The mystery of the Costa Rican happiness

Posted on August 29 2011 by frank

Dios te ama – God loves you! With these words I was greeted into Costa Rica after my long flight. The mystery about Costa Rica that I travelled across the Atlantic to solve is about happiness. According to different polls, namely, Costa Ricans are a happy bunch of people. In Gallup’s much quoted Global Well-being survey, Costa Rica ranks sixth, far above what would be expected in terms of its economic situation – and far above such countries as United States, Britain or Germany. The other countries in the top five – Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Netherlands and Finland – are among the richest and most economically equal societies in the world so their success is easy to understand but Costa Rica seems to have produced almost the same amount of happiness with far smaller Gross Domestic Production. In addition, if we combine life satisfaction with measures of the ecological footprint like Happy Planet Index has done, Costa Rica comes out as number one in the world.

Another cultural anomaly coming through in statistics is the fact that in Hofstede’s cultural dimension of ‘masculinity versus femininity’ Costa Ricans rank – unlike other Latin American countries with their machismo image – among the countries with the most feminine values (interestingly, the top six countries in both the well-being survey and Hofstede’s femininity dimension are exactly the same. Could this be a mere coincidence?). The shortcomings of these self-reporting surveys are of course well-known and it might be disputed whether they tap into happiness at all. But at least it can be stated that there is something interesting and unique going on in Costa Rica in terms of cultural valuations and happiness.

But back to the park Morazán in the centre of San José in which I sat relaxing after the long flight drinking an ice tea. The park alone offered me three different insights into Costa Rican happiness. Firstly, the greeters with a message from God were young Salvation Army members who invited me to their church. Naturally, I accepted the invitation despite the almost total language barrier between us. More of that later. But their mere presence in the park reminded me of the strong influence religion has in this country and in these people’s lives. Religion has been found on average to increase people’s happiness within the nations so perhaps religiousness was one building block in Costa Rican happiness.

I found the second key to explain Costa Rican happiness whilst observing the other people in the park. Certain easiness of being characterized the faces of these people who hanged there with no hurry whatsoever. In contrast to us northerners who always are a bit tense and on our way to the next achievement, these people seemed to be completely at home in wasting away a proper working day in the park. More about this theme in the next post but I believe that in this attitude of not taking one’s achievements too seriously one can find much potential for better well-being.

Park Morazán in the evening

Later in the evening when the sun had already started to lighten other continents, I passed by the same park on my way back to the hotel. Gone were the happy youthful people with their skateboards and juggling balls. Instead, an ominous group consisting of prostitutes, pimps and drug-dealers seemed to have taken over the place. In fact, it looked exactly like a place where a western tourist like me finds himself facing a knife or a gun and quickly surrenders all his valuables. I turned around looking as confident as possible and took the next available taxi and got safely to my bed. My hotel was only a few blocks away from the center but the locals as well as my travel senses advised me to take a taxi always in the evening.

The possibility of being robbed was all too much present in many areas of San José. For a guy like me, who is used to live in Finland where armed robberies are relatively unheard of, such constant sense of fear would have a strong negative effect on one’s well-being. Safety is among the most basic needs of humans so disturbances in one’s sense of safety ought to have a remarkable negative impact on one’s happiness. How could they be happy if they always have to be careful and vigilant in the streets to avoid robbery?

Ease of living and religion on the one hand, criminality and unsafeness on the other, the mystery behind Costa Rican happiness had found its first dimensions. I felt sure that I would crack the mystery of Costa Rican happiness in no time…

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One response to “The mystery of the Costa Rican happiness”

  1. frank says:

    Happy Life Years compared with Gross Domestic Production

    We might be even closer to the holy grail of happiness than I dared to state in the original post. Many informants on the Internet mentioned that Costa Rica is the happiest country in the world. I dared not to state that same conclusion in the original post as I didn’t find the original source to verify that information. But now reading through the New Economic Foundation’s (NEF) report on Happy Planet Index, I notice how they present statistics according to which Costa Rica has the highest life satisfaction in the world (see e.g. pp. 63). The mystery of Costa Rican happiness is perhaps best illustrated by the following picture from the same report in which NEF compares happy life years (the average satisfaction with life combined with the average life expectancy for selected nations) to the Gross Domestic Production of the same nations. Costa Rica stands out as you can see.

    Naturally, we have to remember that there is no agreed upon way to measure the happiness of people. Other measurements give out different winners in terms of ‘the happiest country in the world’ – for example Denmark. The best discussion I have found about the upsides and downsides of different happiness measurements is in the Daniel Haybron’s thought-provoking book ‘The Pursuit of Unhappiness‘. The conclusion is that although these measurements are far from perfect and have some serious shortcomings, we should not dismiss them totally. If used rightly, they might reveal much important information about a country. And at least it can be argued that they are a better indicator of the true well-being of people than the Gross Domestic Production which currently is the obsession of political decisionmakers.

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