Category: Happiness, meaningfulness and good living

Why I love the sea – and what does it have to do with meaningful life?

Sea is my element. If I haven’t fully understood it before, now I know it. Having stayed inland for more than three weeks I remember the sudden burst of excitement I got when I first filled my lungs with the salty smell of the sea on the way towards Bluefields on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. And when I closed my eyes on the boat-ride that finally took me to Bluefields the sound of the engine and waving motion of the boat immediately sent me to my childhood boat-rides to our summer cottage. Next evening eating in a restaurant built literally above the sea on poles I was looking out in the darkness when I noticed two lights – the left one green and the right one red – somewhere in the darkness. A warm sense of familiarity, emphasis on the famili-part, filled me as I knew that it was a boat approaching the harbor.

Boats in Harbor

Childhood is when the basic elements of our identity are put into the place; who are we and where we belong to. And the sea was strongly present in my childhood. If someone would ask me what is my favorite place on earth I would immediately know the answer: a certain tiny island in the Finnish Gulf of the Baltic Sea. That’s where my family’s summer cottage is and where all my childhood summers were spent. Except of course for my dad’s month long summer vacation which was spent on a sailing boat. Calculating these summer months on a sailing boat together with the nine months I spent in the Finnish navy ships whilst serving the obligatory military service I could say that before the age of twenty I had spent around two years of my life sleeping on boats surrounded by the salty water.

Now I am 9.844 kilometers and one ocean away from there, in a different culture and without having met a single person from my home country in over a month. Traveling alone for such a long time one can’t avoid the moments of homesickness. Although one meets a lot of people, sometimes the loneliness grows on you and you look sadly into the distance thinking about and longing to the people and places dear to you. But when I got to the sea, half of all this was suddenly gone. That’s because I grew up with the sea. It is as much a part of my story as are many people who are close to me. Sea is part of my identity, it is part of my answer to the question ’where I belong to’. It is like a good friend – almost a member of the family. So when I am with the sea, I am no longer alone.

That’s also why sea is able to inject meaningfulness to whatever place or activity that is connected to it. Watching a sunset with a dear friend is a different experience than watching it with some random acquaintance. Although one does not speak too much, just knowing that the other is there makes the experience more meaningful. It is people we love who make our lives meaningful. That’s why experiences and activities connected to people one care about feel meaningful. And that’s why the meaning of life is to make oneself meaningful for other people. For me, the same applies to the sea. As it is like a dear friend to me, anything connected with the sea is more meaningful for me. Sense of belonging is a basic human need and I belong with the sea.

Kiteflying at the Pearl Lagoon

Dirty backyards and a refined taste in wines: Aesthetics of good life

Examining the backyards of some Nicaraguan countryside homes led me to think about the role that aesthetics plays in good life. These backyards – quite frankly – were far from aesthetic. I do not know how representative they are of the country as a whole but at least in these ones various forms of garbage – buckets, pieces of metal and plastic – had been left to decay all over the place. A few hours of cleaning would do miracles to these gardens because the tropical plants would make a good base for a very aesthetic experience. Yet nobody had done this cleaning for years. Clearly aesthetic backyards was not a priority for the people inhabiting these houses.

Contrary to this, back home I have many friends and acquaintances for whom the aesthetic dimension forms a vitally important part of their way of living. Be it food, wines, music, architecture, clothing or whatever, they have acquired a very refined taste. In their fine-dining evenings they spend hours discussing and selecting the correct wine to their innovative new recipes.

This is fine as it is but for many it is clearly a game where the most important objective is not the aesthetic experience itself but to be ahead of the others: to develop a liking for a new band before others have heard it, to be able to have an opinion about the distinguishing features of every type of wine-grape and to be able to form innovative combinations of haute couture and second-hand clothes. I would go as far as to say that there are many people among us today for whom pursuing this aesthetic dimension forms the main motivational field of most of their daily activities.

