The Happy Planet Index recently ranked the Central American country of Costa Rica as #1 on its list. Move over, Disneyland, because Costa Rica is officially the happiest place on earth. Based on a score compiled from the life expectancy, ecological footprint and wellbeing of individuals, the Happy Planet Index aims to show that what modern humans think brings happiness often does not – and perhaps we should pursue it differently.
Most measures of national progress truly just measure the economy, accounting for production and consumption. Although money can help alleviate sadness, it cannot buy happiness. Sales of self-help “find happiness” books are soaring in the United States, a country that ranks towards the bottom of the list on the Happy Planet Index. Perhaps it is time to see what a country like Costa Rica, a developing country that is far poorer than the United States, can teach us about the pursuit of happiness.
Why are Costa Ricans so happy? The reasons might surprise you.
1. Costa Rica has no army. Central America as a whole is known for civil unrest, but Costa Rica has a stable democracy and abolished its army altogether in 1949. Instead of spending a huge portion of its income on defense like the United States does, the Costa Rican government pours the money into education and health care. Educated, healthy people are more likely to be happy!
2. Costa Ricans love and protect their environment. Environmental protection is at the bottom of the docket for most governments, but Costa Rica is a leader in ecological sustainability. The first developing country to aim to be carbon neutral (by 2021), Costa Rica has a massive tree-planting program and is converting land into forests, not the other way around. Costa Rica is a world leader when it comes to being green, and this sense of pride and protectiveness towards your home breeds warm and fuzzy feelings of joy.
3. Costa Ricans don’t dwell. A popular philosophy in this country is the idea that no argument or quarrel should last more than three days. Holding grudges, refusing to forgive and staying angry can corrupt a person’s happiness greatly. Learn to let go.
4. Costa Ricans have high life expectancy, 78.5 years. This high life expectancy is thanks no doubt in part to the country’s excellent health care system, which offers high quality care at an affordable rate – about 1/3 to 1/5 of the price of the same care in the United States. The country invests in upgrading hospitals and training staff, and medical care is easy to find. The lesson? Taking care of yourself is paramount to your overall happiness.
5. Costa Ricans eat healthy and fresh foods with very few preservatives. A usual meal consists of fiber-rich beans and rice, served with an ample portion of fresh tropical fruits, vegetables or both. Costa Ricans eat a fraction of the amount of dairy, red meat, refined sugar and processed foods that Americans do, and they avoid the sour mood swings associated with these products.
6. Costa Ricans enjoy a slower pace of life in a tropical paradise. If you’re in a hurry, don’t go to Costa Rica. Rushing is rude, and anyway why would you want to rush through your experience of gorgeous beaches, lush mountains and amazing wildlife? A slower pace of life offers less stress than what you will find in many places in the U.S., and the warm and welcoming weather in Costa Rica causes smiles to break out for no reason at all. Climate has a bigger effect on your mood than many people want to admit.
7. Costa Ricans like to please. Happiness surveys are self-reported, as there is no intrinsic measure for this emotion. Some Costa Ricans can be agreeable to a fault; for example if you ask a local for directions that they don’t know, they might give you the wrong directions because they don’t want to cause a disagreeable situation by saying they can’t help you. Perhaps they are just reporting that they are happy because of the same underlying psychological reasons.
Image: Luis Hernandez