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Being Happy: Social and Natural Factors Are More Important Than Money (Especially in Costa Rica)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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It’s easy to find an online test that will purportedly tell you how happy you are. But how happy are the people of an entire nation? And which nation’s people are happiest?

That’s hard to measure. So for decades world organizations like the United Nations that concern themselves with improving people’s well-being have used a single proxy for happiness: gross domestic product, or GDP. The loose logic is that as people attain a higher standard of living, they will feel less burdened by basic survival and have greater means for everything from decent food to recreation.

But new research indicates that two other factors are even better predictors of a nation’s well-being: According to Roly Russell, an interdisciplinary scientist at the Sandhill Institute for Sustainability and Complexity in Grand Forks, British Columbia, a nation’s human capital (social structures) and natural capital (nature) are more influential in determining happiness than financial capital (income). Russell presented his data over the weekend at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Vancouver.

Russell studied numerous studies about happiness in many nations, assessing 248 variables that the various investigations had relied on. The variables ultimately fell into three broad groups of factors: financial and infrastructure (traits such as GDP and gross domestic savings); human and social (years of schooling, freedom of choice); and natural (health of land on which people live, access to nature). He then correlated those factors with the degree to which people said they were happy. Preliminary results indicated that financial factors reflected only about half the variability in happiness across countries, but human and natural capital each accounted for about two thirds of the difference.

Costa Rica had the highest score for life satisfaction among the 123 countries that were represented, even though its GDP is in the world’s lowest third. The single leading factor determining people’s happiness there was a strong social support network.

As countries try to set policies to improve well-being, Russell concluded, they have to get away from using just GDP as the de facto predictor. “We can expand our vision of ‘development’ as more than just improving GDP,” he noted. Although measuring factors such as human and natural capital can be difficult, he added, “What’s difficult to count may be the most important. The path to becoming a happy country might well involve greater focus on maintaining or promoting healthy natural and social systems, and less on simply producing more ‘stuff.’”

To hear Russell explain his conclusions and why Costa Ricans win the happiness stakes, listen to our exclusive podcast with him.

And yes, if you want to test your own happiness and compare it with results from the U.S. and other countries, you can take our quiz.

Photo of happy girl in Costa Rica courtesy of canonsnapper on Flickr

Mark Fischetti About the Author: Mark Fischetti is a senior editor at Scientific American who covers energy, environment and sustainability issues. Follow on Twitter @markfischetti.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. cbjones1943 1:16 am 02/23/2012

    I apologize for commenting twice: However, Dan Janzen (University of PA-Biology; Area de Conservacion Guanacaste-Costa Rica) has asked me to post this link about conservation work in CR. One of Dan’s innovations, now adopted by many programs internationally, was to train nationals to conduct field research. Throughout his long scientific career, Dan has not only acknowledged Costa Rican nationals, particularly, campesinos, in his publications, but has, as well, cited these men by name, including the specific information contributed to Dan’s projects with trees and other plants.

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  2. 2. Bertie Fox 7:47 am 02/23/2012

    The poet W H Davies made this clear decades ago!

    “I also love a quiet place
    That’s green, away from all mankind;
    A lonely pool, and let a tree
    Sigh with her bosom over me.”

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  3. 3. Jerzy New 8:06 am 02/23/2012

    May I point that individuals themselves mostly create their own good social environment. Governments, however, are bodies specificaly responsible for wealth and infrastructure.

    So we probably can learn from individual Costa Ricans how to be happy. However, Costa Rican government and its policies – they are miserable failure.

    Maybe I am cynical, but I see interpretation of this study that governments and other public bodies want to meddle even more with our private lives for our money “to make us happy”.

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  4. 4. michaels07 12:53 pm 02/23/2012

    Any one who is in a state of perpetual happiness is a fool.

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  5. 5. Bill Orme 1:58 pm 02/24/2012

    Interesting piece, fascinating subject, but with an unfortunate error that requires correction: “So for decades world organizations like the United Nations that concern themselves with improving people’s well-being have used a single proxy for happiness: gross domestic product, or GDP.” To the contrary: For decades the UN’s Human Development Report, where I work, has quite successfully challenged reflexive official and media reliance on GDP with its widely accepted Human Development Index, which puts health and education on a par with income in its annual assessments of national progress.
    To learn more, go to:

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  6. 6. guiarg 2:14 pm 02/24/2012

    Being a Costa Rican by birth and having lived in at least fourteen other countries in five continents, I can only conclude that Mr. Russell’s analysis is deeply flawed. I guess statisticians can pretty much fudge numbers to demonstrate whatever they want but, placing Costa Rica at the top for “life satisfaction” goes pretty far.

    I invite any of you readers to come to this country, not as a tourist with a good credit card, to live, but to work, commute in our dangerous roads, try to deal with our corrupt government, try not to get mugged, etc., all this on a local wage. I’m not saying that it is all gloom, but I cannot remain quite when things like this get published.

    My only explanation is that Mr. Russell must have concentrated his inquiries on drug traffickers, who seem to be having a bonanza operating in a country with a bankrupt judiciary. Just read the local newspapers.

    By the way, I agree that GDP is not everything.

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  7. 7. rolyrussell 3:55 pm 02/24/2012

    Indeed, as Bill Orme points out, I have missed an important error: the UN (the UN Human Development Report specifically), produces perhaps the most complete and insightful assessment of global well-being of nations that exists (see

    What was intended to be communicated was that although this UN Human Development report is rich and broad, the incorporation of this information into national decision-making processes tends to ignore the complexities and realities of well-being and distills the diversity of metrics down to solely GDP. The UN produces a great assessment–unfortunately the resulting incorporation of this assessment into decisions is often short-sighted.

    Thank you for pointing this out and clarifying, Bill.

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  8. 8. alexanderdill 12:55 pm 03/2/2012

    Coming from a region – the Alps – where you don’t have to proof that you are happy all the day (as in the US, Australia and by the way the Netherlands), where unhappiness is allowed and socially accepted, the LSA (Life Satisfaction Approach) seems to be a unilatral phenomenon. I once phoned with Ruud Veenhoven of the World Database of Happiness and asked him how he deals with the right to be unhappy.
    Ruud: “Nobody wants to be unhappy. So why should I deal with it?”
    I do research “beyond GDP” for now seven years yet – but happiness doesn’t seem to be an indicator that works in all countries.
    Same with the World Giving Index: It features countries with few public goods such as the US to be the masters of philanthropy.
    Happiness is a private and of course volatile feeling. It shouldn’t be used to compare societies.
    I want to be unhappy whenever I want without missing the benchmarks of autistic US-scientists.

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