A major goal in human neuroscience and behavioral psychology is to improve the well-being of individuals. On the level of social behavior, studies of  well-being and happiness have multiplied, but the results vary with how the studies are designed.

Surveys of well-being in countries across the globe have shown Scandinavian or Nordic countries in the top tier for years. Now, by a measure called the Happy Planet Index, Costa Rica, a Central American country known for its tropical rainforests, vies with Denmark for the top spot. But the two countries could hardly seem more different.

According to Nic Marks describing this index for 2015 in a TED Talk

the results show the extent to which 151 countries across the globe produce long, happy and sustainable lives for the people that live in them…..The index uses global data on life expectancy, experienced well-being and Ecological Footprint.

Happy Planet Index = (Experienced well-being X Life expectancy) / Ecological Footprint

Each of these components is based on a separate measure…..If you want to know how well someone’s life is going, your best bet is to ask them directly. .…experienced well-being is assessed using a question called the ‘Ladder of Life’ from the Gallup World Poll. This asks respondents to imagine a ladder, where 0 represents the worst possible life and 10 the best possible life, and report the step of the ladder they feel they currently stand on.

Since the results for 151 countries were quite complex, I arbitrarily simplified them by sorting the data first by the overall Happy Planet Index, then by Experienced well-being, and finally listing the top ten.

Robert Lavine
Source: Robert Lavine

Off the top of my head I can think of several factors that enhance Costa Ricans’ well-being. Their country's lush, green rainforests with an enormous variety of plant and animal species were a gift that they preserved, and green spaces have been shown to enhance positive feelings. About 27% of Costa Rica's land mass is preserved as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. On a boat going to the remote Tortuguera area in 2008, I saw howler monkeys, sloths, and the little Jesus Christ Lizard, so named because it "walks on water," then peered at the tiny tree frogs in the forest and the hulking sea turtles that waddle up the Caribbean beach at night to lay their eggs.

​ by Careyjamesbalboa [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Source: ​ by Careyjamesbalboa [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

The country is a functioning democratic republic, has no army, and emphasizes education—"teachers are our army" their past president once said. 

Furthermore, Costa Ricans emerged highest in life satisfaction from a survey of 40,000 students from around the world taking an online course at UC Berkeley in "The Science of Happiness," according to Juliana Breines writing in Forbes.com.

Cultures… that emphasize group cohesion and shared goals—may rank higher in social connectedness and lower in loneliness due to these cultural values...Individualistic cultures, by contrast, may rank higher on happiness measures that tap into personal accomplishments and self-esteem. The United States, for example, ranked 6th in flourishing, a measure that includes several items focused on individual accomplishments (e.g., “I am competent and capable in the activities that are important to me").

Although both Costa Rica and Denmark do well in these studies, each has unique features in social behavior as well as geography. As for population, both are small compared to the U.S. or other large countries. Some people have argued that the success of Nordic countries depends on their citizens' homogeneous ethnic backgrounds, but Costa Rica's successes with a diverse population suggests at least that other factors are at work as well. Future studies might clarify what factors are most important. 

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