Certainly that’s true with regard to Brazilian men–they are very good at focusing on the pleasure of the present moment when they see a woman they want to kiss.)

In some fundamental way of the universe, Alberto is absolutely right; we pretend to ourselves that we have control in the U.S. and Europe, but at any time, an accident could happen, a spouse could leave, a lottery ticket could prove to be the winner. According to his theory, our stable lives always leave pleasure for the future–in a stable day to day life, you know where you are going the next day, and the next day, and life becomes more routine, less spontaneous and pleasure-filled.

I read somewhere a long time ago that one of the cornerstones of mental health is to feel control over your life. I always believed that to be true. That when I feel in control of my destiny, my environment, and know that I have enough money in the bank to cover my bills, my mental health is more stable. It’s fascinating to me to think that these people seem happier than I am on a daily basis but they live with such insecurity. On the other hand, people in many other countries live with great insecurity too. How happy are they?

And then there’s the mask of Brazilian happiness. I wonder what’s really going on when people go home for the night from the samba party. When I got back to Rio from my two-week trip to Nova Friburgo, Petropolis, Paraty, and Sao Paolo, I bumped into the expatriate crew in Santa Teresa. These are young women from England and Norway who who have settled here and are teaching English. I shared some of my frustrations with Rio, that it can be hard to feel connected here in a city where everything is about fun, fun, fun, and everyone is always wearing this joyous smile. They have had Carioca boyfriends, so they have gotten in a little deeper than I have, in a sense. They talked about the mask of happiness in Rio, that’s all tudo bem, jovial smiles out at the bar, but when they get home, their boyfriends expressed a real lack of trust in anyone, and seemed awfully depressed, not wanting to go out. Obviously, this is an anecdotal hearsay, but I do think there’s something to that, the way people present themselves out in public here has to be different from what they really feel inside.

I adore the joy here, but it does me a lot of good to talk with English people who are more culturally similar to my friends in San Francisco. We are more unafraid to talk about our problems and get in there and analyze them, look for solutions. Perhaps this happens among intimate friends in Brazil, but it has only happened with me once–with my dear friend Natalia in Florianopolis. She too thought that Brazilians have a problem with talking about their problems. I felt closer and more comfortable with her ultimately than any other Brazilian woman that I have met traveling, yet.


  1. Mariana

    I think Betao has a good point about living in insecurity and being forced on finding joy in simple things in life, as reasons why brazilians seem to be so happy all the time. I also think the weather and constant contact with nature help, as people seem to be happier in coastal areas (I’m sure you saw some cranky people in the crowded streets of Sao Paulo).
    Now I have to disagree Americans are more unafraid to talk about deep stuff and get to the bottom of things. I’ve always had that kind of connection with friends in Brazil, and even though I left the country 8 years ago I still have friends back home that I can call at any time and have the deepest, most insightful conversations with. The difference I see is that in a city like SF it’s just more normal to open your heart to people that you’re meeting for the first time. That is not the reality in other more conservative and self-absorbed cultures, when you’re just too worried about what other people think of you and if you fit in to be able to open up and have a heart to heart conversation with a stranger.

  2. Bethany

    Fascinating topic. I want to know more about what Brazilians in the US are like- do they assimilate to the American ways? or find a nice balance? also, what is the comparison with other South Americans or other 3rd world countries? Iraq probably can’t be compared though since they are the victims of an occupation right now. Hmmm…can’t wait to get there soon and experience it for myself!

  3. Eloisa

    Hey, Brazilian are sad bitches! It’s true, there’s a strong melancholy streak in the culture, pay attention to samba lyrics, or song lyrics in general, read a bit of poetry, immerse yourself deeper in the culture, by reading and taking a look in the history. For instance, “banzo.” Banzo is the unspeakable sadness of the Africans brought here to live in abject conditions as slaves. And we also inherited from our Portuguese colonizers a sense of “fate,” of “whatever I do, it does not matter, fate decided for me.” Sure there’s joy, which makes the melancholy that much stronger. Lévi-Strauss didn’t name his classic oeuvre “Tristes Trópicos” for nothing.

    • Contented Single

      Interesting – I have often wondered about this as I taught English to many Brazilians in Sydney for years. They were always so full of life and intense, they made for very good students as they always got so involved. And they all seemed like extroverts wanting to have huge amounts of company. But I too wondered, how can they be like this all the time? I travelled through South America , but didn’t make it to Brazil due to a lack of money, but also because I wondered how an introvert like me, who doesn’t like to party but prefers a one-on -one situation would cope with the perennially upbeat locals. Are there any introvert, bokworm, homebody Brazilians?

      But hey, I am an Aussie and a lot of visitors talk about the care free happy go lucky nature of Australians. It’s a generalisation, there are plenty of us that are not like that.

      Very interesting.

  4. Special K

    I just REDISCOVERED YOUR BLOG! Thank you so much! Especially as a single lady living in Germany, I am happy to have a partner…
    Speaking of which, I was in Portugal, the father of brazil, and the people were uber-happy as well (the day to Germany’s staunch responsibility)…I think when you get to know someone more, they will demonstrate a wider range of emotions, no matter what culture you live in.



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Hi! I’m Sasha

Executive and Life Coach on a mission to help women connect with their bodies to pursue their truest desires in the bedroom and the world.

Author of Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics (HarperCollins) + To-Do List: From Buying Milk to Finding a Soul Mate, What Our Lists Reveal About Us (Simon & Schuster).

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