So Happy Together
So Happy Together
By Cecilia Ledesma
Contributing Writer, CMC ’12
In an attempt to avoid the general unproductiveness often associated with winter break, I decided to invest my time and energy volunteering abroad. When I committed to spending two weeks in Costa Rica, I was excited about the opportunity to help construct a community center in Latin America. Initially, I envisioned towns lacking running water, the sign of a society whose residents struggled to meet their basic needs. While La Carpio, the town in which my project was located, confirmed some of my prior notions, I was surprised to discover that it was very much an anomaly of typical Costa Rican life. From high-quality education to affordable health care, the range and quality of resources that the country’s government provides contribute to a quality of life that most citizens of its Central American counterparts unfortunately do not enjoy.
Given these resources and the population’s unique culture, it is no mystery why the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index ranks Costa Rica as the happiest country on the planet. The index examines sustainable happiness on a national level, ranking 143 countries according to three measurements: citizens’ self-reported happiness, average life expectancy, and ecological footprint per capita. Costa Rica excels in all three categories.
As a model of sustainable development, Costa Rica sets a prime example. Though small in size, it possesses high levels of biological diversity, which the government has taken great strides to preserve. Not only is up to 33% of its land protected through national parks and privately owned preserves, but landowners are also paid annually for each protected forest acre. The sole mission of the Costa Rican National Environmental Office (SETENA) is to oversee the environmental impact of prospective builders and developers and to ensure that ecological preservation takes precedent. Because of the government’s emphasis on sustainable development, eco-tourism has risen substantially in the region. Scenic beaches and tropical rainforests attract myriad travelers seeking refuge in its tranquil beauty. The country’s $2.2 billion annual tourism industry indicates that economic well-being is not just compatible with forest preservation but also a beneficial outcome of it.
The government’s 1949 decision to dismantle its military and invest instead in education truly sets Costa Rica apart. Education accounts for 4.1% of the Costa Rican national budget, while military spending constitutes a mere 0.4% of total GDP. Increased schooling has created a stable society less prone to the revolutions and dictatorships that have raged elsewhere in Central America; politicians focus their efforts not on overthrowing political regimes but on constructing high schools and universities. Although universal Central American application of this model would be neither realistic nor practical, Costa Rica’s experience shows that directing more money toward popular education would greatly benefit neighboring countries. Education has helped boost the economy by enabling the country to become a major exporter of computer chips. The population’s English-language skills have also improved, spurred by an effort to attract American eco-tourists. With a literacy rate of 95%, Ticos, as Costa Ricans call themselves, are proud to say that they have more teachers than soldiers. The countless “No Army Since 1948” t-shirts I encountered in souvenir shops are a testament to this pride.
While biological diversity, education, health care, and economic success have factored significantly into Costa Rica’s Happy Planet Index ranking, they are not the key source of Costa Rican happiness; rather, it is the vast opportunities that those resources enable. Receiving access to educational opportunities and not worrying about skyrocketing health care costs allows Costa Ricans to focus instead on building strong social networks. During my stay with my host family, I observed the strikingly important role of family, friends, and community. Social interactions are not merely reserved for weekends and holidays; they are an integral part of daily life. From midday family visits to Monday night social outings, Ticos enjoy a very social lifestyle. While their professional lives are essential in accumulating monetary capital, social capital proves more valuable.
Any student of comparative politics knows about influential political scientist Robert Putnam, whose key contributions center on the role that social capital plays in strengthening societies. He argues that a sense of belonging and the concrete experience of social networks bring great benefits to people. This factor, built into the core of Costa Rican culture, is truly the foundation of their happiness.