The Biscayne Times

Aug 11th
Happy Happier Happiest PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stuart Sheldon, BT Contributor   
April 2020

Less is more, much more

Obigstock-Aerial-Shot-Of-The-Tropical-Be-355745207n a recent afternoon, I sat seething in inexplicable bumper-to-bumper Biscayne Boulevard traffic. As my kids fought in the back seat, a guy next to me in a red Ferrari stared blankly into the distance, shaking his head in frustration. I realized that, like me, every one of these cars held a suffering, unhappy person.

Is this to be my family’s daily routine forever, I wondered? Is this the American Dream?

My wife, kids, and I have been living between Miami’s Morningside and rural Costa Rica for the past 18 months. While we’re just two blocks off Biscayne Boulevard in Miami, the closest stoplight is one hour from our Costa Rica home. And thankfully, I haven’t seen one Ferrari there yet. Generally speaking, we four feel much happier in the pura vida. I’m trying to understand why.

A 2017 National Geographic cover story, “These Are the World’s Happiest Places,” by Dan Buettner, listed Costa Rica among earth’s happiest places. (It ranked No. 13 at the time.) “Their people feel secure, have a sense of purpose, and enjoy lives that minimize stress and maximize joy,” wrote Buettner.

Raising kids is challenging no matter where we live, but raising them in a warm and affectionate culture, free from consumerism and sociopolitical madness, feels substantially different. Far less stressful. Less fast-paced. More nature-centric. Basically, kids there can be kids longer.

We’ve found the majority of Costa Ricans (Ticos), young and old, to be generous with their affection and effusive with their emotional expression. Animated handshakes (you slap palms and then fist bump) are far less formal and stiff than they are stateside. Warm full-body hugs are common, unlike the awkward bro-hugs with the back slap often seen in the United States.

The Old World notion of extended families is also very much alive in Costa Rica, particularly in the countryside. I’ve never met a Tico who needed a babysitter; they’re baked into the extended family architecture, where grandparents, aunties, and cousins all seem to live nearby. Most Ticos I know enjoy a simple yet pleasant daily life, working but also finding time to surf, play with their kids, eat with friends and family, and then watch the sunset. “Scientists call this type of happiness experienced happiness or positive affect,” writes Buettner. “It is not money-based. Surveys measure it by asking people how often they smiled, laughed, or felt joy during the past 24 hours. Costa Rica is not only Latin America’s happiest; it’s also where people report feeling more day-to-day positive emotions than just about any other place in the world.” Less noise, more joys.

Was today filled with positive emotions for you?

I once spoke with my sons’ Costa Rican twenty-something surf instructor about my Wall Street days back in my own 20s, when colleagues hammered stressful 80-plus-hour weeks. To this Tico, the idea was patently absurd; he literally could not understand the concept.

From my observations, Costa Ricans are fundamentally happier than Americans. They even live longer; Costa Rica’s 2019 life expectancy was 80.19 -- higher than the U.S., at 78.87. Yet Costa Rica’s per capita GDP is $11,630, compared with a much higher $59,531 in the U.S.

Longer life with less money and more happiness? Time to call a travel agent?

Today you cannot easily make ends meet in major U.S. cities like Miami unless you’re wealthy. My many middle-class friends suffer emotionally and mentally each day, trying to give their kids a decent life, one that’s rich in “experienced happiness.”

A 2018 Huffington Post article, “Why Costa Rica Is One of the Happiest Countries in the World,” explores the seemingly obvious yet profound political idea that “there is a way to spend money that contributes to the happiness of the people.” When Costa Rica abolished its military in 1948, those resources went to health care and education. Thus, all Ticos enjoy affordable health care and a free, compulsory education through secondary school. In 2016 Costa Rica spent more on education as a proportion of GDP than any country except one, according to the World Bank. The literacy rate is 96 percent, the highest in Central America. And no wars.

Are you listening, U.S. leaders and voters?

On an individual level, the people I know don’t spend money on flashy items or luxury labels, but on experiences and essentials.

Costa Rica’s high life expectancy, literacy, and joy are direct results of social, moral, and cultural priorities that became policy. Can the U.S. can make the admittedly difficult choices to disavow hyper-consumerism and our self-destructive need to make more money at any cost? Living in both cultures, I can tell you beyond doubt, that pura vida is a better life.


Stuart Sheldon is an award-winning artist, author and Miami native. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram @stuart_sheldon and his blog,


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