Small cat and a big dog

As I have a certain repulsion against such games I consciously try to downplay my abilities in these fields. Many times I have arrived to a party with a bottle of the cheapest wine that money can buy which I have drank straight from the bottle whilst others are parading their wine-choices for today and tasting and discussing enthusiastically their latest findings. Strangely, nobody ever wants to taste my choice. I usually enjoy the bohemian atmosphere of places where things are a bit so-so and aesthetics is not so glaring. This all leads me to wonder why is aesthetics so important element in the life of some people?

According to the influential theory of Pierre Bourdieu, taste is about distinction. By having a certain taste I am signaling that I belong to a certain group of people – and almost more importantly: that I am not part of another group. When we, for example, distinguish between working class and bourgeois classes we do not look only at income but rather at their taste as regards clothing, food and different leisure time pursuits. This is why a person from a noble family can radiate an aura of sophistication even when his or her income is almost nonexistent. As Count Alexander Graf von Schönburg-Glachau testifies: ”Whilst we never had much money, we learned to compensate for what we didn’t have with taste.” Our taste is thus in the end nothing more but an acquired way of signaling what group we do belong to.

With Bourdieu’s theory at hand we start to see how various phenomena of modern times are nothing but ways of playing the distinction game; ways of attempting to put oneself above the others through one’s sophisticated taste. For what else is the recent trend of healthy eating and jogging than a way to distinguish oneself from those who don’t eat as healthy and don’t do running? And what else are the various lifestyle magazines than instruments that help the reader to stay one step ahead in this game of distinctions?

In the France of Bourdieu’s times things might have been relatively simple as regards class: There were the working class, the bourgeois and the nobility with their distinctive manners, hobbies and ways of dressing, speaking and thinking. In modern west the field is more fragmented; instead of clear class distinctions it is more about different aesthetic conclaves with distinguish themselves from others as regards their taste in music, clothing and often also more general life-values. There are the hipsters, there are the hippies, goths, yuppies, hiphoppers and what-not. They all might have started to listen to their kind of music and dress in their kind of way because they simply felt that that’s what they liked. But unbeknownst to them they simultaneously made a selection about what game of distinctions and sophistications they started to play. Their choices made them part of a certain group.

Chicken

So, if one scratches the surface of any aesthetic sophistication, one finds a person who is eagerly attempting to show belongingness to a certain group and who is attempting to put oneself ahead of the others in terms of the greater amount of refinement that one has been able to acquire in one’s special field.

This brings us back to the backyards of the Nicaraguan village where I made the observations about the non-refinement of their backyards. Even they might be seen as signals in the game of distinctions. The village was formed in the 80s when the lands of a former land-lord were given to the people in a great land-reform. It can be assumed that these people have a strong willingness to distinguish themselves against the higher classes and display their reciprocal solidarity. So by not having too fancy houses and backyards the people are signaling that they belong together, that they are equal. A too refined backyard would signal to the other members of the village that this person is attempting to stand above the others, that the person thinks he or she is something better than the others. The game of distinctions can be played in many ways…
Examining the backyards of some Nicaraguan countryside homes led me to think about the role that aesthetics plays in good life. These backyards – quite frankly – were far from aesthetic. I do not know how representative they are of the country as a whole but at least in these ones various forms of garbage – buckets, pieces of metal and plastic – had been left to decay all over the place. A few hours of cleaning would do miracles to these gardens because the tropical plants would make a good base for a very aesthetic experience. Yet nobody had done this cleaning for years. Clearly aesthetic backyards was not a priority for the people inhabiting these houses.

Contrary to this, back home I have many friends and acquaintances for whom the aesthetic dimension forms a vitally important part of their way of living. Be it food, wines, music, architecture, clothing or whatever, they have acquired a very refined taste. In their fine-dining evenings they spend hours discussing and selecting the correct wine to their innovative new recipes.

This is fine as it is but for many it is clearly a game where the most important objective is not the aesthetic experience itself but to be ahead of the others: to develop a liking for a new band before others have heard it, to be able to have an opinion about the distinguishing features of every type of wine-grape and to be able to form innovative combinations of haute couture and second-hand clothes. I would go as far as to say that there are many people among us today for whom pursuing this aesthetic dimension forms the main motivational field of most of their daily activities.

