Costa Rica – The Happiest People? The NY Times Weighs In

From the New York Times
Op-Ed Columnist Nicholas D. Kristof

The Happiest People
Hmmm. You think it’s a coincidence? Costa Rica is one of the very few countries to have abolished its army, and it’s also arguably the happiest nation on earth.

Not totally coincidence, but not quite cause and effect either. It might be its happiness and relative prosperity that allowed Costa Rica to disband its army. Would disbanding its army bring peace and happiness to Colombia? Eventually. Maybe.

A third approach is the “happy planet index,” devised by the New Economics Foundation, a liberal think tank. This combines happiness and longevity but adjusts for environmental impact — such as the carbon that countries spew.

Here again, Costa Rica wins the day, for achieving contentment and longevity in an environmentally sustainable way. The Dominican Republic ranks second, the United States 114th (because of its huge ecological footprint) and Zimbabwe is last.

As long as tourism (and especially eco-tourism) is a bigger chunk of the economy than manufacturing, Costa Rica will be eco-friendly. If tourism went away, few Ticos would give a rat’s tail about ‘ecology.’ Just watch them casually throw their trash on the streets.

Maybe Costa Rican contentment has something to do with the chance to explore dazzling beaches on both sides of the country, when one isn’t admiring the sloths in the jungle (sloths truly are slothful, I discovered; they are the tortoises of the trees). Costa Rica has done an unusually good job preserving nature, and it’s surely easier to be happy while basking in sunshine and greenery than while shivering up north and suffering “nature deficit disorder.”

Preserving nature for tourists like Mr. Kristof. I have met locals who have never been to the beach, let alone Monteverde or Tortugero.

After dragging my 12-year-old daughter through Honduran slums and Nicaraguan villages on this trip, she was delighted to see a Costa Rican beach and stroll through a national park. Among her favorite animals now: iguanas and sloths.

Yes, I can imagine Playa Tambor is more pleasant than the slums of Honduras.

What sets Costa Rica apart is its remarkable decision in 1949 to dissolve its armed forces and invest instead in education. Increased schooling created a more stable society, less prone to the conflicts that have raged elsewhere in Central America. Education also boosted the economy, enabling the country to become a major exporter of computer chips and improving English-language skills so as to attract American eco-tourists.

Spoken like a tourist who reads printouts from the ministry of education. The truth is that higher education is NOT widespread in any significant way. The offspring of the upper and upper middle classes do fine because they can afford the incidentals, but a poor family seldom has even one child that finishes with the equivalent of a high school diploma. Cheap wages, decent educational level, decent infrastructure and political stability drew Intel and the call centers here, not the high education level alone.

In Costa Rica, rising education levels also fostered impressive gender equality so that it ranks higher than the United States in the World Economic Forum gender gap index. This allows Costa Rica to use its female population more productively than is true in most of the region. Likewise, education nurtured improvements in health care, with life expectancy now about the same as in the United States — a bit longer in some data sets, a bit shorter in others.

True enough among the upper and upper middle classes. The single mothers working 12 to 14 hour days in factories for a dollar an hour might not feel all that empowered.

Rising education levels also led the country to preserve its lush environment as an economic asset. Costa Rica is an ecological pioneer, introducing a carbon tax in 1997. The Environmental Performance Index, a collaboration of Yale and Columbia Universities, ranks Costa Rica at No. 5 in the world, the best outside Europe.

Or perhaps those who run things realize that eco-tourism is a cash cow and don’t want to smother it?

This emphasis on the environment hasn’t sabotaged Costa Rica’s economy but has bolstered it. Indeed, Costa Rica is one of the few countries that is seeing migration from the United States: Yankees are moving here to enjoy a low-cost retirement. My hunch is that in 25 years, we’ll see large numbers of English-speaking retirement communities along the Costa Rican coast.

25 years from now? Maybe the author wasn’t in the country long enough to run into any of the thousands of gringos who live here now. In 25 years, there will probably be more. And we don’t all live along ‘the coast.’ (Actually there are 2 coasts, but why quibble?)

Latin countries generally do well in happiness surveys. Mexico and Colombia rank higher than the United States in self-reported contentment. Perhaps one reason is a cultural emphasis on family and friends, on social capital over financial capital — but then again, Mexicans sometimes slip into the United States, presumably in pursuit of both happiness and assets.

True about the strong family ties. Apparently he has never heard of Costa Ricans working in the USA. Maybe he never needed a roof built in New Jersey.

Cross-country comparisons of happiness are controversial and uncertain. But what does seem quite clear is that Costa Rica’s national decision to invest in education rather than arms has paid rich dividends. Maybe the lesson for the United States is that we should devote fewer resources to shoring up foreign armies and more to bolstering schools both at home and abroad.

Not so clear to me. I appreciate that Mr. Kristof took time to visit Costa Rica. But it seems like he simply read a few tour pamphlets while he was sitting under an umbrella at some nice beach hotel and decided to write a column about it.

I don’t dispute that the people of Costa Rica may be among the happiest on the planet. The weather is nice, and it’s a peaceful land with abundant natural beauty. There is poverty here but nobody dies of starvation. Nobody dies from exposure to the cold. Families are close and supportive. I hope Mr. Kristof decides to visit again. If he does, maybe he will wander outside the tourist attractions, maybe even talk to a local or two? I suspect not, but one can hope.

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