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.
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,” said Passang Dorji, the president of the Journalists Association of Bhutan.
On a scale of material prosperity, Bhutan would rank low. The World Bank says its annual per capita income is only $670.