Small cat and a big dog

As I have a certain repulsion against such games I consciously try to downplay my abilities in these fields. Many times I have arrived to a party with a bottle of the cheapest wine that money can buy which I have drank straight from the bottle whilst others are parading their wine-choices for today and tasting and discussing enthusiastically their latest findings. Strangely, nobody ever wants to taste my choice. I usually enjoy the bohemian atmosphere of places where things are a bit so-so and aesthetics is not so glaring. This all leads me to wonder why is aesthetics so important element in the life of some people?

According to the influential theory of Pierre Bourdieu, taste is about distinction. By having a certain taste I am signaling that I belong to a certain group of people – and almost more importantly: that I am not part of another group. When we, for example, distinguish between working class and bourgeois classes we do not look only at income but rather at their taste as regards clothing, food and different leisure time pursuits. This is why a person from a noble family can radiate an aura of sophistication even when his or her income is almost nonexistent. As Count Alexander Graf von Schönburg-Glachau testifies: ”Whilst we never had much money, we learned to compensate for what we didn’t have with taste.” Our taste is thus in the end nothing more but an acquired way of signaling what group we do belong to.

With Bourdieu’s theory at hand we start to see how various phenomena of modern times are nothing but ways of playing the distinction game; ways of attempting to put oneself above the others through one’s sophisticated taste. For what else is the recent trend of healthy eating and jogging than a way to distinguish oneself from those who don’t eat as healthy and don’t do running? And what else are the various lifestyle magazines than instruments that help the reader to stay one step ahead in this game of distinctions?

In the France of Bourdieu’s times things might have been relatively simple as regards class: There were the working class, the bourgeois and the nobility with their distinctive manners, hobbies and ways of dressing, speaking and thinking. In modern west the field is more fragmented; instead of clear class distinctions it is more about different aesthetic conclaves with distinguish themselves from others as regards their taste in music, clothing and often also more general life-values. There are the hipsters, there are the hippies, goths, yuppies, hiphoppers and what-not. They all might have started to listen to their kind of music and dress in their kind of way because they simply felt that that’s what they liked. But unbeknownst to them they simultaneously made a selection about what game of distinctions and sophistications they started to play. Their choices made them part of a certain group.

Chicken

So, if one scratches the surface of any aesthetic sophistication, one finds a person who is eagerly attempting to show belongingness to a certain group and who is attempting to put oneself ahead of the others in terms of the greater amount of refinement that one has been able to acquire in one’s special field.

This brings us back to the backyards of the Nicaraguan village where I made the observations about the non-refinement of their backyards. Even they might be seen as signals in the game of distinctions. The village was formed in the 80s when the lands of a former land-lord were given to the people in a great land-reform. It can be assumed that these people have a strong willingness to distinguish themselves against the higher classes and display their reciprocal solidarity. So by not having too fancy houses and backyards the people are signaling that they belong together, that they are equal. A too refined backyard would signal to the other members of the village that this person is attempting to stand above the others, that the person thinks he or she is something better than the others. The game of distinctions can be played in many ways…

Religion as hope – visiting a youth gathering in the poor neighborhoods of San José

At four thirty on a Saturday evening I am waiting in the Park Morazán as agreed. Soon somebody calls my name and I step into a car quite unaware of our destination. We drive away from the center of San José, into one of its slums. There among the simple houses is one with the Salvation Army logo painted on the wall. Inside I find twenty or so young people hanging and waiting for the ceremony to start. I sit down in the back-corner of the room and wait to see what is going to happen.

What should the role of religion be in one’s life? This is one question that everybody in search for a good life has to answer. Religion is found to give hope, allow people to better tolerate misery and personal disasters. Religion is able to provide a sense of meaningfulness to the otherwise senseless do-abouts of the Lady Fortuna. I once heard a therapist remark that she has yet to meet a parent who has lost his or her child who would not have become at least somewhat religious. In addition, many argue that religion provides the necessary basis for our moral lives.

