Secrets of La Pura Vida

What underlies Costa Ricans’ sky-high happiness?

Posted Sep 09, 2015

We were off to a lousy start. After landing in Costa Rica, my boyfriend and I learned that our rental car company had denied our prepaid, non-refundable insurance and the car would cost twice what we were quoted. The guy at the counter spoke enough English to break this news, but not quite enough to explain why it was happening. We had no choice but to shrug it off. We set out on a four-hour drive on narrow dirt roads, which included one panic-inducing mountain pass. The small hill town we were staying in didn’t have street signs, and we struggled in the darkness with a poorly drawn map until we finally found our hotel. We’d been awake and traveling for almost 20 hours. Besides being grumpy and exhausted, I was also skeptical. THIS was one of the world’s happiest countries?

A few months ago, I wrote about the high levels of happiness in Scandinavia, namely Sweden and Denmark. While they top the charts on some measures, such as the well-regarded World Happiness Report, other measures place tropical, less affluent Costa Rica at the top. These countries could hardly be more different. What gives? Or, more to the point, what factors really comprise happiness?

Different definitions and measurement approaches can tell us pretty different stories about who is happy. The Happy Planet Index used a composite of citizens’ self-reported well-being, but also factored in life expectancy and ecological footprint when considering the happiness of nations. It specifically considers “how many long and happy lives they produce per unit of environmental input.” This is one of several measures that puts Costa Rica on top. Costa Ricans are far happier than the country’s GDP would predict and they use far fewer resources than other countries.

Also, consider the following key contributors to happiness:

Natural beauty. Costa Rica is a place of tremendous ecological diversity. Exotic birds, howler monkeys, tree frogs and more make it a nature-lover’s paradise. It was easy to forget the car rental snafu and the quality of the roads when seeing thousands of stars in the night sky, walking on deserted beaches, and spotting colorful toucans in the palm trees. Tourists and residents value nature and to find ways to be in it. Costa Rica is an ecotourism pioneer and environmental consciousness is apparent everywhere.

Social life. Costa Ricans rate highly on social connection and low on loneliness. In his best-selling Blue Zones, Dan Buettner specifically highlights the Nicoya Peninsula, on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, as a region of the world where people lived exceedingly long lives. While many factors contribute, he highlights deep and long-lasting social ties as key components to a long and well-lived life.  

Low stress levels. Costa Ricans score very low on the Perceived Stress Scale, which assesses the degree to which life is unpredictable, uncontrollable, and overwhelming. We can’t escape stress, but we can alter the way we cope with life’s challenges. Costa Ricans seem particularly skilled at not sweating the small stuff.

As for me, my initial stresses were quickly forgotten. After a week in Costa Rica, driving down dirt roads to secluded beaches, eating tacos at roadside stands, swinging in hammocks, and seeing carefree kids laughing and playing in town parks, its appeal was undeniable. This is no secret. According to the U.S. State Department, over 50,000 Americans live in Costa Rica, perhaps seeking our their own piece of la pura vida – the good life. For the rest of us, we might consider how we can learn from these findings,  prioritizing close relationships, savoring nature’s wonders, and keeping stress under control.