Pura Vida

Life in full circle

Happiness in Costa Rica Part 2

Why are the Costa Ricans so darned happy?

This time I arrived early, in the rainy season in a downpour which had paralyzed much of Central America and killed many people, mostly north of Costa Rica.  Here, the roads were simply flooded, and my taxi nearly gave up.  Eventually, the driver did summon up his nerve and we traveled 60 km, over flooded roads and through sinkholes you could lose a cow in.  Eventually, we pulled up at my green door. The rain continued for a week.  It is not like rain in Seattle, often notable in itself, but rain like being under a waterfall, rain thick, dark, and impenetrable.  Punctuated by fierce thunderstorms.  Suffice to say that for that week, I wondered if this was all a mistake.

Then by November 2, the sun came out and it has been glorious ever since, not a cloud in the sky.  The roads are still terrible, but the mud has dried out, and the sea has turned from “snot green” (James Joyce’s memorable description) to azure blue.  

This is my 5th trip to Costa Rica, and I’m here on a one-way ticket, with a definite plan.  I am working on a book about happiness, Tico style.  Costa Ricans call themselves Ticos with pride, and so shall I.  Costa Rica has consistently been named one of the happiest countries in the world, and this was reinforced just this week by the Latinobarometro, http://www.latinobarometro.org/latino/latinobarometro.jsp

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My first blog for Psychology Today was about bliss in Costa Rica.  This is now 7 months later,the bliss is tinctured with reality, and I'm hard at work.  Costa Ricans report the most life satisfaction of any of the peoples of Latin and Central America.  My job, for the next 2 or 3 years, is to analyze why this is so. 

This place is certainly not for the faint of heart.  There is a bumper sticker here that sums it up:  “Costa Rica:  We Make Easy Hard”.  Simple things, like getting a cell phone, are very difficult; you need a corporation to buy cell service.  Crime is high, and getting higher.  Life is a little more like the South Bronx than Marin County.  There are crocodiles in the estuaries, scorpions in your boots, poisonous snakes in the garden sheds, mosquitoes that carry dengue fever (a viral illness that feels like imminent death), and feral cows and horses on the highways.  You learn to drive like Indiana Jones, through the rivers, hoping you won’t be swept out to sea.  One of my friends tells me that one day her infant son was crying piteously and nothing she could do seemed to help. He had army ants in his diapers!  Just yesterday, we were shaken by a 5.4 magnitude earthquake.

 Yet people are happy here.  I am happy here!  For the native Ticos, Costa Rica is a place of stability and the known.  Few immigrate to other places, although many travel just to see them.  For 400 years, the people of Costa Rica have not been involved in a major war.  In 1948, the president abolished the military, and Costa Rica has the unique distinction of being the only real country in the world with no military, only police.  Other similar states are like Andalusia or Lichtenstein, states so small they are more protectorates than independent nations.  Christopher Columbus invaded Costa Rica in 1502, and by the end of that century most of the indigenous peoples were dead of infectious diseases, leaving the Spaniards to work the lands if they wanted to eat.  Lacking natural resources such as gold and silver, the Spaniards and other immigrants had no choice but agriculture.  

In 1821, Central America was made free of Spain (although it took a while for the news to percolate from Mexico to Costa Rica), and by 1871 Costa Rica acquired a liberal Constitution, abolishing the death penalty and granting voting rights to most males.  That constitution was revised in 1948, and extended the voting franchise to women and blacks.  Most people in Costa Rica declare their race as “mezcla”, or mixed.  People immigrated here from Italy, China, and Germany, and the few black slaves were made free, long ago.  One of Costa Rica’s only wars was against William Walker, an American who came to Nicaragua with the intention of supporting the Confederacy during the US Civil War.  He was kicked out of Costa Rica, and killed in Nicaragua in 1857.   Costa Rica was not tolerant of slavery, racism, nor militarism.  In the recent poll, 90% of Ticos said there was no reason that a military government would ever be a good idea.  Separation of church and state was an important law by the end of the 19th Century. 

I am looking at the phenomenon of national happiness in general, and the specific and exceptional case of Costa Rica.  It will be quite an intellectual adventure, like going to graduate school in a new subject, and I’m very excited about it.  My only caveat is that I hope to survive the process, avoiding burglars, drunken drivers, and poisonous creatures.  Pura Vida means hello, goodbye, and “thank goodness” for the Ticos, and that is where I got the name for this blog.  My aim is to understand the happiness of Costa Rica, and to see which elements can be exported into other, less happy parts of the world. Certainly, a country without an army and with no real history of war, invasion, communism, fascism, rampant capitalism, imperialism, or religious intolerance deserves close scrutiny.  What better place to write than under a coconut tree?

Judith Eve Lipton, M.D. is a psychiatrist and book author. She and her husband David Barash have written about sex, war, and human nature.

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