On the other side, the institutionalized religion has been used to control and subjugate people. Many are the wars and campaigns against people of different origin or opinions that are justified through religion. Nowadays the church often acts as the conservative force of discrimination against women and intolerance against people who don’t fit the accepted norms, for example because of different sexual orientation. Through the absolute justification that religion gives to one’s views and acts one can grow deaf to understand the perspective of the others. This might make one unable to learn from those who hold different worldviews and unable to empathize with their point of view.

When the gathering started I soon realized that at least in this neighborhood, among these young people, religion is a force for good. One father of the children was a psychologist and spoke good English and he told me that these are very poor neighborhoods with very few positive opportunities for the children. In this context the Salvation Army provides the children with one place in which they are accepted, in which someone listens to and empathizes with their joys and sorrows; a place in which they can be without fear.

Salvation Army gathering
The youth enjoying a band in the Salvation Army gathering

In the first part of the ceremony the communal function of religion was strongly present. The adolescents played some games together, sang and played music together, socialized and laughed a lot. In a life where they perhaps needed to assume more grown-up roles than they would have wanted in order to survive and prosper, the walls of the Salvation Army building offered them a place where they could be children again. After that it was time for some confessions: those who wanted could stand up and tell some moments from their lives that they wanted to share with others and others listened to respectfully. As a weekly ceremony, this provides a good opportunity to sum up the past week and is clearly building the youngsters ability to empathize with others. All in all, the doors were open, people went out and came in, the atmosphere was welcoming.

The contrast between the darkening streets outside and the mellowness inside was remarkable. In fact, the harsh reality of the outside world once entered the ceremony when a man dressed in rags ran into the room chased by another man. Fortunately, his chaser respected the church and didn’t follow in but contented himself with yelling some insults – that were not translated to me – through the open door. The presence of the escapee was tolerated for a while and when the coast was clear he was politely ushered out. Few other men of the streets had also joined in to listen to the ceremony. They sat in a corner quietly and respectfully and their presence didn’t seem to bother anyone.

Although the sense of community is the part of religion I embrace we must remember that religion is not only about community. At least Christianity is also about a direct relation with the God. The final part of the ceremony concentrated on this part. The lights were dim and some emotionally loaded music was heard in the background when the group leader – a woman in her fourties – took the floor. She started out quite peacefully but the force and determination in her voice steadily increased until the climax in which she repeatedly shouted in ecstasy ”Sancto, sancto, Dios, sancto!” The children so playful a moment ago were strongly taken by this ritual; I heard how some of them cried, I saw how some of them assumed a deep praying position or hugged each other firmly. This was no longer a play, this was serious religious trance.

As a philosopher, I undersign Terence’s words: ”I am a man, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” Yet, accustomed to the much calmer Lutheran masses, this kind of ecstatic spiritual dedication is something into which I have a hard time to leap into. I attempted to let the situation take me but found myself mostly making observations and analyzing the acts of the others. I thought how strong and primitive emotions are unleashed in these rituals. They clearly reveal something about humanity that finds usually no expression in our everyday life. At the same time I thought how these emotions could be used for many purposes both good and bad. Whatever the spiritual leader would be stating in these situations, the crowd would take it into their hearts.

So what are the take-aways of my visit in terms of good life? Firstly, religion can give hope and it can offer important sense of community for people. It is important part of the good life of many poor people for whom there exists no similar other institutions that could offer the same benefits. Secondly, there is something within us humans that responses to spiritual gatherings. Otherwise it could not be explained why different forms of spirituality could have developed in virtually all human societies from the most primitive to the most sophisticated. This is a dimension I need to investigate more in the future. Thirdly, the strong emotional reactions generated by such spiritual gatherings are not good or bad in themselves. Their goodness or badness is dependent on what they are used for. As in dealing with any strong force we thus need much responsibility in making sure that we use it only for good purposes.
At four thirty on a Saturday evening I am waiting in the Park Morazán as agreed. Soon somebody calls my name and I step into a car quite unaware of our destination. We drive away from the center of San José, into one of its slums. There among the simple houses is one with the Salvation Army logo painted on the wall. Inside I find twenty or so young people hanging and waiting for the ceremony to start. I sit down in the back-corner of the room and wait to see what is going to happen.

