A painting in a smoothie bar in Palmares. These frogs seem to have found the secret to happiness: absinthe coconuts.
Even if you’ve never been to Costa Rica, you may have heard it described as “The happiest country in the world.” And if you have been here, it’s almost certain you’ve heard that slogan, especially since there’s now a sign that proclaims “Welcome to the happiest country in the world” or something very much like that as you ride the escalator to immigration at the San Jose airport. I’ve been hearing that phrase for almost 8 years now, and it’s been on my mind a lot.
An advertisement for a new mobile telephone company. It says “The happiest country in the world deserves to be connected.” Speaking of connections, I fail to see any between the slogan, the company, and the picture in the advertisement.
In my class today we talked about happiness, and I asked my students if they thought that Costa Rica really deserved that title. They weren’t too sure, but I have to admit that they did seem like happy students. I say this because I asked them if they were happy, and they all said yes. They were healthy, they had their families, they had jobs, they were safe… so yes, they all said they were happy. But they weren’t so certain if Costa Rica was better than the other 193 or so countries out there. Part of that may be that they’d not traveled too much, and the places they had been (mostly the U.S. and/or Panama) may not be the best representatives of the rest of the world.
As I was researching for this evening’s class, I came across some different articles and polls about happiness. It seems that a couple studies or polls from a few years ago were the ones that gave Costa Rica top honors. The survey mentioned in this 2012 CNN article is interesting, but seems a bit “off.” It puts Costa Rica at number 1, which is all well and good, but the top 20 also includes countries like Honduras, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cuba, and Venezuela. From what I know of these countries, it makes me seriously wonder how they’re defining happiness, and if it may be measuring something like complacency, resignation, or acceptance that’s been disguised as happiness.
Meanwhile, the 2013 World Happiness Report, a major study that had some connections to Columbia University and the UN, put Denmark and mostly other northern European countries in the top places; Costa Rica placed 12th in that study. This study seems a bit more reputable, since it measures more factors that seem to affect a person’s quality of life, and to me that seems like a better thing to rate than something intangible and vague like an emotion. As an aside, you can read more about Danish happiness here and here. Anyhow, in this report you can find more concrete data on things like a country’s economy, life expectancy, and generosity as measured through charitable contributions, as well as on its citizens’ perceptions of things like corruption or safety. But if you ask someone, “Are you happy?” he or she is likely to say “Yes,” at least if that person is a Costa Rican.
A picture of a nice, peaceful field in Denmark. I have been there quite a few times to visit relatives, and if you’d asked me 10 years ago where I’d ideally be living in 2014, I’d probably have said Denmark. At that point, I knew as much about Costa Rica as I knew about Narnia.
That’s another reason I think that a happiness survey may be skewed in favor of Costa Rica and other countries with a similar approach towards these types of questions. It seems like most people here would prefer to make and maintain the peace, as opposed to rocking the boat, even if rocking the boat may occasionally improve things. Or, as my Australian friend Lucy noted, it’s really hard to start a fight with a Costa Rican, since they tend to avoid conflict whenever possible. So if you compare that approach to an outspoken and honest (although possibly negative) answer that you may get from a German or a Dane, then it may indeed seem like people here are happy, but it may just mean that they’re happier to answer your question in the affirmative, even if it’s not a true reflection of what’s going on.
Speaking of Denmark, I took this picture of the “decorations” on a Danish train. It sure looks like the soldiers with the Danish flag shields (red and white) are massacring the Swedish soldiers (blue and yellow). They may live in the happiest country in the world, but clearly the Danes still have some issues to work out.
