Pura Vida – Why is Costa Rica “The happiest place on earth”?

I just came back from a week vacation in Costa Rica and it far exceeded my expectations-and I am a seasoned traveler who has seen much of the world. I expected to see lush rain forests, active volcanoes, exotic plants and animals, and pristine beaches-and it lived up to that vision as the most lush place that I have ever seen. National Geographic calls it “the most biologically diverse place on the planet”. But I also expected this lushness to be accompanied by hot and humid (it was 80 with light breeze), full of mosquitoes and bugs (minimal), dirt roads (paved and safe all the way), and a little seedy (and there was some of that in the tourist areas only). Click on some Costa Rican Latin Jazz to feel the vibe 01 Congo Mulence

But I saw something else totally unexpected. Upon arriving, I was reminded that Costa Ricans (otherwise known as “Ticos”) have been evaluated by sociologists as either number one or two in the happiest index of all peoples worldwide (World Database of Happiness,2010).  Note that in the same happiness index, the United States rates surprisingly low for such an affluent country at 7.4 and 21st place.

In my brief observations and discussions with locals, I found this happiness assessment true. The Costa Ricans do appear inordinately happy, they are very friendly, and very lean and healthy. And by the way, they live longer than most civilized cultures, including us in the U.S. with a supposedly more advanced medical care. In America, Disneyland has coined the term “the happiest place on earth”. It is true that Americans seem generally happier at Disney than in daily life.  But Costa Rica may be the real life “Happiest Place” outside the Disney park boundaries. It’s Adventureland,  Frontierland, and Wild Kingdom all wrapped into one.

Since most people have somewhere in their goals list “being happy” and “living a long, healthy life“, it might be instructive to ask why Costa Ricans are so much happier and generally live longer (with a lower incidence of cancer and other major diseases) than Americans. If we could find one or two keys that we could adapt to our lives, then maybe we could come closer to achieving our own definition of happiness. I know that it is difficult to draw universal conclusions from a one week visit, but from my observations, interviews, and subsequent reading and research, I have identified 8 keys or behaviors that might positively affect individual and communal happiness levels amongst Costa Ricans.

  1. Fresh food-food is harvested, caught, and/or killed the day it is consumed.  Their diet consists of a large % fresh seafood, fruits, vegetables, beans, and rice. No preservatives, no additives, no artificial growth hormones. No fast food, no processed foods, and few simple carbs like bread. Their daily staple is called”casado” which is a rice and bean mixture. Because of the hot temperatures, they consume smaller meals throughout the day.
  2. Value the environment- Costa Rica is simply beautiful and much of it still in its pristine natural state. It is not overdeveloped anywhere but the big cities like San Jose-much like Mexico or Hawaii was 40+ years ago. It is a pioneer and worldwide leader in Eco-tourism with a minimalist impact to nature. All beaches and 25% the country is preserved in some kind of national Park, refuge, or trust. They have practiced conservation, sustainability, and green policies for decades-not as a recent fad. They spend most of their time outdoors, even at their homes, so the physical home size is not that important.
  3. Minimalist possessions and designs-given their focus on natural beauty and openness, their houses are small and modest, often with open walls or sunrooms to highlight the outdoors and catch the breeze. There are no fences and barn stock roam in the front yards freely. The house designs are simple and there is minimal furniture, accessories, or knickknacks-so little clutter and very clean appearance. They have minimal closets and clothes and their clothes are light weight.
  4. Early lifestyle…up early, to bed early – and Costa Rica, the sun rises at 5 AM and sets by 6 PM most days. There are few streetlights or nightlife in the small towns. Few stay out past 9 PM. What nightlife there is there is designed for the tourists. Because they get up early, they often take a 30 to 90 minute siesta in the heat of the afternoon. They get plenty of rest.
  5. Active lifestyle-exercise, outdoors, and fun activities are part of the daily flow in Costa Rica lifestyle. There are few cars so many walk, ride bikes, or scooter. Many coastal residents surf in the early morning before work or right after work before sunset. The children play soccer and other outdoor games. I saw them no obese or overweight locals. Even the older people were active and energetic.
  6. Family and faith-Costa Ricans are very close to both their immediate and extended families and they usually live within close proximity of each other. They get together almost daily for dinner, activities, and conversation. Few locals move away from Costa Rica, and most live within 20 miles from where they were born. One of the key family connectors is their shared Catholic faith that gives them a common bond and sense of community across families. Sunday is a no work day and centered around family, church, celebration, and feasting.
  7. Peaceful nature-it may surprise you to find out that Costa Rica does not have a standing army and takes a neutral stance in world affairs. Thus, it is known as the Switzerland of the Western Hemisphere. They actively oppose wars and conflicts and their recent president, Oscar Arias Sanchez, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts towards regional and world peace. In a speech to the U.S. Congress in 1988, he announced that the Costa Rica and people “are convinced that the risk we run in the struggle for peace will always be less than the irreparable cost of war”.Ticos take a sense of identity and pride in their country’s leadership in world peace and as a result they are a peaceful people with a relaxed nature, low crime rates (especially violent crime). Their doors are usually open and unlocked if they have locks at all.
  8. Money and modern technology not a major motivator-Costa Ricans lived to enjoy life and family, the “Pura Vida”, motto of the country. They are hard-working with low unemployment (outside the big cities), but do not work 60 hour weeks as family time and activities have priority. They provide much of their own consumption and make enough $ for a simple home and basic necessities.They have minimal debt as most items are purchased for cash.  They have a minimalist lifestyle so don’t need or have room for possessions and the latest gadget. They do have cell phones, but use it minimally and then turn it off when involved in other activities. Given their proximity to family, they could live without a phone if a storm knocked out reception in the rainy season.

Does it ring true to you that some of these behaviors might lead to more happiness and a longer, healthier life? Do these behaviors and lifestyles sound attractive to you? … Or would you miss all of your modern conveniences and attachments? And what price do we pay for trading some of these simple Costa Rican lifestyle qualities for more complex American priorities which seem diametrically opposite? It should not surprise you that America scores low and ranks only 21st in the world happiness index. Do most of the people you see each day, outside Disneyland, seem happy? And this was true even before the latest financial crises that spurred so much pain and unhappiness in American families. But there have been some signs of hope. From this pain, many Americans have made adjustments and are embracing more family time, more outside activity, reduced consumption, and green behaviors. And many are reporting that they are happier despite a lower income or less demanding job. so, maybe there is a silver lining to the cloud that was the financial crises of 2008. More American men and women report that they have re-ordered their priorities in recent years to include more quality time with spouse/friends/family and more life balance This is especially true of our younger generation that is making different choices than their parents. So maybe we can learn from the Costa Rican’s and change our lifestyles to result in a longer, healthier, and happier life. I plan to do just this.

Quote of the day: “I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them” John Stuart Mill

Question: Are you truly happy with your life today? Does it match up with your self image? Which behaviors would you change that would most impact your health and happiness – and when will you start?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

 

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