What should the role of religion be in one’s life? This is one question that everybody in search for a good life has to answer. Religion is found to give hope, allow people to better tolerate misery and personal disasters. Religion is able to provide a sense of meaningfulness to the otherwise senseless do-abouts of the Lady Fortuna. I once heard a therapist remark that she has yet to meet a parent who has lost his or her child who would not have become at least somewhat religious. In addition, many argue that religion provides the necessary basis for our moral lives.

On the other side, the institutionalized religion has been used to control and subjugate people. Many are the wars and campaigns against people of different origin or opinions that are justified through religion. Nowadays the church often acts as the conservative force of discrimination against women and intolerance against people who don’t fit the accepted norms, for example because of different sexual orientation. Through the absolute justification that religion gives to one’s views and acts one can grow deaf to understand the perspective of the others. This might make one unable to learn from those who hold different worldviews and unable to empathize with their point of view.

When the gathering started I soon realized that at least in this neighborhood, among these young people, religion is a force for good. One father of the children was a psychologist and spoke good English and he told me that these are very poor neighborhoods with very few positive opportunities for the children. In this context the Salvation Army provides the children with one place in which they are accepted, in which someone listens to and empathizes with their joys and sorrows; a place in which they can be without fear.

Salvation Army gathering
The youth enjoying a band in the Salvation Army gathering

In the first part of the ceremony the communal function of religion was strongly present. The adolescents played some games together, sang and played music together, socialized and laughed a lot. In a life where they perhaps needed to assume more grown-up roles than they would have wanted in order to survive and prosper, the walls of the Salvation Army building offered them a place where they could be children again. After that it was time for some confessions: those who wanted could stand up and tell some moments from their lives that they wanted to share with others and others listened to respectfully. As a weekly ceremony, this provides a good opportunity to sum up the past week and is clearly building the youngsters ability to empathize with others. All in all, the doors were open, people went out and came in, the atmosphere was welcoming.

The contrast between the darkening streets outside and the mellowness inside was remarkable. In fact, the harsh reality of the outside world once entered the ceremony when a man dressed in rags ran into the room chased by another man. Fortunately, his chaser respected the church and didn’t follow in but contented himself with yelling some insults – that were not translated to me – through the open door. The presence of the escapee was tolerated for a while and when the coast was clear he was politely ushered out. Few other men of the streets had also joined in to listen to the ceremony. They sat in a corner quietly and respectfully and their presence didn’t seem to bother anyone.

Although the sense of community is the part of religion I embrace we must remember that religion is not only about community. At least Christianity is also about a direct relation with the God. The final part of the ceremony concentrated on this part. The lights were dim and some emotionally loaded music was heard in the background when the group leader – a woman in her fourties – took the floor. She started out quite peacefully but the force and determination in her voice steadily increased until the climax in which she repeatedly shouted in ecstasy ”Sancto, sancto, Dios, sancto!” The children so playful a moment ago were strongly taken by this ritual; I heard how some of them cried, I saw how some of them assumed a deep praying position or hugged each other firmly. This was no longer a play, this was serious religious trance.

As a philosopher, I undersign Terence’s words: ”I am a man, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” Yet, accustomed to the much calmer Lutheran masses, this kind of ecstatic spiritual dedication is something into which I have a hard time to leap into. I attempted to let the situation take me but found myself mostly making observations and analyzing the acts of the others. I thought how strong and primitive emotions are unleashed in these rituals. They clearly reveal something about humanity that finds usually no expression in our everyday life. At the same time I thought how these emotions could be used for many purposes both good and bad. Whatever the spiritual leader would be stating in these situations, the crowd would take it into their hearts.

So what are the take-aways of my visit in terms of good life? Firstly, religion can give hope and it can offer important sense of community for people. It is important part of the good life of many poor people for whom there exists no similar other institutions that could offer the same benefits. Secondly, there is something within us humans that responses to spiritual gatherings. Otherwise it could not be explained why different forms of spirituality could have developed in virtually all human societies from the most primitive to the most sophisticated. This is a dimension I need to investigate more in the future. Thirdly, the strong emotional reactions generated by such spiritual gatherings are not good or bad in themselves. Their goodness or badness is dependent on what they are used for. As in dealing with any strong force we thus need much responsibility in making sure that we use it only for good purposes.

