Why Costa Rica Tops the Happiness Index

The New Economics Foundation's Happy Planet Index determined that Costa Rica is the greenest and happiest place in the world. The HPI considers three variables: happiness, ecological footprint, and life expectancy. (Photo: Susan Hardman)

Why Costa Rica Tops the Happiness Index

How a focus on peace is helping this Central American country top the Happy Planet Index

A child growing up in the Costa Rican countryside is surrounded by some of the most beautiful and biodiverse landscapes in the world. The government of this tiny Central American country aims to keep it that way. But preserving this land of tropical rainforests isn't Costa Rica's only accomplishment. The government ensures all citizens have access to health care and education, and the country actively promotes peace around the world. So when the New Economics Foundation released its second Happy Planet Index, a ranking of countries based on their environmental impact and the health and happiness of their citizens, the No. 1 spot went to Costa Rica, population 4 million.

The United States' ranking: No. 114.

What can our neighbor to the south teach us about happiness, longevity, and environmental sustainability?

"Costa Rica enjoys a privileged position as a mid-income country where citizens have sufficient spare time and abundant interpersonal relations," says Costa Rican economics professor Mariano Rojas. "A mid-income level allows most citizens to satisfy their basic needs. Government intervention in the economy assures that all Costa Ricans have access to education, health, and nutrition services." Costa Ricans, he added, have not entered the "race for status and conspicuous consumption."

Created in 2008, the Happy Planet Index examines sustainable happiness on a national level, ranking 143 countries according to three measurements: how happy its citizens are, how long they live, and how much of the planet's resources they each consume. The HPI multiplies years of life expectancy by life satisfaction (as measured by the Gallup Poll and the World Values Survey), to obtain "Happy Life Years," which are then divided by pressure on ecosystems, as measured by the ecological footprint. (The ecological footprint, in turn, measures how much land and water it takes to provide for each person.)

The Happy Planet Index "strips down the economy to what really matters," says New Economics Foundation researcher Saamah Abdallah. It measures "what goes in, in terms of resource use, and the outcomes that are important, which are happy and healthy lives for us all. In this way, it reminds us that the economy is there for a purpose--and that is to improve our lives."

Abdallah calls the importance of family, friends, and community "social capital." People who live in countries with higher levels of material wealth often report less happiness than people in countries with less wealth but stronger social networks. According to the HPI, a Costa Rican has an ecological footprint one-fourth that of the average person in the United States.

The United States is one country where social capital is falling, according to a study conducted by the economist Stefano Bartolini.

"It is not surprising that social capital should be falling in the U.S.," Abdallah says. "Americans work the longest hours in the Western world and have the shortest holidays. All their time is spent making money, rather than building social bonds, which are just as important to well-being."

The Importance of Peace

Domestic and international peace has long been a priority in Costa Rica. In 1948, the country abolished its military, allowing it to spend more on health and education. Its University of Peace, established in 1980, offers a master's degree in peace and conflict studies as well as ongoing workshops--like a recent one on corporate responsibility offered to international business executives.

In September 2009, the Costa Rican legislature created a Ministry of Justice and Peace , emphasizing the role of peace promotion and conflict resolution in preventing violent crime. Shortly afterward, the country hosted the 2009 Global Alliance Summit for Ministries and Departments of Peace, where representatives of 40 countries gathered to work on developing peace infrastructure in their own governments.

Central to Costa Rica's promotion of peace is the Rasur Foundation, which organized the summit and lobbied for the creation of the Ministry of Justice and Peace. Rasur is a teacher in a Costa Rican poem who tells a group of children, "Before directing the lightning in the sky, we must first harness the storms in our own hearts." Through its Peace Academy, the Rasur Foundation works with the Costa Rican Ministry of Education to introduce techniques of conflict resolution and "being peace" in Costa Rican schools.

Costa Rica's Nobel Prize-winning president, Oscar Arias Sanchez, who attended the Summit, is quoted on the Foundation's website:

"Peace is not a dream. It's an arduous task. We must start by finding peaceful solutions to everyday conflicts with the people around us. Peace does not begin with the other person; it begins with each and every one of us."

There is little difference in life expectancy across income levels, unlike in the United States.

Costa Ricans are not only reporting happy lives, they are living long ones. In the second measurement of the Happy Planet Index, longevity, Costa Rica scored an average of 78.5 life years, compared with 77.9 for the United States. Some studies have suggested that Costa Rican men live longer than men anywhere else in the world. There is little difference in life expectancy across income levels, unlike in the United States. Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health have found an "enormous gap" in U.S. life expectancy, depending on race, income, location, and other factors.

Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula is one of the world's "Blue Zones"--places where the inhabitants frequently live to be over 100 years old. The residents of these zones generally eat well, get plenty of exercise, and have a genetic predisposition to longevity. Nationwide, Costa Ricans benefit from a combination of government-run and private insurance options. Costa Rica promotes good health among its citizens even before they are born, sending doctors and nurses out into the countryside to provide prenatal care and teach parents how to raise healthy children.

Protecting the Landscape

The Costa Rican government's promotion of peace and health for its citizens extends to a peaceful and healthy relationship to the planet. The size of its ecological footprint indicates that "the country only narrowly fails to achieve the goal of ... consuming its fair share of the Earth's natural resources," according to the Happy Planet Index.

Costa Rica has pioneered techniques of land management, reforestation, and alternatives to fossil fuels.

Spurred by rapid deforestation of its pristine rainforests due to logging and agriculture, the country began converting parts of its territory to national parks in the 1970s and prohibited the export of certain trees. Even so, by 1987, illegal logging, cattle ranching, and development had reduced the country's rainforest from 73 to 21 percent of the landscape. So in 1996 Costa Rica introduced the Payment for Environmental Services Program (PES). Oil importers and water-bottling and sewage-treatment plants now have to pay a special tax to do business in the country, while other businesses contribute via a voluntary carbon-offset fee. The money is used to pay local people to protect the trees, water, and soil in their surrounding environment by abstaining from cattle ranching and illegal logging.

The PES program has had mixed results. In some areas, cattle ranching and illegal logging remain more profitable, and the government has had to scramble to raise enough money to finance the program. But overall, because of the country's new environmental policies, including a massive UN-sponsored tree-planting program begun in 2007, more than half of Costa Rica's territory is once again covered with rainforest.

In a further effort to go green, the country has banned oil drilling within its borders and invests heavily in renewable energy sources like hydroelectric, wind, and geothermal power, which now provide 95 percent of its energy. In the capital, San Jose, vehicles are permitted downtown only on certain days, depending on the license-plate number. A planned commuter train will also cut down on automobile pollution. The country has pledged to go carbon neutral by 2021, the year of its bicentennial.

"The position of Costa Rica is that we all have to make ourselves present on the issue of climate change," said Gerardo Mondragon in a telephone interview with YES! Magazine. He is with Paz con La Naturaleza (Peace with Nature), an advisory agency to President Arias on ecological planning. "We want to get the message out that all countries have to support one another in this , and in particular, industrialized countries should support those countries who have clear initiatives."

Critics of Costa Rica's green policy, like Rachel Godfrey Wood of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, have pointed out that no amount of tree planting can completely undo the damage done by fossil fuels.

The Costa Rican conservation organization FECON posts regularly on its website about continuing ecological problems in Costa Rica: deforestation by landowners, pineapple plantations that cause soil erosion and pollute community drinking water with pesticides, and a new mining development in Las Crucitas that has local residents worried about cyanide poisoning in the region. Another controversy recently erupted in a region called Las Baulas, where environmentalists fear development will threaten the turtle population.

"We have to go slow," Mondragon said of the environmental challenges still facing Costa Rica. "But we still have to let people know what's happening." He blamed the Las Crucitas mining project on antiquated laws that don't give Costa Rica enough protection from environmental damage by companies working within its borders. "We need to change these laws so that development can proceed in a balanced way."

As a stable democracy for the past century, Costa Rica has been considered a "business-friendly" country. Though large banana, pineapple, and coffee plantations have not disappeared, ecotourism and high-tech companies have increasingly invested in Costa Rica.

"Good lives need not cost the Earth."

But a recent struggle between proponents and opponents of CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement that passed last year, highlighted divisions over the issue of liberalizing trade laws. In one camp are those such as President Arias, who support CAFTA because they believe it will bring additional foreign investment; in the other camp are those who fear trade liberalization and privatization will allow businesses to be unaccountable to Costa Rica's labor or environmental regulations. The controversy over CAFTA illustrates an innate dilemma in Costa Rica's green strategy: How can a country that relies on corporate investment for its economic survival demand that those same corporations abide by the country's ecological guidelines? And what clout does it have in enforcing those guidelines?

No country, not even Costa Rica with its No.1 ranking, has reached the goal of "one planet living" that the creators of the Happy Planet Index believe we should all aspire to: consuming our fair share of the Earth's resources. "We want nations, regions, and cities to assess how well they are doing based on well-being and environmental impact," says Abdallah of the New Economics Foundation. "We would like to highlight the message that good lives need not cost the Earth and that 'one planet living' can actually mean a better life."

This article was written for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.