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Costa Rica's equation to happiness

Authors: Ryan Ang, Tan Chok Geow

Region Head: Tan Chok Geow

Editor: Akshat Daga

Illustration by Yen Ting


Costa Rica has emerged on top on the HPI index. The contributing factors for this range from removal of the military, focus on education and environment and strong social network. However, not all countries out there that possess similar traits as Costa Rica are equally happy. Singapore, for instance, invests heavily in education and the environment. People are enjoying higher income and better services. Yet, they are faced with emotional and mental baggage in their pursuit of happiness.

Story of Costa Rica

If there is one thing Costa Rica tops, it is the Happy Planet Index (HPI). The HPI is an index that takes into account the wellbeing and longevity of a population, and measures “how equally both are distributed”. This measurement is then set against the country’s ecological footprint. Though subjective, its workings are logical. Moreover, a recent Gallup poll found Costa Rica to be one of the happiest countries in the world (Clifton, 2017). It all started in 1948 when civil war and social unrest led to a new constitution in the country that values democracy and fairness. Since then, Costa Rica has been the region's most stable and secured country.

Why are Costa Ricans so happy?

Firstly, Education: Without the need to finance a military, the government can commit more than 8% of its GDP into education, a level that is much higher than many developed nations. Furthermore, healthcare is free for all its citizens. Secondly, Costa Rica also prides itself with the preservation of the environment, with more than 99% of its electricity being generated from renewable sources. The government is also currently working on recovering its forest and has made significant progress, from 20% in the 1980s to 50% of forest coverage in 2016. Thirdly, we have the emphasis on culture. Culture is a crucial factor that affects the happiness level of society. In Costa Rica, the culture emphasises on 3 main characteristics: strong religious beliefs, broad social network and immaterial relationships. Strong religious beliefs give individuals a greater sense of purpose and meaning in life than a secular viewpoint. According to the American Psychologist Association, research has shown that “areas of the brain are lit up during MRI scans when phrases such as ‘God will act as my guide’ is heard” (Azar, 2010). This correlation between brain activity and religious beliefs indicate that having stronger religious beliefs positively influence a person’s views and outlook, making them generally happier in life. Additionally, the expansion and openness to social networks help create a system of support and trust which the individual will be able to depend upon for both financial and emotional issues.

Comparison between Singapore and Costa Rica

Like Costa Rica, Singapore shares several similarities as it is a country that also invests and spends a high percentage of GDP in education, healthcare and on the perseveration of environments. Furthermore, GDP per capita in Singapore is many times higher than Costa Rica, which gives Singaporeans the luxury and access to many goods and services. However, according to a study conducted by the World Health Organisation, Singapore is found to have the highest depression rate within Asia (Choo. 2015).

Work is one of the driving factors. News article from TodayOnline states “nearly 92% of Singaporeans surveyed were stressed from work, relative to global 84%. Of this group, 13% said the stress is unmanageable (Neo. 2019) due to the lack of support and a culture of un-openness within the workplace and lack of work-life balance. CNA stated that Singapore is ranked 32 out of 40 countries in this aspect, with workers averaging 44.6 working hours weekly and is listed the 3rd most sleep-deprived country, behind Japan and South Korea, averaging 6 hours and 32 minutes.

The pursuit of material happiness and money is another prime suspect. The society is shaped in a way that views material goods as a motivation for empowerment to achieve their financial goals, thus life goals and this have become a norm for millennials. Nonetheless, the high cost of living in this country acts against this norm, thus, many people fell short of their expectations.

Our thoughts

The combination of unique geographical, societal and economic factors collectively contributed to a higher level of happiness in Costa Rica. It is true that overall happiness in the country is not cultivated overnight. These factors are unique only in Costa Rica, and it is unlikely we will see a similar result elsewhere in the world.

So why aren’t we happier with more?

Looking back, countries like Costa Rica are by no means economically or socially advanced. But what makes them happy? Could their culture and placement of priorities be the answers that we are looking for? This question ties in with the fact that developed countries like Singapore and South Korea that often suffers from high-stress levels and unhappiness despite the plethora of infrastructure and services/opportunities offered. What can be observed from this discrepancy between today’s global direction and reality is the disjuncture between happiness and economic growth. Conventional wisdom dictates that the pursuit of economic growth will result in a better standard of living and hence, better opportunities and a higher level of happiness. However, what many developed nations fail to consider is the level of emotional and mental baggage that gets accumulated in this pursuit of economic growth. Therefore, for Singapore to account for the mental fatigue in its society, it must reconsider its policy focus. As politician Jamus Lim pointed out, the shift in “efficacy policies to equity policies” can perhaps increase happiness in the society by reducing the stress level of the population. Therefore, there are 2 main recommendations Singapore may consider: 1) Improving work-life balance through 4-day work-week and, 2) Increasing support infrastructure for mental wellness within workplaces. As the saying goes “It is the anxieties of tomorrow that rob us of the happiness of today”, Singapore must therefore break the trend of headless economic pursuit and recalibrate our priorities. Only then will we discover our own equation to happiness.


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