Should we choose ease of living instead of the current achievement fetish?

During my first days in San José, the capital of Costa Rica, I did what I always like to do when arriving to a new city and culture: I wandered around aimlessly through the streets, looking at people in their everyday activities hoping to capture something of the local atmosphere. What I found startling here was the idleness of many people; the way they just sat there – seemingly satisfied – in parks, in front of their houses, on the streets, everywhere. I realized that one central difference between Costa Ricans and us Northerners is certain relaxation as regards one´s life.

The Park Morazán quickly became my favorite place to sit down and watch the crowd hanging out with their friends, juggling with pins, trying out a trick with the skateboard once in while, and mostly just relaxing. There are of course parks in north also, but somehow I felt that these people were more home with this idleness thing. Let me put it this way: When my friends go to a park to chill out it is an event, something out of ordinary, but for these people this was the ordinary. For them nothing was more natural than to waste the day away without any purposeful activity in their minds.

People of Park Morazán

We westerners are always busy achieving something. We put much effort into generating more cost-effective ways of accomplishing our tasks. Whether it is the cultural legacy of living in the harsh conditions of the north, the religious influence of protestantism, or something else, our culture has chosen to emphasize accomplishment. It has made life of achievement honorable and measures success in life much through what one is able to achieve. In fact, the whole phrase ´success in life´ is a symptom of this worldview.

One of the foremost authorities of the psychology behind happiness, Martin Seligman, recently proposed that human well-being consists of five elements that we pursue for their own sake: positive emotions, engagement, accomplishment, positive relationships and meaningfulness.

Taking this perspective it is easy to see that our western culture is very big on accomplishment, that is the one dimension we are encouraged to chase. The Costa Ricans seemed to offer another cultural solution to what dimensions to emphasize. For them achievement was not such a fetish as it is for us. Future engagement with these people will hopefully reveal what is their cultural fetish but accomplishment it is not – at least not to the same extremes as in the north.

All in all, these Costa Ricans in the park thus held a mirror in front of my face showing me that the life concentrated on achievement is not the only possibility. I could live without the constant latent stress of having to claw my way to the top. I could accomplish less and be more satisfied with whatever the everyday life brings in front of me. That is a genuine possibility for me or you. Merely through their way of being, the Costa Ricans had thus succeeded in showing me that another way of appreciating life does exist.

Park Morazán by dayDuring my first days in San José, the capital of Costa Rica, I did what I always like to do when arriving to a new city and culture: I wandered around aimlessly through the streets, looking at people in their everyday activities hoping to capture something of the local atmosphere. What I found startling here was the idleness of many people; the way they just sat there – seemingly satisfied – in parks, in front of their houses, on the streets, everywhere. I realized that one central difference between Costa Ricans and us Northerners is certain relaxation as regards one´s life.

The Park Morazán quickly became my favorite place to sit down and watch the crowd hanging out with their friends, juggling with pins, trying out a trick with the skateboard once in while, and mostly just relaxing. There are of course parks in north also, but somehow I felt that these people were more home with this idleness thing. Let me put it this way: When my friends go to a park to chill out it is an event, something out of ordinary, but for these people this was the ordinary. For them nothing was more natural than to waste the day away without any purposeful activity in their minds.

People of Park Morazán

We westerners are always busy achieving something. We put much effort into generating more cost-effective ways of accomplishing our tasks. Whether it is the cultural legacy of living in the harsh conditions of the north, the religious influence of protestantism, or something else, our culture has chosen to emphasize accomplishment. It has made life of achievement honorable and measures success in life much through what one is able to achieve. In fact, the whole phrase ´success in life´ is a symptom of this worldview.

One of the foremost authorities of the psychology behind happiness, Martin Seligman, recently proposed that human well-being consists of five elements that we pursue for their own sake: positive emotions, engagement, accomplishment, positive relationships and meaningfulness.

