In 2008 the New Economics Foundation, a research institute studying social, economic and environmental justice, released the results of its second Happy Planet Index - ranking countries based on their environmental impact and the health and happiness of their citizens. And at the top of the list? A relatively small Central American country, with a middling (but steadily growing) economy, a population of just 5 million people - and a mostly undeveloped landscape largely of small towns and villages surrounded by lushly overgrown volcanic hillsides.
What is Costa Rica’s secret here? (And what could you learn from it, either from afar or in person by spending time there, as we’re doing in January of next year?)
In 2005, journalist Dan Buettner embarked on a data-driven quest to find the places in the world where communities of people led the most extraordinarily long and healthful lives, and covered them in a story for the November edition of National Geographic magazine, called “Secrets of Long Life.” (This issue became the magazine’s third-bestelling edition in its entire century-long history, aptly demonstrating how fascinated we are with such things.)
The three “Blue Zones,” as Buettner calls them, were Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), and Loma Linda (California) - and a year later, he added a fourth - the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica. (With the more recent addition of the Greek island of Ikaria, it’s now up to five.)
Buettner’s findings can very broadly be summed up as determined by three factors:
- Living a healthy lifestyle
- Drinking more than elsewhere (water, that is), and eating less than elsewhere
- Putting your social ties first.
Here, “lifestyle” encompasses all the things we correctly regard as important to our ongoing wellbeing: a moderate amount of physical exercise, not too much stress, getting enough sleep, and having a compelling reason to get up in the morning that you feel genuinely good about.
It’s no secret that a diet high in processed foods and refined sugar tends to erode your wellbeing in a catastrophic way, with the emotional rollercoasters associated with regular big spikes of blood sugar throughout the day. And water is important because - well, it’s normal for modern humans to be slightly dehydrated, with all the problems that can bring. In general, we’re all out of balance - and with some of us, it’s by a lot.
When I lived in Costa Rica for a year, I saw firsthand how the country rises to both these challenges. It’s certainly no utopia, and faces the same growing pains as any country I’ve visited - but there were clear differences. For starters, the amount of people out walking: that everyday activity that automobile culture, particularly in the U.S., has been attempting to eradicate for the last half-century. And in coastal spots, the climate and availability of the country’s famous beaches turns exercise - swimming, surfing, beach-walking - from a chore into the only sensible option on a hot morning or afternoon before or after work.
And while the Costa Rican diet is certainly heavy on carbs, they mainly come from freshly grown fruit and vegetables, with the staples being black beans, bananas, plantains, papaya, squash, pejibaje (peach palms, a local fruit), yams, and homemade corn tortillas, which are eaten with basically everything. You can also expect huge jugs of iced fruit-infused water with everything you eat, like agua de sapo - which translates rather alarmingly as “toad water” but is actually a delicious mix of sugar, ginger, cinnamon and lime. It’s all high on sugar, but usually a different type of sugar - and this seems to make a big difference.
And returning to lifestyle:
“Costa Rica enjoys a privileged position as a mid-income country where citizens have sufficient spare time and abundant interpersonal relations,” says Costa Rican economics professor Mariano Rojas. “A mid-income level allows most citizens to satisfy their basic needs. Government intervention in the economy assures that all Costa Ricans have access to education, health, and nutrition services.” Costa Ricans, he added, have not entered the “race for status and conspicuous consumption.”
- “Why Costa Rica Tops The Happiness Index,” Yes Magazine
But Costa Rica’s biggest happiness-superpower comes from what the New Economics Foundation calls “social capital” - our connections to friends, family and community.
You’ve probably seen various new headlines over the last half-decade about the so-called “epidemic of loneliness” (at least it was called that, before we had a literal epidemic strike us). The statistics are unnerving: loneliness and social isolation can increase your risk of death by over 25%, have more of an impact on your health than either obesity or smoking more than a dozen cigarettes a day, and puts you at significantly greater risk of cognitive decline and dementia, according to research cited by the Campaign To End Loneliness.
While Europe, North America and elsewhere struggle to understand the causes of fraying social bonds and communities coming apart at the seams, Costa Rica’s culture of rock-solid social networks is a thing of legend. It’s a country of citizens that are extremely proud of what they’ve collectively accomplished, from its incredible progress towards going carbon-zero and becoming 100% powered by renewable energy, to its decision to abolish its standing army back in 1948.
And there’s little that’s more enthusiastic - or overwhelming - than a Costa Rican family welcome.
(Having a Costa Rican partner, I can attest to this. While Christmas get-togethers with family in England are usually single-room affairs, meeting her entire extended family - including her 104-year-old grandmother - was impossible to do under one roof, and involved something like a village fête, spread over the grounds of multiple houses. For this reason, a key skill for spending time with Costa Rican families? Learn how to put names to faces!)
If there’s one lesson we should take from ‘Blue Zone’ places, it’s not the matter of eating well, moving our bodies enough and achieving steady progress in all standards of living. It’s the simpler matter of spending more time with the people we enjoy being connected to - with the lockdowns of the pandemic showing us how bad it feels when we can’t do that anymore.
In the end, it seems a good, long life really is down to the people you spend it with.
Wheel & Anchor are heading to Costa Rica in January 2023, to explore the volcanos, rainforests and pura vida lifestyle of this fascinating country. Here are the details.