Of course, there’s nothing that actually indicates that a “happy” place is actually a good place to live, or vice-versa. I’ve spent two years in Germany, and the people there are generally known for being more reserved or “cold,” whereas they’d classify Americans as superficial because we’re friendly to strangers. I can’t imagine how they’d perceive the laughing, emotional, cheek-kissing Costa Ricans using that same criteria–it’d probably break the scale. But when it comes down to it, I generally enjoyed living in Germany more than in Costa Rica. The people are reserved, but once you get to know them, they’re just as friendly as anywhere else. Plus, I always felt very safe, the transportation and health services were excellent, the food was awesome (and I didn’t have to eat white rice constantly), and there were many more green spaces and parks, which led to a general feeling of happiness and well-being. So despite the fact that on the surface we may perceive some cultures as “serious” or not happy, that’s a very superficial measurement.
Finally, I mentioned acceptance, complacency, and even resignation as possible attitudes that these surveys may actually be inadvertently measuring in some cases. In a country where every statement or plan is followed by “si Dios quiere,” or “God willing,” it seems that a lot of people relinquish at least the perception of control and responsibility to other forces, and many seem content to live with “good enough,” even if it’s not actually good. After all, if it’s not broken completely, why fix it? So how could that affect a happiness survey? Well, if the pollster asks if you’re happy, you may as well say yes. Sure, things aren’t perfect, but why complain about something that’s seemingly out of your control and not affecting your happiness at that particular moment, like bad roads or governmental bureaucracy?
This restaurant in Naranjo claims its pork is happy, but are its customers?
As you can maybe tell, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I have to admit that it’s hard to express some of the ideas that have been bouncing around in my mind. But to finish off this post, I’ll share three reasons that Costa Rica may indeed be the happiest country in the world, and three reasons why it may not. As with the rest of this post, it’s all based on my opinions.
Three reasons Costa Rica may indeed be the happiest country in the world:
1. The people here are genuinely friendly, and that often translates to happiness, or at least it’s perceived that way as outsiders. It’s very easy to strike up a conversation with almost anyone when you’re waiting in an interminable line to do something like get a receipt from the power company.
2. It is a fairly peaceful and pretty place. Especially considering the country doesn’t have a military, combined with the fact that nearly all other Central American countries suffered or are suffering from depressing crime statistics, Costa Rica is a rare bit of hope in a downer of a region. And the scenery is excellent, at least when it’s not obscured by rain and/or fog.
3. Most social measurements are pretty good. The life expectancy, literacy rate, and other things like that are looking good, at least compared to most of the world. Sure, it’s not at Scandinavian levels, but it’s still acceptable.
Three reasons Costa Rica may NOT be the happiest country in the world:
1. Bad questions lead to bad answers. As mentioned before, if the surveyors are just asking flat-out if people are happy, they may not get reliable answers. I think measuring social and economic development, as well as people’s perceptions, would be a more reliable way to get the information you’re looking for here.
2. Maybe people were scared to say “no.” If you look around any city in Costa Rica, it looks like a slum in a more-developed country. Bars on the windows, razor wire on fences, attack dogs, and security cameras–we’re not talking about prisons here, we’re talking about a common private home. I think in these types of cases actions speak louder than words. People may say they’re happy, but that happiness seems to be cut with a fair amount of fear, suspicion, or other emotions.
3. There may be nothing to compare the country with, at least for many people being surveyed. While it’s a very small country and its people are becoming more mobile, there remains a huge chunk of the population that’s never left the country, and in many cases people have never left the area of the country they live in. If you’ve never seen what other places have to offer, you may just assume that what you have is the best.
What do you think? I know most people haven’t made it this far, but if you read all this way, I’d like to reward you with this picture:
I saw this on the way to work one evening. Yes, it’s a guy driving a motorcycle, with a wheelbarrow strapped to his back. Is he happy? Who knows. But with something like this going on, some people may operate on an entirely different wavelength, where happiness is irrelevant. A more appropriate question may be: Does he dream of fish?
And I’d also like to ask for your opinion:
-What is happiness? Can it even be measured?
-If so, what would make a happy country?
-Is Costa Rica happy, based on your criteria?
-Any other comments? Any other happy countries you’ve visited?
In any case, I’d love to hear from you in the comments or on Facebook. Thanks for reading, and stay happy!