How the Happiest Culture in the World Stays Happy

HINT: It's a way of life

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Tamarindo, Costa Rica.  January 2018

Pura Vida, aka “pure life” is THE way of life in Costa Rica. Although many people love to use the phrase, not many know where the term actually originated. 

In 1956, Gilberto Martinez Solares directed and produced a film called ¡Pura Vida!. In the movie, the term “pura vida” is used by the main actor who is characterized as an optimistic and hopeful man despite the unfortunate circumstances that continue to happen to him

With the movie and other media, the phrase soon became one that was used nationally by 1970 and today, it is an inherent part of the culture. 

Because of this adoption of such a positive, easy-going mindset, it is no surprise that Costa Rica is one of the happiest cultures in the world. In 2010, the New York Times published an article naming that Costa Rica is the happiest of countries (out of 148 countries) with Costa Rican’s scoring their own happiness at an 8.5 (U.S. rated theirs at 7.4). 

So what is the key to their happiness and how are they able to hold on to it? I recently spent five days in Tamarindo, Costa Rica where I was completely immersed in their culture and lifestyle. Here are my take-a-ways:

They know what grounds them 

You can sum up what is most important to Costa Rican’s in three words: family, friends, and nature. Costa Rican’s are not only extremely social and friendly people, but they spend most of their time with close family and friends. Their community is everything to them and it is so evidently baked into their culture. 

Most Costa Rican’s have or are a part of family owned businesses. Most Americans would cringe at the thought of having to live and work all day with your sibling or your parents. However, Costa Rican’s seem to thrive off of the close bonds and see working with their families as an opportunity to grow even closer. 

Another thing they have a deep appreciation for, are their surroundings. Costa Ricans do an amazing job preserving their land and also enjoying it. There is no question that some of the world’s most beautiful beaches are in Costa Rica. On one of my mornings during my trip, I woke up to go to the beach at sunrise around 5:30am. My expectation was that a few avid runners would be out on the beach that early. However, to my surprise there were dozens of people walking dogs, running, surfing, fishing….you name it. These people have such a dedication and most importantly, appreciation for their surroundings that they soak up every minute of it. It is so important to them that in 1949 the Costa Rican government decided to dissolve its armed forces and invest instead in education, as stated in this New York Times article.  “Increased schooling created a more stable society, less prone to the conflicts that have raged elsewhere in Central America.”

Less conflict equaling more happiness! 


We live in a world, it seems, where we are attached to the hip to our phones (or multiple devices for many people) and response times are measured as a metric of success, determination and efficiency. Not in Costa Rica. No one has to be anywhere in five minutes. No one has to respond to an email within the hour. And most importantly, no one dictates the way they spend their time around someone’s else schedule, they choose their own. They also accept and acknowledge what is not in their control. In most cultures, people focus so much on how other people respond to us, how they feel about us, and how they behave. These are all things we cannot control. Yet we get so caught up attempting to alter these things. 

Within the first day of arriving in Costa Rica, I immediately realized the virtue of living a simple, detached life. Costa Rican’s do not let the pressures of being connected affect their lives, because frankly, there is no pressure. Imagine that. 

An Eternally Grateful Mindset 

“Language shapes our behavior and each word we use is imbued with multitudes of personal meaning. The right words spoken in the right way can bring us love, money and respect, while the wrong words — or even the right words spoken in the wrong way — can lead to a country to war. We must carefully orchestrate our speech if we want to achieve our goals and bring our dreams to fruition.” — Dr. Andrew Newberg, Words Can Change Your Brain.

Tony Robbins, in his own Thrive article described what he’s learned through observing his clients, including those that are world leaders and CEOs of major companies. 

“The problem is that most often we do not choose our words consciously to describe our emotions. Any emotions we experience that are distressing, we have habitual words that we unconsciously attach to them, and the challenge of course is the words we attach to our experience become our experience

If you want to change your life, if you want to shape your decisions and your actions, shifting your emotional patterns are the key. One fundamental tool that can change it faster than anything else is consciously selecting the words you’re going to use to describe how you feel. This is how you create a level of choice instead of a habitual reaction.” – Tony Robbins.

As it relates to happiness within the Costa Rican culture, everyone there is extremely grateful. The only reason why I know this is because every person I talked expressed so vividly and passionately, how grateful they are. How grateful they are about living in such a beautiful place, the family that they have, the job they have, etc. One of our tour guides explained to me that he’s had many jobs over the course of his life. He was a cook at a local restaurant, translator, farmer, driver, and now a tour guide. I asked him which one of the jobs was his favorite. He said “All of them! I feel so grateful for all those experiences and what I learned from all of them!” He said it with such conviction that I knew he truly felt and believed it. 

This level of appreciation for every opportunity, is a part of Costa Ricans’ way of thinking and life. 

So, will living intentionally, being grateful all the time, and having a strong sense of community, all automatically lead to happiness? No. I’m not offering a formula to happiness, but rather observations from a culture and society that seems to be doing something right. 

The world only seems to be moving faster and faster. Perhaps in 2018 we can all adopt some of these mentalities to live a healthier (mentally and physically), happier and more prosperous life. 

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