SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — An advertisement that greets passengers at the international airport here says, “Welcome to the happiest country of the world.” Inflated claim? Maybe, but a study indeed ranks Central America’s verdant nation of Costa Rica as the planet’s most content.
Its citizens generally live to old age, watched over by a government that spends heavily on schools and health care and strives to build an economy with a small environmental footprint.
Last month, Costa Rica beat out the United States and Western European nations for the second time to top a survey of 151 countries on a measure of progress and well-being, one that ignores the usual economic indicator – the gross domestic product, or the total amount of goods and services produced in a country. It ranked first in the Happy Planet Index put out by the New Economics Foundation, a British research center that promotes global well-being and sustainable development.
Some Costa Ricans downplayed or mocked the “happiest country” label even as a tourism campaign called the “Gift of Happiness” unfolded to attract new visitors from abroad. President Laura Chinchilla took the description lightly.
“We Costa Ricans have a strong spirit of self-criticism. We know our limitations, we are aware of our problems and, as free people, do not have a common definition of happiness,” Chinchilla recently told a United Nations forum.
Yet the idea of setting aside traditional, purely economic measures of development is provoking increasing global discussion, from a Happiness Initiative by the Seattle City Council to new ways to gauge growth in Europe and Asia. Taking cues from tiny countries such as Costa Rica and Bhutan, a Himalayan kingdom wedged between China and India, some experts seek to include social and environmental progress in measures of development.
The push reaches all the way to the United Nations, which hosted a conference in April titled “Happiness and Well-Being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm.”
“Gross national product has long been the yardstick by which economies and politicians have been measured. Yet it fails to take into account the social and environmental costs of so-called progress,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the forum’s opening.
Europe is taking note. In Britain, the government is experimenting with measuring “national well-being,” while the European Commission has a project called “GDP and Beyond.”
A Russian-born economist at the private National Bureau of Economic Research, Simon Kuznets, developed the concept of gross domestic product in 1934. The gauge uses the market value of all the goods and services a nation produces over a given period to measure its advancement. The measure had gained global acceptance by the time Kuznets picked up his Nobel Prize in economics in 1971.
But advocates of harmonizing development with environmental protection and social policies say GDP calculates destruction as if it were progress.
“When you pollute and clean up the pollution, GDP goes up. When you cut down the forests, GDP goes up,” Ashok Khosla, a Kashmiri who’s a Harvard-trained physicist and a leading expert on sustainable development, said in an interview. “GDP is a deeply flawed indicator.”
In compiling the Happy Planet Index, the New Economics Foundation said, it weighed three factors. First, it examined life expectancy (Costa Rica, at 79 years, tops the United States, where it’s 78.5 years). It then factored in a sense of well-being as measured in surveys that ask people to rate how they feel about their lives overall on a scale of 0 to 10. Costa Rica scored 7.3, 13th highest in the world.
The last factor is environmental footprint, a per capita measure of the amount of land that’s required to sustain a nation’s consumption patterns.
“This is really a new way to look at success,” said Juliet Michaelson, a senior researcher at the New Economics Foundation, although she cautioned that “it absolutely needs to be complemented by a whole range of other measures.”
The index doesn’t measure democracy or human rights, so Vietnam ranks No. 2 on the list and Venezuela hits No. 9.
But Costa Rica, the most stable and oldest democracy in Latin America, scores well on those measures. By abolishing its army in 1948, it chose to invest in hospitals and schools rather than bullets. Its social security system covers the entire population of 4.6 million. And it’s embraced a digital economy as a major Latin American exporter of computer software and producer of microprocessors.
National parks cover nearly 30 percent of its territory. Costa Rica aspires to become carbon neutral by 2021, making it a global pioneer.
“There’s an awareness (among Costa Ricans) that there’s a lot that’s been done right. But there’s also an awareness that there’s a lot that’s been eroding,” said George A. Yudice, a University of Miami cultural studies expert who spends part of each year in Costa Rica.
Many Ticos, as Costa Ricans call themselves, dismiss the happiness label.
“People don’t believe it. They don’t think it’s true. There are a lot of problems here,” said Roberto Biasetti, a public relations and marketing executive.
An English-language newspaper, The Tico Times, lampooned the happiness index in an editorial: “Luckily for us, we live in the happiest country of them all, Costa Rica, where traffic jams, mind-bending bureaucracy and crime are washed away by tropical forests, fresh air (except in the capital), talking sloths and yoga.”
Still, the “Gift of Happiness” ad campaign, sponsored by Costa Rica’s tourism institute, has given away about 200 expense-paid trips for travelers to the country to savor some of its many charms: adrenaline-pumping adventure sports, romantic getaways and wildlife viewing treks.
“It’s almost like God’s playground, with its two oceans and its 12 distinct biodiversity zones,” said Andrew Jones, an executive with 22Squared, an Atlanta ad agency that’s handling the campaign.
Costa Rica scores high – but not as high – in another ranking. Columbia University’s Earth Institute released a World Happiness Report to the United Nations in April. Taking into account factors such as political freedom, strong social networks and an absence of corruption, that report listed Denmark, Norway, Finland and the Netherlands in the top spots. Costa Rica came in 12th, after the United States.
The pioneer in giving supremacy to happiness over material prosperity is a tiny kingdom in the Himalayas. In 1972, Bhutan set as national policy the pursuit of happiness through preserving cultural values, protecting the environment, fair and efficient use of resources and sustainable development.
“Most Bhutanese are proud of the country’s development philosophy of Gross National Happiness,” Passang Dorji, the president of the Journalists Association of Bhutan, said in an email.
On a scale of material prosperity, Bhutan would rank low. The World Bank says its annual per capita income is only $670.
Despite the material modesty, are Bhutanese happier?
“What I can say is that – maybe it is because of the GNH policy – the Bhutanese people are not as unhappy as people in the region and other parts of the world,” Dorji wrote.