Taking this perspective it is easy to see that our western culture is very big on accomplishment, that is the one dimension we are encouraged to chase. The Costa Ricans seemed to offer another cultural solution to what dimensions to emphasize. For them achievement was not such a fetish as it is for us. Future engagement with these people will hopefully reveal what is their cultural fetish but accomplishment it is not – at least not to the same extremes as in the north.

All in all, these Costa Ricans in the park thus held a mirror in front of my face showing me that the life concentrated on achievement is not the only possibility. I could live without the constant latent stress of having to claw my way to the top. I could accomplish less and be more satisfied with whatever the everyday life brings in front of me. That is a genuine possibility for me or you. Merely through their way of being, the Costa Ricans had thus succeeded in showing me that another way of appreciating life does exist.

Park Morazán by day

The mystery of the Costa Rican happiness

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…

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…

Leaving home and learning to appreciate what we have

The hardest part of a journey is usually the start. This is true in two senses of the word: Firstly, there are always so many excuses not to travel – the lack of money, risks ahead, study, work or family commitments and so forth – that many people never leave their home. These are obstacles that can always be arranged, if one just has a strong enough vision. Don’t take my word for it, ask Dervla Murphy who in addition to bicycling alone from Ireland to India in 1963 also travelled 1500 miles by foot in Peru with her nine-year old daughter. It must though be noted that her daughter Rachel rode the first six hundred miles with a pony before becoming a pedestrian.

Secondly, leaving is hard because one has to say farewell to so many dear people whom one doesn’t see for months. The last weeks before the trip are always filled with sad partings in which both realize how long it will be before we meet again. Should one say some kind words – or just shake hands in silence with a manly firmness? These are moments I have never learned to handle with elegance, I am always a bit unsure of how to get through them and how to really show the other how much I care about him or her.

One of the main reasons to travel, however, are precisely these good-byes. The human psychology is built in such a way that we often are unable to appreciate that which we have. We grow so used to having the good people around us and getting their attention and love that we start to take it for granted. We no longer see how much their presence really gives to us and in how many ways they enrich our lives. You do not learn to appreciate something before you don’t have it – and traveling is a way of departing from that which you have for a while and thus learn to appreciate it anew.

This is connected to one of the things that modern well-being psychologists have emphasized, namely the fact that in terms of happiness, ”the human mind is extraordinarily sensitive to changes in conditions, but not so sensitive to absolute levels” as Jonathan Haidt puts it. In other words, most of the things we have – especially our material wealth – don’t affect our happiness in the long term because we grow used to them. To change our happiness permanently we should not change the amount of things we have but our relation to the things we have. One can learn oneself to take a more appreciative attitude towards one’s life – for example through the simple exercise of once a week writing down five things one is gratetuf for. Simple as it may sound, this kind of exercises have been found to increase people’s satisfaction with life, their optimism and even their physical health.

Traveling – I argue – is one of the best ways to learn to appreciate more what one already has. As the travel writer Paoul Theroux notes: ”One of the greatest rewards of travel is the return home to the reassurance of family and old friends, familiar sights and homely comforts and your own bed.” But to get there, you first have to travel.The hardest part of a journey is usually the start. This is true in two senses of the word: Firstly, there are always so many excuses not to travel – the lack of money, risks ahead, study, work or family commitments and so forth – that many people never leave their home. These are obstacles that can always be arranged, if one just has a strong enough vision. Don’t take my word for it, ask Dervla Murphy who in addition to bicycling alone from Ireland to India in 1963 also travelled 1500 miles by foot in Peru with her nine-year old daughter. It must though be noted that her daughter Rachel rode the first six hundred miles with a pony before becoming a pedestrian.

Secondly, leaving is hard because one has to say farewell to so many dear people whom one doesn’t see for months. The last weeks before the trip are always filled with sad partings in which both realize how long it will be before we meet again. Should one say some kind words – or just shake hands in silence with a manly firmness? These are moments I have never learned to handle with elegance, I am always a bit unsure of how to get through them and how to really show the other how much I care about him or her.

