Measuring the levels of happiness between cultures would appear to be about as objective as determining the best flavor of ice cream.
Nonetheless, the results of a recent study struck a nerve worldwide by subjecting a very subjective emotion to statistical analysis. And while the study’s final ranking had at least as much to do with the society’s environmental impact as national merriment, Costa Rica’s first place finish and a strong showing from Latin America overall pointed to a larger trend: Latin Americans seem to be a very satisfied bunch, despite development disparities.
In the “Happy Planet Index,” released on July 4 by the United Kingdom’s New Economics Foundation, Costa Rica topped the chart in terms of its population’s life satisfaction, as well as having one of the highest average life expectancies, of 78.5 years.
Of the 10 nations listed as happiest, nine are in Latin America or the Caribbean.
The news sparked little surprise from Costa Ricans. More often than not, it drew a contented, “Well, it’s the truth.”
Almost all Ticos consulted for this report had their own theories about the source of their fountains of joy: “The family is very important to us”….“A strong democracy and we don’t have a military” (a popular response in the wake of the Honduran coup)….“God is at the center of our lives”….“People aren’t extremely stressed.”
And, according to other studies and psychologists, each of the theories has a basis in truth.
As part of a 2008 study by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Latin Americans listed the four most important factors in determining quality of life: having the ability to buy food, having loyal friends, having good health and having a religious belief system.
In the IDB study as well, Costa Ricans topped the list as being the most satisfied with the lives they lead. And, while North Americans and Europeans enjoy much greater levels of economic development and social welfare, Latin Americans tend to be more optimistic and appreciative of what they have.
“Quality of life is not simply the result of ‘objective’ conditions,” the IDB report says.
“The way individuals perceive these conditions and the evaluation they make of their own lives are also central aspects of quality of life.
“Since the valuation that individuals implicitly give many of the things that count in their satisfaction differs openly from the valuation that the market gives them, a higher income or consumption level does not necessarily mean a higher level of individual well-being.”
One indicator of happiness is to look at the opposite end of the spectrum, said Dr. Carmen Macanche, a psychologist and coordinator with the Costa Rican Health Ministry. Depression and its most tragic outcome, suicide, can speak volumes on communal contentedness, even though the victims tend to be young and male.
“My perception, as a psychiatrist, is that it’s centered in social problems,” she said, adding that “problems with alcohol and drugs, citizens’ insecurity, and all the societal violence” play a factor in causing depression.
Costa Rica has an average suicide rate among its Central American counterparts, which average about 8.9 suicides for every 100,000 people, according to the most recent numbers from the World Health Organization.
In comparison, European and North American rates are approximately 20 suicides for the same segment of the population.
In the Central American and Caribbean region, only Cuba has a higher rate than the United States.
The numbers in Latin America are probably slightly low, for a cultural and religious reason: A 2004 Costa Rican Health Ministry publication admitted that “a number” of suicides are registered as accidental deaths because of “the religious stigma that accompanies the act.” But Macanche said this distortion only represents about 1 percent of suicides.
Besides, she said, strong religious faith is one of the pillars of happiness within the region.
“Costa Rica is traditionally a very religious country, and religion teaches you to drive yourself a bit and accept the things that you can’t change,” she said. “Like with the earthquake earlier this year…We have to move forward.”
Those sentiments were echoed by a number of both Costa Ricans and other Central Americans.
Albertina Hiraeta fled the violence in her home country of El Salvador with her four children in 1982, “Thanks to God,” she said. At 78 years old, she makes a meager living selling small bags of corn to people who wish to feed the pigeons by the National Theater in San José. For someone who is still working at the age of the average Tico lifespan, she maintains a refreshingly upbeat outlook.
“I don’t have anyone to help me out anymore. Only my celestial father,” she said smiling.
Cousins Maureen Monge and Marleen Barrientos mentioned similar religious sentiments as they sat and watched their children play at the National Park in San José, but they also were quick to point out the importance of family.
“Family is very important to us,” Monge said. “All your cousins and grandparents. It’s very important.” If necessary, they said, “We will sacrifice our jobs for the family, because family is much more important.”
The most common thread among those interviewed probably was the amiable nature of Costa Ricans and their laid-back attitude toward life.
Fernando Obando, 59, has made ocarinas (ceramic flutes) for 45 years, and he sells them outside the National Museum. He said there is a “peculiarity” about Costa Ricans that makes them happy.
“There are many things that could be improved still, like reducing poverty,” he said. “But people aren’t overly stressed about it.”
Back at the National Theater, Yenny Núñez held packets of corn in her hands, as her four grandchildren grabbed handfuls, threw them to the pigeons, then ran into the swarm of birds, sending them into flight above their heads.
“Here, it’s not about money so much,” she said. “Some people are all about work, work, work. Money, money, money. Here, no. It’s more relaxed.”
Costa Rica hasn’t fared so well in every study of national felicity. The Happiness Foundation, a group that helps nonprofits, the only Latin American country in its top 10 was Mexico. Doing well in this list depended on the level of economic development, tolerance of ideas, an individual’s position in society and the psychological strength of a population, according to its Web site. Leaders in these categories were Denmark, Malta and Switzerland.
But in a region that has experienced so much upheaval – and that is seeing a flashback to those days unfold in Honduras – there seems to be an unwavering philosophy of overcoming the odds with grace.
“There are days that I do well, and days I that I don’t,” Obando said. “But because one day I don’t do well, I don’t feel very sad, because I know that another day I will do well again. I know that I will move ahead, although it may be difficult. But you need to put the flavor of happiness in your life.”
One of the few Ticos interviewed who disagreed with the report’s findings had stopped by a flower kiosk on Paseo Colón.
He cited rising violence and the cost of living as reasons for his discontent. Then again, even he had stopped to smell the roses.