Sunday, March 21, 2010

Costa Rica

Late last night, I arrived back from a student exchange trip to Costa Rica (along with 3 faculty members and 7 students). I was physically tired after a long day of travel, but invigorated by the experience of a lifetime.

We spent 7 wonderful days in a beautiful country. We stayed with families from the Pan-American School, and visited amazing sites throughout the capitol city of San Jose and the rest of the country (which is about the size of West Virginia.) It is an fascinating place filled with volcanoes, rain forests, beaches, and tropical flora and fauna. I think you'd be hard pressed to find a place that packs so much cool stuff into such a small area.

According to National Geographic, Costa Rica includes .01% of the world's land area, but 5% of its biodiversity, including many different plants and animals that exist ONLY in Costa Rica.

While there is clearly a benefit in itself to simply visiting a country with so much beauty, that's not what made this country extra special for me.

The thing that made this trip so special is the perspective that it provided. According to various sources, Costa Ricans are the happiest people in the world. They averaged 8.5 on a 10-point scale in the World Database of Happiness survey. The United States averaged 7.4, good for 20th in the world. Why? It's a question that I thought about a lot over the course of the 7 days.

I would be naive to think that I have have the perfect answer to this question, because I'm not an expert in Costa Rican life or culture, or on happiness. During the trip, I learned just as much about myself and the United States, as I did about Costa Rica. I found that I appreciated my life in the United States MORE when I left the country. There are so many things that I have taken for granted that I definitely appreciate more since coming back through INS and Customs in Houston. For example, I didn't really notice things like well-paved roads, street signs, sidewalks, and consistent water pressure until I went somewhere where these things weren't always available. I've never considered doing anything more than locking the doors and windows to ensure the safety of my house and car until I visited a place where many families have gates and/or security guards on the perimeter of their property in addition to security measures on the inside. I never thought how ignorant I was because I didn't fully understand the metric system until I left the United States and started seeing kilometers & grams everywhere. I never thought of interscholastic sports as something that doesn't happen in most places around the world, and I never wondered whether it was okay to flush the toilet.

Please don't take these statements the wrong way. I would never want to give the impression that I believe the United States is better than Costa Rica (or any other country) because we have better roads, better security, and better water treatment facilities. Are more Americans blessed with more conveniences on a daily basis than most people in the world? Yes, but that's not the point. The point is why are Costa Ricans "happier" than Americans when they don't have some of the same conveniences (or as much disposable income) that most Americans have on a daily basis?

Like I said before, I am clearly not an expert on Costa Rican life and culture or on happiness. At the same time, I did notice a few things in Costa Rica that might provide insight (and the emphasis on might is intentional).

1. Family. I saw the emphasis on quality family time, especially on Sunday, and this emphasis was confirmed by all the Costa Ricans I interacted with. Having a close-knit family is central to what Costa Ricans believe. Unmarried adult children often live at their parents' home, and elderly parents live at their childrens' homes. There is clearly a monetary aspect to this, but its cultural, too. With respect to happiness, I think it shows that Costa Ricans really have life's priorities straight. Priority #1 should be about relationships and time spent with the people that you love, instead of the acquisition of material wealth and personal or professional achievement.

2. Tico Time. When things didn't begin on time we often heard the reference to "Tico time." (Costa Ricans call themselves Ticos). Its safe to say that Costa Ricans as a whole are more laid-back and less time urgent that we are here in the United States. Time urgency is a source of stress, and high-stress people generally aren't as happy. I believe we as Americans are driven and ambitious and its just not in our "DNA" to slow down and enjoy the ride, but there clearly might be a benefit to slowing down and appreciating the moment.

3. Pura Vida!! If you've been to Costa Rica, you know that this phrase appears everywhere and is said often by Costa Ricans. Literally it means "pure life," but its really more of a "life is good" credo that Ticos live by. When I used by elementary-level Spanish to say things like like thank you or i'm doing well, the response was sometimes Pura Vida! I'm convinced that optimistic people are happier people, and most of the Costa Ricans I had the pleasure of meeting were clearly "go with the flow" optimists.

4. The Natural Environment. If you've read Richard Louv's ground-breaking book: Last Kid in the Woods: Saving Our Kids From Nature Deficit Disorder, you'll be pretty convinced that the "average" American child doesn't spend nearly enough time outside enjoying and appreciating the natural environment. Natural beauty is impossible to avoid in Costa Rica (even the mountains around San Jose are beautiful), and Costa Rica is a world leader in environmental stewardship. This consciousness supports a thriving eco-tourism industry. Are Costa Ricans happier because they have a deep respect for their natural environment?

5. Armed Forces. In a January 6, 2010 article entitled "the happiest people," New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof makes the controversial statement that one of the main reasons for Costa Rica's happiness is that they are one of the few countries in the world without a military. Costa Rica made the decision to abolish its armed forces in 1947, and, since then, has experienced democratic peace considered uncommon for its region. Coincidence? Kristof believes that there is an important connection, especially with respect to government spending. Since abandoning its army, Costa Rica has spent 85% of its federal budgets on education and health-care, providing its citizens with a strong education (a 97% literacy rate and over 30 universities) and solid health-care (life expectancy is higher in Costa Rica than it is in the United States). I don't know what to make of this potential connection, but its definitely food for thought.

Well, I've managed to write far too much about Costa Rica and far too little about the trip's connection to middle school life. I sincerely apologize. If there is an underlying theme that I'd share with all middle school students, its the same type of things that I plan on sharing with my own children.

-Be thankful for what you have instead of focusing on what you don't have.
-The time we spend together is valuable whether or not we are doing a planned activity.
-Optimism makes a huge difference in life. I don't know who said it, but I definitely believe that life is 10% what you make it and 90% how you take.
-Get your butt outside, and, when you do, please stop and smell the roses.

Thanks again for reading. As always, I welcome your comments.