One of the main reasons to travel, however, are precisely these good-byes. The human psychology is built in such a way that we often are unable to appreciate that which we have. We grow so used to having the good people around us and getting their attention and love that we start to take it for granted. We no longer see how much their presence really gives to us and in how many ways they enrich our lives. You do not learn to appreciate something before you don’t have it – and traveling is a way of departing from that which you have for a while and thus learn to appreciate it anew.

This is connected to one of the things that modern well-being psychologists have emphasized, namely the fact that in terms of happiness, ”the human mind is extraordinarily sensitive to changes in conditions, but not so sensitive to absolute levels” as Jonathan Haidt puts it. In other words, most of the things we have – especially our material wealth – don’t affect our happiness in the long term because we grow used to them. To change our happiness permanently we should not change the amount of things we have but our relation to the things we have. One can learn oneself to take a more appreciative attitude towards one’s life – for example through the simple exercise of once a week writing down five things one is gratetuf for. Simple as it may sound, this kind of exercises have been found to increase people’s satisfaction with life, their optimism and even their physical health.

Traveling – I argue – is one of the best ways to learn to appreciate more what one already has. As the travel writer Paoul Theroux notes: ”One of the greatest rewards of travel is the return home to the reassurance of family and old friends, familiar sights and homely comforts and your own bed.” But to get there, you first have to travel.

The beginning of a journey

Sometimes a man has to go. Sometimes a man needs a purpose to go. I am going to Central America, to Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The purpose of my journey is to learn more about the local culture, the way they live their lives and the way they think about vital issues such as happiness, morality and good life.

What makes Costa Ricans happy, what is their measure of success? What kind of attitudes do Nicaraguans have towards life’s big issues: family, work, friendship and death? What kind of things do they value, what is sacred for them? And of course: What can we learn about our own lives and our own deeply-held values and attitudes by comparing them with the Central-American culture? In other words, what can we learn from them in terms of how to live a good life ourselves? These are the questions I will be examining.

My mission in life is to explore novel ways of thinking that enable people to better understand how to live their life in a good way. I aim to find fruitful ways to answer the ancient question about what is good life and how to live one’s life. The journey I will now be taking is a part of this mission. Through absorbing myself to the Central American culture for a couple of months I hope to widen my perspective and thus be able to think about these basic questions in a more open and wide-reaching way.

This blog will be a report of this journey. I hope to give the reader two things: (1) To broaden her or his perspective about what good life could be about. (2) To give practical insights into how to live a better life within one’s own life-situation, whatever that situation is.

How then to live your life? Truth to be told, there is no such thing as one correct way of living. Everyone must carve their own path. As Zarathustra said:

”This is just my way, where is yours?” Thus did I answer to those who asked me ”the way.” For the way – it does not not exist!

Sometimes a man has to go. Sometimes a man needs a purpose to go. I am going to Central America, to Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The purpose of my journey is to learn more about the local culture, the way they live their lives and the way they think about vital issues such as happiness, morality and good life.

What makes Costa Ricans happy, what is their measure of success? What kind of attitudes do Nicaraguans have towards life’s big issues: family, work, friendship and death? What kind of things do they value, what is sacred for them? And of course: What can we learn about our own lives and our own deeply-held values and attitudes by comparing them with the Central-American culture? In other words, what can we learn from them in terms of how to live a good life ourselves? These are the questions I will be exploring.

My mission in life is to explore novel ways of thinking that enable people to better understand how to live their life in a good way. I aim to find fruitful ways to answer the ancient question about what is good life and how to live one’s life. The journey I will now be taking is a part of this mission. Through absorbing myself to the Central American culture for a couple of months I hope to widen my perspective and thus be able to think about these basic questions in a more open and wide-reaching way.

This blog will be a report of this journey. I hope to give the reader two things: (1) To broaden her or his perspective about what good life could be about. (2) To give practical insights into how to live a better life within one’s own life-situation, whatever that situation is.

How then to live your life? Truth to be told, there is no such thing as one correct way of living. Everyone must carve their own path. As Zarathustra said:

”This is just my way, where is yours?” Thus did I answer to those who asked me for ”the way.” For the way – it does not not exist!